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Can Religious Language be a Barrier?

June 5, 2007

Two years ago at Annual Conference, Leonard Sweet gave a dynamite sermon in which he talked about the language of Christianity. He gave the parallel of Starbuck’s; if you are a customer at Starbuck’s you have to learn the language of Starbuck’s. You don’t have small, medium and large, you’ve got venti and grande and something else; their drinks have names that you have to learn. Likewise, we in the church have a certain language, and being a church member means learning to speak that language.

But sometimes I wonder whether the language of the church is lost on its members. How many people in the pews can tell you what a “doxology” is?

I brought this up in seminary a few times. There are words and phrases that seem meaningless at times. Does anyone ever use the word “rebuke” outside of theological and legal discussions? Does the phrase “washed in the blood” mean anything to anyone outside the church, or is it just gross? “There is a fountain filled with blood,” is an image that we might not let our children see in a movie but we let them sing it in church. In what context does “the wedding feast of the lamb” make sense? How many kids serve as an acolyte in church without knowing what the word acolyte means, other than “just light the candles?”

I joked more than once that theology was really the art of taking ideas anyone can understand and expressing them in language no one understands. This was made explicit during the first week of seminary when our mailboxes contained a sheet of paper entitled (only half-jokingly) “words only used in seminary,” that included simple definitions of things like eschatology, Christology, epistemology, ontology, pneumatology, etc.

How can we go about enriching our use of theological language so that it is meaningful to all involved? If Sweet is right, I believe the church needs to first concentrate on using our our own language properly and understanding it more deeply. It is essential that we talk about our language instead of simply using it uncritically.

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