“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
– Brene Brown
I think we should cut Christianese some slack.
Like any culture, the evangelical culture in the U.S. has its own linguistic affectations and quirks, blending together lines from Scripture, hymns, and tradition with everyday colloquialisms and figures of speech.
And it’s not all bad.
I remember with fondness the way my great-grandmothers would shake her head at some baffling news or unsettling headline and in her thick Appalachian accent whisper, “Lordamercy”—the ancient Kyrie elesion rendered into a single, appropriate word. And I find it helpful to heed James’ advice now and then by punctuating a lengthy discussion over calendar dates and future plans with a reverent, “Lord willing.” It is beautiful and good to work the poetry of our faith into everyday conversation and meditation, to speak of “traveling mercies” and “fellowship” and of how “God is good all the time.” Each time I’m on a plane that rises above the clouds at sunrise, I think of Psalm 139—“If I rise on the wings of the dawn, or settle on the far side of the sea…even there your hand will guide me”—and I am grateful for the gift of these lovely words.
We have this deep well of beautiful, helpful language from which to draw, and we should not be ashamed of using the words and imagery handed down to us from the great cloud of witnesses that came before us to illuminate the present. Jesus himself did so often.
But in thinking about our use of “Christianese”—both as a writer and as a member of the Church—I think Christianese becomes unhelpful the moment we use it to protect ourselves from being honest with one another, the moment we use it to escape vulnerability.
We do this in several ways:
1) We employ Christianese when we have an idea.
I see this a lot in the religious publishing/blogging/conference “industry.” Folks protect their ideas by bubble wrapping them in an impenetrable layer of Christianese, so that suddenly, it’s not a just a book proposal but a “God thing,” not just a marketing strategy but a “Spirit-movement,” not just an idea for a blog post but “something God has laid on my heart,” not just a conference but a “Jesus revolution.”
On the one hand, I suspect this language gets used to convey true conviction and feeling, but on the other, it can also serve to protect a person’s ideas from criticism, input, and disagreement. It can be scary to put a bold idea out there to be digested and dissected by co-workers or the public, so sometimes we try to protect our ideas by claiming they are not merely our own, but God’s. The problem is this keeps us from being honest with one another and it drags God’s name into ideas and plans that may not be perfect and that may in fact benefit from the input of other wise people who are happy to respectfully engage a person’s ideas but are wary of “crossing” God by offering a new perspective. (It also tends to gloss over the hard work of real people, like agents, editors, sales reps, marketing people, designers, and assistants whose gifts and creative energy make a lot of what we create possible. An author once told me she didn’t need a literary agent because her only agent was God. I told her that, unfortunately, most publishing houses weren’t accepting submission from God right now, so maybe she ought to rethink that strategy.)
It may not seem so, but it requires a lot more honesty and vulnerability to tell someone you have an idea that you would like him or her to consider than to tell that person God has an idea you would like him or her to consider. In the latter, God serves as something of a buffer between you and the other person, protecting you from potential rejection. But this tends to break down actual conversation as both parties have to navigate carefully around the Christianese to try and guess at what one another actually thinks and wants. Suddenly, we’re not talking like normal people anymore. We’re talking like a bunch of repressed weirdos and no one knows what we’re actually saying to one another!
It’s really hard to put oneself in the vulnerable position of sharing an idea. But without that vulnerability, real friendships cannot grow and real ideas cannot flourish in the good soil of a diverse, engaged community.
2) We employ Christianese when we make a decision.
I think most Christians are eager to make God-honoring decisions in our lives, but sometimes we inadvertently close ourselves off to the wisdom and love of other people when we use Christianese to justify and explain our decisions. It’s hard not to cringe when someone confidently announces that God “led” her to do something careless or hurtful, and it’s hard not to get frustrated when certain specific lifestyle decisions are spoken of as “God’s way” when they just might not work for everyone.
It is much easier to say, “God told me to go to Uganda for a short-term missions trip,” than it is to say, “I’d like to go to Uganda for a short-term missions trip.” One protects us from input, disagreement, disappointment, and the risk we might be wrong by placing all responsibility for the decision onto God. The other requires vulnerability and opens us up to input, disagreement, disappointment, and the risk we might be wrong….which is harder, but ultimately, healthier. Owning our decisions helps us live among one another with more authenticity, openness, respect, and love…because it puts us on a level playing field as we each seek to do what is right while remaining mindful of our own imperfections.
3) We employ Christianese in the context of suffering.
My mother-in-law was recently in the hospital suffering from a “perfect storm” of health problems that suddenly afflicted an otherwise incredibly healthy woman. Now, my mother-in-law is one of the most kindhearted, giving, open, and grateful people you will ever meet, but even she expressed some dismay at Christians who approached her bedside, patted her on the hand and told her God would not give her more than she could handle.
I think what she wanted in that moment was not religious platitudes or shallow words of comfort, but for someone to sit next to her, hold her hand, and say, “This sucks. I’m here.”
Perhaps we resort to Christianese in the context of suffering because it is so freaking terrifying…for both the person suffering and those who feel helpless in the face of their loved one’s pain. To sit in that pain together is to put ourselves in an extremely vulnerable position…and I know what it’s like to want desperately to try and ease the tension and make it easier by quoting Philippians 4:13 or urging everyone to look on “the bright side.”
But we are not called to paper over one another’s suffering with platitudes. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Jesus himself displayed this in his own life, and in his own suffering, time and again.
But when we resort to Christianese, when we start talking carelessly about God working all things together for good or having higher ways than our own, we risk losing our ability to truly empathize, to truly relate. Once again, we stop talking like normal people, and we start talking like robots! And often, we fail to communicate the gospel to those who aren't in on our religious "lingo" as a result!
As Brene Brown has so thoughtfully brought to our attention over the last few years, vulnerability is at the heart of healthy, authentic relationships. We cannot really love one another unless we are willing to be honest with one another, unless we are willing to risk being real.
The risk doesn't always pay off; it's not always safe - and that's why I think we build these defenses around it, why we resort to Christianese. When it comes to my relationship with God and with other Christians, I’m as quick as anyone else to try and protect myself from honest dialog by hiding behind flowery, unhelpful language (or, my favorite defense mechanism: to intellectualize everything so that it can’t hurt me).
But Jesus didn't call us to be safe. And the relationships that have meant the most to me, that have brought me closer to the Table, have been those in which we talk to one another like normal people, employing the language of our shared faith tradition when it illuminates the truth, but not when it obscures it.
Thoughts? Where else do you see Christianese employed as a way of protecting against vulnerability? How can Christians do a better job of talking like normal people when it comes to sharing ideas, making decisions, and experiencing suffering together in community?