Is Christianese Always Bad?

How we can redeem the value of our spiritual jargon.

As is natural in all subcultures, Christians have developed dialects. Christians (Protestants and Catholics, clergy and laymen) use many terms non-Christians would not understand. Well, perhaps more often than not outsiders understand us—but we simply look odd. One of the biggest grievances against Christian culture is our
bubble-like tendency. We can genuinely hurt the cause of Christ when we
create holy huddles, only experiencing the world through our own eyes or
the eyes of other Christians.

I've heard many people refer to this phenomenon as "speaking Christianese."

Some great examples of Christianese:

"Break bread together" vs. "Eating together"

"Testimony" vs. "Story" or "Account"

"Caused me to stumble" vs. "Was hurtful to me"

"Felt convicted" vs. "Felt bad" or "Felt remorse"

I hate to admit it, but lately I've found myself thinking in Christianese a lot more than normal. And this has me questioning my hatred of it. Upon giving Christianese a second look, here are a few solid reasons as to why it's not so horrible.

Born out of Scripture

Yes, we have Christian subcultures of all sorts: Baptist, Catholic, hipster, straight edge. But our Christian dialect is not born simply out of our subcultures; it is mostly born out of our holy Scriptures.

A large part of why Christianese is coming to my mind these days is that I have been editing a Bible commentary for nearly 10 months now. I spend most of my days reading Scripture and editing words about Scripture. And, to be frank, being over-steeped in Scripture is pretty hard to accomplish. Joshua 1:8a says, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth, meditate on it day and night." That's a high bar to meet in terms of Scripture saturation, and I still don't think I've hit it.

 If we, readers of the holy words of God, mingle the modern American vernacular with Scripture, I'm not so sure we should guilt ourselves about it; it's a result of time well spent feeding off of God's Word.

No Other Words

Sometimes we have no words of our own. Sometimes we are unable to form coherent thoughts and put words to feelings. This is a common occurrence during grief.

During a hard break-up in college, I struggled to vocalize my feelings. I listened to a lot of Fiona Apple that summer; her album Extraordinary Machine gave words to my grief, an extremely important thing for me. While listening to her album was important to the process of grief, it didn't help me move through the grief. A dear friend simply said to me, "I think it would help if you stopped listening to Fiona Apple so much." I laughed, but he was right; I needed to focus on truth instead of simply what I was feeling. Scripture is valuable during grief because we can find expressions of grief among the words, but they are rooted in truth and hope.

After going through a miscarriage this spring, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland ran through my mind a lot, but I longed for Scripture to reclaim the dominant place in my mind. And eventually, it did. Once I was able to borrow the words of Scripture to express my grief, I thought and spoke in Christianese a lot. But you know what? I finally had words—and I had words that were both helpful and true. Maybe I sounded like an 80-year-old church lady—but  I didn't care.

A Deeper Meaning

Sometimes the Christian way of saying something holds a different or more complex meaning that cannot otherwise be expressed easily.

When we say breaking bread is an important part of community, we don't simply mean eating together. Breaking bread holds more meaning. It carries connotations of sharing, giving, receiving, honesty and laughter. Likewise, "to feel convicted" is different than "to feel guilty" or "to make a decision." The word "conviction" implies an outside party, the Holy Spirit, has intervened and influenced your thoughts and feelings. That sense of external interference is not implied easily using normal terminology.

We’ve all seen how Christianese can be misused, abused and overused. Let’s strive to use it properly and passionately, in a way that communicates the heart of God like no other words can.

Laura Ziesel is a seminary student at Azusa Pacific University and a freelance writer and editor living in sunny California with her husband. She blogs on matters of faith, gender, church culture and more at www.lauraziesel.com. She is also a contributing writer for The Redemptive Pursuit, a weekly devotional for women.

Photo credit: Jeff Dailey

What are some other great examples of Christianese you can think of? Why and when do you think we should use it or not use it?

23 Comments

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heidi commented…

every area/subject/profession, etc, has its own jargon. jargon simply meaning words unique to that area or common words that take on a special meaning in that context. facebook does ("i like this" has a specific meaning), so does music (hey, can we slow the tempo down a bit?). why shouldn't Christianity? are we alienating non-musicians, should we say instead, "play slower"? what about the more complicated things? it would be downright unpractical to try to explain the time signature in laymen's terms every time you wanted to refer to it. or, worse yet, the chord functions. if you are a non-musician and have no idea what i'm talking about here, case in point. there is a special "language" used to refer to very specific things and ideas. no doubt, the meaning of these special words can be explained to anyone, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't go on using those words. likewise within Christianity, there are unique words that carry specific meaning, and getting your head around what those words actually mean can bring life-changing revelation to you as a christian. but if you are talking to non-christians, as i would to non-musicians, you can safely use those words--while explaining what they actually mean.

Thomas Christianson

3

Thomas Christianson commented…

I think there's a difference between technical terms (sanctification,pneumatology) and Christianese (traveling mercies, pleading the blood).

As you said, all areas of expertise and/or study has its own terminology and jargon out ofnecessity. The utilization of idiosyncratic terms and phrases within Christianese doesn't really seem to be a way to increase communication or depth in the Christian community. When I started attending church, I had to figure out what this weird terms meant by asking.

Indeed, how often do we use spiritual jargon to hinder others? "Touch not the Lord's annointed" is a great way to oppress those you lead. "I'll be praying for you" is probably the most common lie told in America.

I just think we should leave behind things that obfuscate the truth in any way, including this particualr subculture language.

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John commented…

Honestly, I don't know ANYONE who said they were disinterested in Christianity because we say these things. I'm with Heidi, who commented earlier. Every subculture has different "dialects" that they use. Have you tried to talk to an urban teenager and had no idea what they were talking about? The truth is, our actions will speak volumes more than our words. Gossip, hypocrisy, and hate will turn more people away from Christ than "Christianese" could ever dream of. I do, however, like to make fun of those silly church signs that place ridiculous sayings on them.

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Anonymous commented…

Good article. Bless your heart lol

www.whatthehellbook.com

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Jenny Oz commented…

I've spent the last 7 years getting rid of my "Christianese" because it separated me from people that don't believe the same way I do...It also made people feel inadequate ...I don't think Jesus spoke in "Christianese" He spoke the Truth smothered in Love and I'm enjoying this Freedom from a Religious Subculture that can swallow up your Identity and manipulate you to be all the same...
Our God is Incredibly Creative and there's a Kaleidescope of ways that we can Live and Love... :)

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