Friday, May 1, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part IV: Honoring Bad Theological Language

Sometimes proper speech for God means first honoring improper speech for God. While it is eminently important that we discover through wise discernment how our speech does and does not faithfully speak of the triune God revealed in Christ, it is even more crucial that we learn the humility and grace not to be Theology Nazis who patrol churches and seminaries, books and blogs for "bad" language in need of our "good" correction. Listen to Marilynne Robinson describe "simple snobbery" in her essay "Puritans and Prigs" (The Death of Adam, pp. 163-64):
Recently I saw a woman correct a man in public -- an older man whom she did not know well -- for a remark of his she chose to interpret as ethnocentric. What he said could easily have been defended, but he accepted the rebuke and was saddened and embarrassed. This was not a scene from some guerrilla war against unenlightened thinking. The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable, and more extensive than his, with the implication, which he seemed to accept, that right thinking was a property or attainment of hers in a way it never could be of his. To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage! And with an audience already entirely persuaded of the evils of ethnocentricity, therefore more than ready to admire! This is why the true prig so often has a spring in his step. Morality could never offer such heady satisfactions.

The woman's objection was a quibble, of course. In six months, the language she provided in place of his will no doubt be objectionable -- no doubt in certain quarters it is already. And that is the genius of it. In six months she will know the new language, while he is still reminding himself to use the words she told him he must prefer. To insist that thinking worthy of respect can be transmitted in a special verbal code only is to claim it for the class that can concern itself with inventing and acquiring these codes and is so situated in life as to be able, or compelled, to learn them. The more tortuous our locutions the more blood in our streets. I do not think these phenomena are unrelated, or that they are related in the sense that the thought reforms we attempt are not extensive enough or have not taken hold. I think they are related as two manifestations of one phenomenon of social polarization.
Later in a different essay Robinson speaks of a separate but related reality, what she calls "the tyranny of petty coercion": "the conservation of consensus, that is, the effective enforcement of consensus in those many instances where neither reason nor data endorse it, where there are no legal constraints supporting it, and where there are no penalties for challenging it that persons of even moderate brio would consider deterrents" (p. 256).

These words from the master -- being the author of both Gilead and Home, I can think of no more fitting title -- provide a healthy foundation for the kind of infusion of grace we need as Christians, but especially as theologians and ministers. Two brief case studies should suffice.

The first is from Ben Meyers' wonderful blog Faith and Theology, a recent post he wrote on the Green Bible. Apparently the language from the Green Bible's self-description, about "caring for the earth [being] not only a calling, but a lifestyle," irked Meyers' sensibilities, particularly the phrase "lifestyle" -- as if the Christian vocation is one "lifestyle choice" among a host of others, which we put on and take off like any of the other hipster fad t-shirts in our closet. And to be sure, he has a great point, and I defended the post in the comments.

But there is a larger context here. Perhaps the editors and collaborators on the Green Bible should have known better as professionals, but if I were to hear a member at church refer to discipleship or faith (or caring for the earth) as a "lifestyle," I would rightly hear what they meant but likely did not have the words for: vocation. Which is only to remember that few people have the time, training, or faculties to be constantly on top of what this or that word means at any one moment. That is why theologians and preachers are those who should "be up" on such matters, as they are the ones who most (or ought to) form our language and thought worlds -- but we cannot expect such professional accuracy of the average Christian!

The same goes for books representing "bad" theology, or whose messages we don't like. For example, Rick Warren is an easy whipping boy for theology's self-proclaimed guardians (at least by their actions) of orthodoxy and proper speech, and I have no doubt I share their criticisms. But I also know many faithful Christians who read men and women like Rick Warren, yet, while their language might not impress anyone paid (or self-taught) to know the "right" words, whose lives and wisdom tower as models of discipleship and witness to the power of the Spirit and the way of Jesus. I assume I am not the only one who sits in pews next to such people. How then can we go on in anything like such veiled condescension toward those who don't know the "in" language or read the "right" books?

Sometimes language doesn't reveal content as much as social location. And sometimes language or resources deemed by the professional guild to be lacking or flawed -- whether that judgment is right or wrong -- veil rich theology and faith in those who speak and read them. Only, first we must know such people before the veil is lifted. And when it is, we might discover it is not their language that stands in need of correction.

Rather, it is our lives.


  1. A wonderful and thoughtful post. Couldn't agree more

  2. I appreciate the kind words. Of course, this is only one more post impacted by your own non-condescending take on Mark Driscoll. Thanks for the example!