In my last post, we took a deep dive into what it means to really be born again. I did that because, as I noted there, I think we have totally convoluted the understanding of that phrase in the modern church. I certainly know I didn’t understand what it means, and I don’t mean to elevate myself at all, but if I, who grew up in the church and went to Christian university, didn’t really understand it, how are most other people to manage?
It didn’t become clear why that phrase bugged me until I listened just now to a podcast between Pete Holmes and Kent Dobson. In the episode, Dobson tells this story of how he goes on these “vision quests” out in the deserts of Utah, and Pete throws out something along the lines of “I want to put words to it, but I feel like it will cheapen the experience.”
And then it clicked for me. This isn’t an idea relevant only to the vocabulary of the Bible. Words are a weird thing. Words can be both powerful and powerless. So for example, if you called me the n-word or the f-word (“f” as in the homosexual slur), it doesn’t affect me on a large scale because I’m a straight white male. But imagine if you were black and called the n-word or gay and called the f-word… that can mean everything. (Again, not to say that I’m not offended by those words, but they aren’t used to harm me directly as they would be to another person.)
Those are powerful examples in the negative direction, but fortunately, words can be equally powerful in the positive direction. Like, I like being called a good parent by strangers, but I think my wife would delight in that far more than I would. And if a stranger called somebody a good parent who didn’t have kids at all, they’d probably just be confused.
So, with that understanding in mind, let’s revisit the vocabulary of the church.
We have a LOT of different very specialized vocabulary in the church. Some words and phrases are more common and include things like salvation, communion, and being baptized in the Spirit. But the rabbit hole of Christian vocabulary can roll really, really deep. Here are a handful of words/phrases you might not even be aware of:
- Systematic theology: This is the idea that we have a nice, neat, tidy way of understanding our faith on, basically, a topic-by-topic basis.
- Penal substitutionary atonement: A super fancy way of noting that Jesus died for your sins so that you can get to heaven
- Sacrement: These are things we do as an external means to show we’re on Team Jesus. (Go, team, go!)
Literally, I remember one of my assigned texts in Christian university was a pocket theological dictionary just to cover those terms, and I’m certain that little guy didn’t hold all the words we use in there.
Anyway, let’s revisit that phrase we talked about in the last post, “born again.” Well, on the surface, it seems easy to understand… but the more I’ve heard it repeated in church over and over, it just seemed hollow. Hollow because I can’t say I ever really experienced those words until my late 20’s. Now, I get it and see it for how beautiful it is.
But even as I say that, I probably won’t use that verbiage anymore. Just like Pete Holmes didn’t want to put words to Kent Dobson’s experiences, I think we’ve sort of “lost” that phrase. Lost in the sense that we’ve used it over and over and over again to the point that it’s worded with a lot of baggage and therefore have lost their power.
Randomly, it reminds me of a scene in Clerks 2. (Because you knew we were going to talk Clerks 2 in this post, right?) At one point, one of the characters uses the phrase “porch monkey” without realizing that is a racial slur toward black people. He didn’t realize it was a racial slur. So this same character decides he wants to “bring the words back” and use them in a context that isn’t demeaning to black people. Of course, this falls apart very quickly when another character played by Wanda Sykes gets rightly offended about this and tears him a new one.
My point sharing that is that there are just no “bringing the words back”, even if it means returning them to their original context. They’re gone for good, unfortunately. And a lot of people caught onto this much more quickly than I have. It’s no secret that I love Rob Bell and regularly listen to his podcast, and I have noticed before that he very much steers clear of traditional Christian vocabulary. At first, I thought this was just a way to sort of be trendy, but now I realize that what he is doing is avoiding those words/phrases that have been “lost” for one reason to another.
(I feel so slow for just now realizing this, folks. Honestly. Like now when I think about times where he said things like “And if you’re having trouble calling it ‘God,’ call it something else,” it clicks now. Seriously… I feel so dumb right now.)
I hope you found this post helpful. I knew I had to write it because my slow self is now going to be much more mindful about the words I use, especially in future blog posts. I don’t want to cheapen anybody’s experience of the divine. (See, I’m making steps already by referring to things as the general “divine!”) Catch you all in the next post.