May 15th, 2005


Lingo (Part II)

As I said in "Lingo (Part I)", the phrase "felt needs" was my hint that I might be in for trouble. "Christian spirituality" was the trouble.

I'd noticed it on the cover of Blue Like Jazz, the subtitle "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality." It sounded like hip/pseudo-radical marketing garbage, and I simply moved forward in hopes that it was. But then, right after "felt needs," came this passage:
For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained. Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. And I could not in good conscious [sic] tell a friend about a faith that didn't excite me. I couldn't share something I wasn't experiencing. And I wasn't experiencing Christianity. It didn't do anything for me at all. It felt like math, like a system of rights and wrongs and political beliefs, but it wasn't God reaching out of heaven to do wonderful things in my life. And if I would have shared Christianity with somebody, it would have felt mostly like I was trying to get somebody to agree with me rather than meet God. I could no longer share anything about Christianity, but I loved talking about Jesus and the spirituality that goes along with a relationship with Him.

—Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

I could be more polite, I'm sure, and say things along the lines of, "Miller and I seem to be experiencing different truths" (and since politeness often passes for graciousness, it would almost certainly come off better if I were). But when I read a sentiment like that, the most diplomatic internal response I can honestly come up with is, "Hogwash."

Basically, Miller seems here to be making up jargon so he'll be invited to explain it, and so he can jettison any baggage associated with Christianity. He's not alone—this is just a great example of the epidemic, made even more pronounced by a simultaneous shedding of "religion" and "Christianity." And many will nod their heads because they want something fresh and hip and countercultural. By itself, it's still mostly harmless (like Earth), except that it panders to a pretty basic and selfish desire: "I want words and ideas I can be excited about." My fear is that, unknown to most, there's something darker under that desire, something we'd rather not face or admit about ourselves (that's all in "Lingo (Part III)").

Last time I wrote about jargon, I mentioned the "emerging church." Again, I'll readily say that I'm largely very much on board with this camp. The language play, however, is sliding toward meaninglessness in a post-modern search for meaning. At a recent emerging church conference, a participant suggested abandoning the phrase "Every knee shall bow" in connection with Christ's return, because it didn't have context and meaning for people today. This drew agreement from the other participants and (thankfully) shock from the facilitator. But when something like that can happen, we're far closer to the edge than I believe to be beneficial, all for the sake of tickling our eardrums. Trying to make the gospel less offensive is risky business.

Beyond that, it's often just stupid. It's still Christianity, which is still religion. I understand that people have mixed experiences with both terms. But look at it logically: we don't stop calling them "cars" because people have been killed in accidents by them, taken uncomfortable trips in them, paid unfair insurance rates or outrageous gasoline prices for them, had trouble finding parking for them, and so on. They're still cars, they've still done all the good they've done for us (past and present), and they're still part of our society today. If some schmoe came trying to sell me a car, but insisted on calling it a "mobility enhancer" because "car" wasn't a word he could get excited about and didn't capture the depth of the concept, I'd think he was an idiot. Regardless of what else it is, it's still a car. My faith and relationship with Jesus is much more than Christianity or religion. But it's still included in both constructs.
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Lingo (Part III)

"Lingo (Part II)" was the logical side of my problem with some of the new jargon ("Nonreligious Christian Spirituality" in place of "religion" and "Christianity") presented in Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Here's the heart: I think people often prefer a clean slate to the difficult work of forgiveness. And no one will pretend that there's not a host of garbage, past and present, personal and historical, connected with religion and Christianity. Wouldn't it be nice if we could reinvent and repackage it so all of that could be disconnected and wiped away? Besides, it's so hip to bust on religion and/or Christianity—look at how radical and relevant we are! (some have even gone so far as to invent a mythos wherein Jesus was opposed to religion as a whole rather than simply to the empty practice thereof). Then, if we did church right ("being authentic"), all would be well and more people would have an open path to come to know Christ. Sounds good, yes?

The bottom line, though, is that this tends to sidestep a crucial fact: the Church needs to be forgiven. She's a mess. She's been a mess. She's hurt people time and again, been beset by sin that would take years simply to recount. And yet, her Groom has been made her clean, is making her clean, and will make her clean. That's the reality, and it's hard to reconcile our own hearts to it. It is neither accurate or edifying to disconnect ourselves with the Church's history and pretend we're starting from scratch with "Jesus and me/us." Trying to create a church that doesn't need forgiveness because it's suddenly, after thousands of years, "being done right," is at once denial of reality and idolatry.

Is the gospel powerful enough for the Church to be forgiven? If it is, then that's what we can invite believer and non-believer alike to do instead of playing language games. That's where Miller jumped right back on track—his chapter on confession (where this is drawn from) concludes with some powerful stories of requested and granted forgiveness.

Let me close with a disclaimer that should already be implied: these thoughts are all based on my own perspective and preferences. The Body, the Church is much bigger than me, by design. I'm not very fluffy, and maybe the things I see as fluffy are genuinely helpful to bringing some nearer to Him. I simply don't think rejargoning the Church is a good way to go, and it runs the risks of sidestepping important parts of who we are.
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