English is a Messy Language: be careful when using it.

English is a messy language.  Consider for instance a simple word like ‘major’.  It helps define a musical key (what’s a key?).  A major is a concentrated area of college study.  It’s something of importance.  It’s a military rank above lieutenant and captain, but a major general ranks below a lieutenant general – go figure.  You can come up with your own and better examples.  The point is, we have to be careful about explaining the meaning of words we use, even simple ones, if what  is said and written is to be understood clearly.

What about the word Christian? Using it in an inappropriate generalized way can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. The accepted Christian creeds (Apostles and Nicene) inscribe a very large circle enclosing an enormous number of ways in which the faith can be expressed. Each denomination or non denominational church has particular ways they hold to be true for them, but they cannot assert their particularities are true for Christianity as a whole. Not that some don’t try.

It’s not easy for the secular press to understand that when Christian voices are raised in the public arena.  A case in point: the local paper carried an article recently about a school board in a nearby city that acceded to requests from parents to modify a certain policy they opposed  The policy is irrelevant at the moment.  What is relevant is that the parents anchored their opposition in the name of their Christian faith, leading the paper’s article to imply that the parents spoke for Christians in general.  How were reporters to know differently?

The policy in question had no precedent in Christian historical theology or doctrine.  The parents’ opposition was based entirely on secular social standards they hold dear, and which they ascribe as biblical.  Why a public school board would buckle to satisfy the religious preferences of some parents is an important question, but not the one this column is about. My denomination, and many others, would have no problem with the board’s policy, and would deny that the parents’ objections are in any way biblical.  We don’t deny the right of those parents to hold their views.  We do deny that they speak for the greater body of Christ.  They can speak only for themselves, as I can speak only from my tradition.  I can speak about other traditions, but not for them.  Neither can I, or they, claim to speak for the church catholic.  It’s unfortunate that the secular press appeared unaware of that, but we should not be surprised.  

It would have been better had the reporter written something like, ‘A group of parents objected to such and such a policy on religious grounds related to their Christian beliefs, which are not uniformly held by all Christians.’ It may have been better, but it’s unlikely. The greater burden is on us to speak clearly with well defined words that don’t pretend to carry more truth than they can bear.

I know it’s tempting to want to know the policy and have an argument with it.  It’s equally tempting to have at the issue of public education favoring the religious preferences of one group, or, for that matter, any religious group.  But for the purpose of this column, I simply want to ask that we, the collective we, reflect on the need to be careful and clear with the words we use when communicating with others.

1 thought on “English is a Messy Language: be careful when using it.”

  1. Nice job, Steve. A couple of other problematical words and phrases: “religious freedom,” and for that matter, just “freedom,” and “myth.”

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