Saturday, October 13, 2012

Words matter - most of the time

If you've read my blog for any length of time you know that words matter to me. That's one of the reasons why I keep a blog. I don't do journals very well, but I really like having a place to think things through and respond to what's going on around me. When I can't wrap words around something I'm experiencing I tend to get unsettled and frustrated. For those same reasons I get annoyed when people use words in a way I feel is sloppy or inaccurate. Too often I end up fuming internally over the (probably unintended) consequences of using language that describes something I don't the author ever intended to say.

But there are limits. For example B allow me to present my father-in-law. In some ways he's a simple man, and when I say simple I probably mean something closer to concrete. He's a farmer and a general contractor who spends a lot of time outdoors working with his hands. Although he's far from illiterate, he's also not going to pick apart a book the same way I am. Just the other night we were discussing a Bible study we (Allen's folks and myself) have been doing together. During the course of our discussion I raised an objection to the "in love with Jesus" language the author used. In my opinion such language is problematic. There's the "Jesus is my boyfriend" phenomenon. Men being asked to pursue "intimacy" with Jesus and walk with Him in a "personal, loving relationship." Women being told to "surrender to their first love." You get the point. We talk about Jesus in language that, outside of religious contexts, is primarily used to describe romantic relationships. There are plenty of straight men who are uncomfortable with "falling in love with Christ" and are suspicious of authors and pastors who recommend their wives do the same. Such language also completely bypasses the more heroic, camaraderie based lexicon that Christians have used in centuries past. We've lost Jesus the friend, brother, king, captain, priest, and replaced Him with an ardent lover who longs to surround our hurt feelings and cradle our lonely hearts. At least that's where I think a lot of the flowery "intimacy" based language tends to go.

My father-in-law, on the other hand, doesn't see any problems with it. When were discussing it he defined the primary attribute of love as commitment. He's committed to his wife, and he's committed to his Lord. The romantic connotations were less intrinsic to his idea "in love" than were the daily realities of living in a committed relationship with someone you daily chose to love and honor. I suppose that's why I say my father-in-law is more concrete or simple in his perception of word choice. I put "in love" up against the various ways it's typically used, how that typical usage could/does inform how it could be misused in a new context, and decide that "in love" is a poor phrase to describe our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet my father-in-law can take that same phrase and view it based on the practical outworkings in his closest relationship - his marriage - and deduce that being "in love" denotes a state of covenantal commitment which appropriately describes both how we should love God and our spouses.

Two people, two very different views of language. Naturally I'm biased towards my own perceptions. I still think that using romantic language to describe a religious experience can lead to other people having misguided ideas of how they should relate to God. But, that's not necessarily so. I think it's good to remember that sometimes other people can see something that's essentially very true, such as that commitment being the heart of love,  in a phrase that the more philosophically inclined might dismiss out of hand. In short, a wordy person who loves and thinks about words and wrestles with them on a daily basis can still miss something obvious. It's reason to be a little more humble and to listen a little more closely to those people "who just don't get it." Do you know they don't get? How? Did you ask them? In my case, my father-in-law didn't change my perception of the phrase, but he did get me thinking about how people could use it with the best intentions and a pretty decent interpretation of it's meaning. Sometimes it's the language that's obfuscating and not the mind behind it. Hard to believe for those of us who spend so much energy trying to accurately wrap words around ideas, but believe it all the same.

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