Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Church Language - Christianese

Today's installment isn't about something I find particularly offensive, just... really annoying. "Christianese" is the name given to the strange jargon that peppers conversations between Evangelicals. I don't know where this term came from, but I learned it inside the church, as in, "Sometimes our classmates or coworkers don't understand us if we speak Christianese," so at least they know their speech patterns are off-putting.

At first glance, Christianese seems pretty benign -- people say things like, "I am so blessed," or "The Lord was teaching me patience as I was driving to church" in response to, "How are you?" It's stilted and awkward, but hey, they're making a conscious effort to be grateful no matter what happens in life.

If you've read 1984, you're familiar with Newspeak. If you're not, here's the basic idea: If people don't have words they can't articulate thoughts, so if you don't want people having certain thoughts, you take away the relevant words. Christianese lacks the ability to destroy the thoughts, but it does limit which thoughts can be safely expressed within the walls of a church.

First and foremost, Christianese assumes that everything happens as a direct result of God doing something. All events, all the time, as if God didn't create a universe that operates according to a variety of laws and doesn't require a whole lot in the way of maintenance. So, when someone asks, "How are you?" or "How was your week?", your answer needs to take into account that whatever transpired in the previous seven days represent God, in his infinite wisdom, reaching into the very fabric of reality to specifically make your week occur in the manner that it had.

Obviously, this rules out shitty as an acceptable response.

"The Lord has been teaching me patience" is one way to report on a less-than-perfect week, as is, "God has shown me the importance of maintaining my relationships."

In some situations, however, invoking God feels like overkill, so Christianese allows its speakers to attribute things to "spirits". This also goes for things that a person might not feel right pinning on God. A laughing child, for example, might be described as having a "spirit of joy" about him. Know a guy who seems unflappable? Spirit of peace. Experiencing depression or anxiety? Spirit of oppression or fear.

In the worst situations, this tendency to spiritualize everything can lead people to make harmful decisions. For example, I've known people who quit taking anti-depressants because they saw depression as a spiritual problem rather than a chemical one. This is, sadly, somewhat common in Evangelicalism, particularly if you head down the fundamentalist or Pentecostal branches.

But even when it's not that bad, attributing everything to spirits can have a negative effect on people. When I used to play guitar at churches, people would frequently approach me to tell me that I had a "spiritual gift" of guitar-playing, or that when I played they felt "a spirit of peace" or "a spirit of worship". Sometimes it would even get escalated to God somehow playing through me. Never mind that I practiced several hours a day, harvesting riffs from the songs I loved, running my scales and arpeggios until my fingers were numb. My efforts meant nothing; God was running my hands and the spirits were in the sound.

This destroyed my work ethic. See, since things only happened if God willed them, and I was only good at guitar because God intervened and made me good, then obviously effort didn't matter. If I tried a new hobby but failed to grasp it immediately, I gave up on it; if I took an interest in an academic subject, I quit reading if I didn't instantly memorize the basics. Obviously, God didn't want me to do it, or he would make me perfect at it.

Christianese permeates Evangelicalism, so it's going to show up in the rest of this series. I may make bingo cards (probably not).


  1. I think you really touched on all the important key things in this problem. I had almost completely forgotten about the "spirit of oppression" thing too! And I always hated not being able to answer the question "How are you?" properly. Because no one really wants to know how you are--there's a subtext of "I'm a spiritual leader, and you are expected to tell me what God's teaching you."

    I wrote a post about Easter as a guest post a long time ago. Easter is probably the holiday that is most entrenched in Christianese. (If we did an Easter drinking game we'd all be plastered within the first ten minutes.) The problem is that it gets lost in all of the Christian verbiage. Yes, I got it, He's risen. But what does that mean anymore? After all the cantatas, and the Easter sunrise services and lunches, what does it actually mean?

    Also, yes! A bingo card!

  2. Wow, yeah, Easter is the pinnacle of Christian jargon. I wonder how long it would take to get kicked out if we snuck flasks in and played the drinking game?