Monday, August 4, 2014

A modest theological-grammar proposal

In light of certain directions public discourse has taken in the last, say, year or so, I am compelled to put forward, in the tiny sphere of influence this blog may have if any, a modest proposal for the church and those who are part of it, in order to be more accurate and precise in our witness to the world.

I propose that the use of the word "Christian" as an adjective be abolished.

I don't claim to be original here.  Lots of people, some of them famous, struggle with that word and the baggage it has acquired these days.  But what I am after is not exactly that kind of thing; rather, I hope that what I am suggesting serves not as a rejection or a complaint, but a self-check on anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.

Therefore my aim is not a wholesale abolition of the word "Christian."  I'm sure somebody could come up with a proper noun that would theoretically replace "Christian" for those who are put off by the cultural baggage.  That person, however, is not me.

No, my aim is to provide (hopefully) a moment of pause and reflection when any of us are tempted to describe or label anything with the adjective "Christian" for any reason.

My proposal is this: when tempted to use the word "Christian" in such a fashion, stop and substitute the world "Christlike."  (Or "Christ-like," if you're into hyphens.  I believe Calvin would call that "nonessential.")

Let's play this out with some examples:

"Christian Education," the staple of the church, most easily associated for many with the old staple "Sunday School."  Would it make sense to call it "Christlike Education"?  Well, what would we mean by "Christlike"?  What does Christ do in the gospels?  Healing, comforting, teaching, praying, enjoying fellowship, freaking out and flipping tables...well, they are all there at one point or another, but use your mental gospel Rolodex (or better yet, read some gospels) and get a grasp on, well, on what Christ was like.  If your church's education program can somehow be understood as acting or working in a way that Christ would act or work, then go with it.  If not, maybe it needs some work.

"Christian corporation, or Christian business."  Ah, the headline bugaboo so in vogue these days, that our courts seem incapable of addressing properly.  Now here, I believe, the trick is not to get sidetracked by interesting but essentially distracting points.  The degree to which a corporation can be said to be a person (courts notwithstanding) or to be "religious" are what seem to get most of the ink these days.  But if we ask if, say, that craft shop with the tchotchkes and baubles sometimes possibly made by Chinese slave labor can reasonably be construed as being Christlike, perhaps we'd be talked down off that ledge.  Make similar application as you choose to the folks with the cows and the chicken sandwiches, or the yogurt shops, or what have you.

Richmonders will recognize this one, if nobody else does.

Again, the point is to consider the business itself and whether it can somehow be understood as Christlike, not whether the young woman at the counter tells you to have a blessed day or that Jesus loves you unless you use birth control.  Ideally, this little self-check might be a way to help us discern whether people are wanting to use the adjective "Christian" as an accurate and genuine description of the business in question, or whether the term is simply being used to draw lines and let some people in and keep others out of the "in group."

"Christian music."  Hoo, boy.  Speaking of the "in group"... .  Here things get confusing because there are multiple terms that float around.  "Sacred music" and "church music" are terms that have been around for centuries, but these terms point not only to subject matter but frequently to function; specifically, use within Christian worship.  As such these can be large and unwieldy terms, encompassing both a Bach cantata and "There is a fountain filled with blood" (It's possible I have repressed trauma based on frequent singing of this hymn as a child.  I'm not entirely sure I'm joking.).

The use most commonly implied here is for a genre of music, originating around the 1960s or early 1970s, in which Christian themes were adapted to popular music of the day.  Mind you, "Christian music" (with its fellow-traveler terms "Christian rock," "contemporary Christian music," "Jesus music," and a few others) often lagged behind the popular idiom in style, but you get the point.  A later (to me; others may disagree with my timeline) development is the appearance of such idioms known by names like "praise and worship music" (or perhaps named after particular centers of production of such music; say, "Hillsong music"), in which the point was to wed the music to particular styles or patterns of worship designed around and to accommodate the music in question.  This is not to say that plenty of Christian rock didn't end up in worship services; it is to point out that in many cases that was not the intent for which it was created, much as gospel and revival hymn composers such as Homer Rodeheaver pointed out that their songs were meant for Sunday school or revival meetings instead of straightforward worship services.  (Mind you, Rodeheaver didn't ask for what use you were buying his songbooks before he sold them to you.)

The dangerous part here is that it is nigh impossible to escape questions of artistic quality in determining whether the term "Christlike" can possibly be included here; we are forced to participate in questions such as "can anything as derivative and uncreative as (insert song here) possibly be Christlike?"  And this is a question that can quickly run amuck across genres, but remembering that terms such as "sacred music" are about functionality as much as practice, the question is thus limited to genres that operate under the term "Christian."  The aforementioned question about "Christian" being used as a label for including and excluding ends up being a major part of the equation here, I think; "Christian music" too easily becomes a way of denoting "our music," as in "not your music."  Then the music becomes part of an identity that, in a quite worldly way, is exclusive rather than inclusive, or perhaps inclusive in the insidious way that lets you in as long as you become Just Like Us.  I'll let you work out your opinion from there.

"Christian movies." I've generally not seen them, at least not since The Cross and The Switchblade, so I'll let others discuss if they so choose.

Make of this what you will.  It's not as if I expect the media to add this to their style books, but I offer this as a means for Christians to grapple with the experience of having the name historically applied to the faith being increasingly used as a cudgel for the bashing (or worse, outright oppressing) of others or even of other Christians who are somehow judged to be insufficiently "Christian."  My only intent is to induce a bit of thinking about what the terms we use actually mean, and whether those words are actually of any use to us with those meanings attached.  If the adjective "Christian" is merely a way of describing things or entities affiliated with or used by a particular and exclusive subset of the church, perhaps the term is useless after all.

I'm just trying to light a match in a fog of words.

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