Christians talk in code … and the code excludes those who cannot read the secret language.
These words of Malcom Doney and Martin Wrote, in a 2019 Church Times article, reflect a common discomfort with religious code talk, what some people call “church-speak” or “Christianese.” Language like “sin”, “salvation”, “discipleship”, “repentance”, “righteousness”, and “judgement” – all need deciphering and recasting, the two men argue, if we are to open the church doors widely.
Personally speaking, though, what really makes me cringe are some of the more informal Christianese expressions, which more than one Christian leader has called “hurtful not helpful.”
“I wasn’t seeing much fruit.”
“How’s your heart?”
“It was a total God thing.”
The issue of language exclusivity grows more complex still when we consider those who speak other or multiple languages. “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christian language” writes author Cindy Brandt, whose experiences as a polyglot in multiple countries have given her valuable, critical insight into the boundaries we build with “Christian lingo.”
As I’ve learned over years of researching and teaching how religious language works, we often think of religious language like “Christianese” in terms of community boundaries. Many don’t like Christianese because it sets up boundaries in opposition to the welcome we want to extend. But of course there are many other ways religious language can position someone as an outsider.
Last year, winner of the Theology Slam competition, K. Augustine Tanner –Ihm said, about racism in the church, that “We must move from exclusion to embrace.” And as Tanner-Ihm’s potent example of a rejection letter he received illustrates, one powerful way racism is performed is through language.
Tanner-Ihm’s rejection letter is clearly a religious text, produced within an overtly religious community for the purpose of carrying out official duties. The closing phrase which invokes God likewise signals it’s a text involved in doing religion. But also embedded in this portion of the letter are beliefs about the relevance of racialised identity in church leadership appointments. The letter author even calls on a sacred legitimating authority of God, signalling that this appointment is not the future God has planned for Tanner-Ihm.
Again, events like these prompt a community to reflect on and debate the (il)legitimacy of its borders and the ways language enaces and reinforces these borders.
But there is another side to this coin.
Exclusive religious language also binds people together into community. Affirming connection through language is a profound way we express our humanity and draw close to each other, to who and what we hold most sacred. And these links between language and identity are a core part of some religious community members’ concerns about losing language that articulates our deepest selves and relationships, the co-opting of sacred language for other contexts, other uses.
The title of a book by Professor of Sociology David Martin, Christian Language and its Mutations, sums up this discussion for some. Why don’t Christian words mean Christian things anymore, some ask? Christian words used in non-Christian ways, outside Christian environments are seen as deviant, a sign that their power has been distilled, lost.
The neverending debate around archaism is another place we see this tension between exclusion and inclusion play out. Archaism is language seen as old-fashioned or out of date. Yet, writing about proposed changes to the English Book of Common Prayer in 1927, W. K. Lowther Clarke notes the significance of this timeless impulse to hold onto linguistic tradition, to the language of one’s ancestors, even to language that might be seen as old fashioned, reframed here as “stately diction.”
Religion is bound up with memories of the past, our own early associations and the lives of those who have gone before. The immensely strong forces of Conservatism are enlisted in the cause of No Change. “Hands off the Prayer Book” can easily be made a popular cry. The Prayer Book has entered into the marrow of our race. Its stately diction, its association with great national occasions and the crises of individual lives, its manliness and sobriety, have an influence reaching far beyond the circle of practising Churchmen.
Lowther Clarke’s words evoke not only the social-cohesive function of religious language but also its ability to communicate feelings of wonder and mystery, love and hate, confidence and fear, strength and weakness, doubt and certainty. Religious language is one means by which we cope with the complexities of the human experience. This is its emotive function, its use to ease our passage through life’s most challenging events, to negotiate with the unknown.
The power of language like this can be seen in the fact that archaism is frequently used even by people outside of world religion, to evoke tradition and ritual. The name of a tattoo parlour in my home city of Sheffield, ‘Thou Art,’ communicates both the timelessness of body adornments and a yearning for ancient roots.
So when considering insider religious language like Christianese, we have to weigh up not only the boundaries it creates but the community bonds it facilitates. Despite what we may wish, there can be no community without borders.
As for me, the problem with language like Christianese isn’t so much its exclusivity. Though I see that as an important matter to discuss, what I find far more worrying is the fact that much of our religious jargon is largely in use due to religious trend-setters. The evolution of exclusive language like Christianese reveals the ways powerful people in positions of recognised sacred authority shape the ways we talk about our most deeply held beliefs, including how we see ourselves. It points to the potential of religious language to foster cults of personality, to build brands.
And that really makes me pause.