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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Speaking Christian For Social Convenience

The language of Christianity, like in any religion, evolves in usage over time. The native language of English we’re commonly used to hearing it in is a translation of the original ones it came from: Hebrew and Greek. Since these were significantly different cultures than our own, there are many nuances that exist in the language as it translates into our own and this applies especially to difficulties of spiritually and doctrinally accurate translations of the Bible as a whole. That’s only part of the reason behind the changes of meaning of words like “belief”, “salvation” and the “rapture” among other common ideas within the tradition. Even associated Christian language not directly concerned with orthodoxy has issues Christians are aware of.

Language with strong Christian undertones used in politics goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, accused of being an atheist by his opponent. He didn’t attend church much, but he admittedly, from what historians can find, believed in some supernatural, spiritual or transcendent reality. George W. Bush is very much the president to reference for using evangelical terms to influence his constituents. The tendency of politicians to associate with Christianity as a generic religion, even if they don’t necessarily hold those beliefs with the same conviction or in the same vein as their voting bloc, has made many Christians cease to even use the term Christian to describe themselves, preferring “Christ follower” in many cases. This is a more explicit problem of speaking Christian for laypeople and ministers alike, since those in politics can be said to abuse the influence that Christianity has on otherwise reasonable people and take advantage of their malleability in the face of a fellow Christian who “speaks their language” and thus shares their values. The tendency of separation can arise as well, since these people might start to behave in an unfair way towards even fellow party members who don’t share the religious beliefs of the candidate and start making a candidate’s religion or lack thereof a focal point, when, as I’ve said before in “Mormon Candidate Discrimination,” there is no reason to pick anyone based on their particular religious beliefs. If Bush’s policies were bad, I didn’t vote for him because of his Christianity, being a skeptic even in my teenage years when he ran both times, but because I disagreed with what he wanted to do in office.

Defining belief is already confusing enough with distinctions about atheism, theism, etc, but in Christianity, the meaning has become more focused on either creeds or believing things to be literally true. But belief historically had more of a meaning of living that conviction in practice and being loyal to God, not to human creeds or interpretations. Trusting in God to allow you to make sense of things, for instance, is more genuine a belief than just believing something to be literally true because you’d otherwise have to drop cherished traditions of creationism or the like. Just simply doubting the truth, even temporarily, of your native faith has a benefit in that you investigate those beliefs more closely before choosing to believe or not believe in them.
Salvation is another word whose definition has shifted towards something it wasn’t to begin with. The idea today focuses on the afterlife, on what happens after you die. But the word for salvation, at least in Hebrew, had more meanings to it and was used in contexts of freedom from bondage (Exodus), rescue from exile (Exodus again) and transition from violence to peace (Isaiah perhaps, swords to plowshares). Salvation doesn’t have to automatically imply that you refer to the hereafter, but instead can mean you focus on bringing heaven on earth in some sense. You work at salvation; you don’t automatically achieve it in any sense. This is not to say there is some merit of your works, but simply that your focus should be balanced between heaven and earth, so to speak. Admittedly this idea of salvation is taught in some way, but the fact that it doesn’t stick means either the methods are ineffective or people are just naturally more affected by cultural education than academic education in any sense. Maybe that’s my pseudo-pessimism talking, but the responsibility isn’t just with nonbelievers like me who study religion academically, but ministers and Christian believers who study their religion in a different light. If you want to teach people what salvation actually is in the Bible, then you should try to demonstrate it to people in a way accessible to them. Admittedly this would be tricky with etymology, so I’d suggest you find examples in the text itself that demonstrate through deeds rather than words. In this way, people can reference the text they hold sacred without feeling as if they’re betraying the spirit of its message.

A term used commonly these days, such as with Harold Camping’s notorious failed prediction of the end of the world, is “rapture,” I don’t mean rapture like being enraptured or in ecstasy of the Holy spirit, but the event of people being twinkled into the sky in the end times when God judges the world. Unfortunately for Christians using the term with such confidence, not only is it contradictory to ideas from the Bible, but it isn’t even in the Bible. The concept didn’t even exist until the early 20th century and is based on Thessalonians 4:16-17 primarily, among other verses, such as in Revelation. The idea clashes with the more active ideas of salvation in Christianity, since the rapture is something believers passively wait for, not “working out their salvation in fear and trembling,” (Phillipians 2:12) referencing the call to be vigilant even if you don’t know the time when Jesus will return. The rapture only half matches up with Jesus’ idea that we don’t know when the end will happen, but it’s too specific, whereas Jesus said himself he doesn’t know; only God does. Saying you believe in the rapture and are Christian is like saying you believe in the second coming of Barney the Dinosaur and are Satanist. I’ll admit that was a terribly bizarre comparison, but the point was that no matter how popular an idea is, like the Trinity in canon, it doesn’t reflect what the text itself implicitly states. We read ideas into religious texts, like everything else, but sometimes we just add ideas into a text that weren’t there before, like the rapture.

There are more words and even phrases I could bring up, but Marcus J. Borg’s book, called “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored,” is a highly recommended read if only to make oneself aware of the history of language in Christian traditions as they’ve evolved and split over time. Even if you disagree, which might happen, there is at least the realization of the importance of words and why you should at least be careful in your use of them. Awareness of language’s dynamic and sometimes fluid and malleable nature is important to any discipline in one way or another, but religion is especially pertinent, since language can change meanings of cherished ideas. Without realizing that rapture is a relatively new word in Christian usage historically, you would go down a path of believing it always existed as canon, same as people believing all Christians historically believed life began at conception, or ensoulment to be precise. Opening your mind doesn’t always mean you throw away your brain when you do it. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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