Language as Culture

For most places in the world, you can tell what culture someone’s a product of by the language he or she uses. On a grand scale, that’s really basic and makes plenty of sense. A native Arabic speaker, for example, is probably Muslim, whereas a native speaker of Mandarin has probably been immersed in the culture of China. I realize there’s plenty of exceptions to those rules, especially in America where we’re a hodgepodge of cultures. But as a general rule, the language that we speak speaks volumes about our cultural knowledge. Even on a smaller scale, and this gets to the heart of my point, people in the corporate world use words like “digitization” or “globalization” or “Six Sigma,” whatever that is. People who are part of governmental agencies are fluent in a long list of acronyms like USAID, NGO, NSA, RPCV, etc. So, it’s not just the culture of a country. Organizations, institutions, religions all have their own language, and if you know and engage the language fluently, then it stands to reason that your identity is related to whatever that culture might be.

If all of that sounds a little too common sensical, I figured I’d lay out the problem: There are certain languages that I know but choose not to speak because I don’t want to be associated with that culture. Christianese, for example, engages in a language of Evangelical Christian culture. You won’t catch me saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” or “Let’s get the prayer warriors together.” And yet, the fact that I know the language as well as I do, on some level at least, suggests that the Evangelical cultural identity is one that I understand and will never fully shed. Even if I was never completely immersed in that culture as someone who came from a more liberal church, it’s part of growing up in the Bible belt. Like a comedian who pokes fun at something, you are (at least somewhat) what you critique. Or put another way, if a Moroccan who speaks fluent Arabic moves to France, wears French clothes, and only speaks in French, are they still a Moroccan? Of course, and they always will be.

One of my favorite stories from college came from a professor who was making fun of new age religious folks. He told a story of a young man – a Westerner – who traveled to meet the Dalai Lama desperate to figure out what to do to achieve enlightenment. When the youth finally met His Holiness, he explained, “I meditate and meditate but nothing ever happens. What am I doing wrong?” The Dalai Lama looked at him, chuckled in his usual “everything is funny” sort of way and said, “You want to achieve enlightenment? Go home and be a Christian.” I both love and hate that story. I love it because it says something true to me about how we are what we’re raised to be and will always carry that with us no matter where we go. I hate it for the exact same reason. Some languages we need to shed, forget, or ignore no matter how much a part of us it is. And yet, at the same time, it raises important theological questions for me -

Who decides what language is appropriate or what identity it carries? What magic box does that derive from? Remember several years ago when everyone wore the “WWJD” – “What would Jesus do?” – bracelets? That’s a good example of someone jumping on a decent marketing idea without ever actually theologically-engaging what they were doing. What would Jesus do? Probably not wear this stupid bracelet. In our modern era where everything is driven by competition, capitalism, and money (the modern triune god), I guess I’m far more skeptical of religious language, because I don’t trust the culture – a culture often obsessed with being relevant for the sake of increasing membership. Maybe there was a time where the language was more honest, searched out, tested, and maybe even during that time, I’d just as easily have questioned or eschewed that language and the culture it entailed.

But to push back on this notion that we are the language we engage, try as they might have, no one decided at the Council of Nicaea what being a Christian was. Did they issue creeds that had a lasting impact? Sure. But to say that what it means to be Christian has been remotely uniform since 325 CE would be incredibly naive. In fact, to say that being Christian means the same thing in 2014 that it meant in 1914 is just as untrue. There’s not some magic box or succinct, clear language that provides one answer throughout history for what it means to be a part of any religion, because there hasn’t been one language or one culture driving the narrative or how it was told. To me, on some level at least, that means that the language I choose to use to describe myself, the culture I engage in or maybe even create from scratch, is wholly mine. That’s not to discredit tradition; it’s to value that we’re just as capable of making our own traditions out of the ones we’ve been handed by our forefathers and foremothers. So, while I value tradition and the power of it, I believe each one of us are just as capable of deciding what our language means and how we should carry it into the future. But that doesn’t happen without community, without challenging one another on what we mean, or without creatively looking both backward and forward at the same time. Because we want our language tomorrow to be better than the language we used today.

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4 thoughts on “Language as Culture

  1. I like how you explained that, Philip. I’m irked by “Christianese,” and I think it started for me very early on, when I found myself resisting the phrase “saved,” that seemed to be all around me, but not understanding why. I’ve realized for me, it comes down to two major reasons:

    1: As I explore my faith personally, it feels much truer to find my own descriptions and my own ways of explaining the ways I see God and experience my faith. I think when people do that and communicate it to each other, it enhances our vision of what God is and how God works. If we confine it to one language, it boxes God and faith into one things and limits it, making it stagnant, predictable, and less relevant as time passes.

    2. One of the cornerstones of Christ’s ministry was seeking the outcasts, the different, the suffering–many of those very different from himself. For us to do this in the modern day, we must know the language of the people we seek to show love. If we speak in a language that doesn’t make sense to them and expect them to be compelled and even changed by it, we will fail over and over again.

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    1. I especially love the second point you made. Have you seen previews for the new Cartoon Network show by the Boondocks creators about the guy who thinks he’s Jesus but he lives in the hood? You should look that up if not. I think you’d appreciate the trailer. I’m not sure if the show will be good or not, but it gets at that notion that a modern Jesus probably isn’t European-Surfer-dude-Jesus the way a lot of Christianity makes him out to be.

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