While my English is OK, my Pig Latin sucks. Don’t feel too badly for me; I made peace with my inability long ago. It was sometime after I sat in a tree house in the early 90’s, and realized that the older kids in the tree house were speaking in Pig Latin so I couldn’t understand them.
I won’t lie. I resented them for doing that, and I was quick enough at deconstructing Pig Latin to realize (belatedly) that I should be offended at what they were saying, but I never allowed them to know, because – after all – they were high schoolers, and simply being around them (even if they were ridiculing me) conferred status on me, right? It’s not like anyone else knew they were actually talking about me anyway. Except for my sister. But she didn’t like my friends enough to tell them, so I figured that was a win, and I was right.
So, as I said, I made my peace with it and decided to accept that my Pig Latin isn’t spry enough to permit an actual conversation. I should also add that by the late 90’s I was far more interested in learning real languages than made-up ones anyway, so I’ve never been too stressed over my Pig Latin competence. Most recently in my educational path I worried a lot about Greek, Hebrew, French, and German (no, I can’t read all of those, in case you’re wondering), but never Pig Latin. For obvious reasons.
The four languages I mention above (the real ones – not Pig Latin) really are required for most doctorates in theology. Those programs that don’t specifically require those four languages typically require a fifth – Latin – in addition to them. Theology, as it happens, is a uniquely language-intensive pursuit. But for all the languages you need to get a PhD in it, there’s one language spoken in most evangelical churches that never gets mentioned. For lack of a formal term, we’ll call it Christianese, and just so we’re clear, it’s a language I despise.
If you’ve spent any time at all in an evangelical church, you know what I’m talking about. Evangelicalism has a lingo composed of its own clichés and buzzwords, and it has enough unique terms to be considered its own dialect, if not language. If you’ve ever used the word testimony instead of the phrase “life changing epiphany;” if you’ve ever said season when what you meant was “period” or “couple of weeks/months;” if you’ve ever said ask Jesus into your heart or conversion at all; if you use the word grace or the word sovereignty as generic substitutes for any divine action; if you use any kind of euphemism to refer to a solo time of reading scripture and prayer (like “quiet time” or the truly awful “devos” abbreviation for “devotions,” itself short for devotional reading); if any of these things are true, than you, my friend, speak Christianese. It’s an unfortunate but common malady.
I understand that many evangelicals seem more or less at peace with Chritianese; I have long suspected that some even strive to speak it. Nevertheless, I take that to be conclusive evidence of its perfidious nature, a nature that expresses itself in what I view as the two great evils of Christianese.
The first major problem with Christianese is that it smacks of a prideful elitism that stands in direct contrast to the loving humility that should reside at the center of Christianity. That’s worded strongly, but I think it’s accurate. At its core, Christianese is an insider language; one can only learn to speak it by spending a considerable amount of time at evangelical churches. And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, my experience has taught me that most people first begin speaking the lingo not because it comes naturally to them or because it feels intuitive, but because they want to sound like an insider. More to the point, because they want to sound spiritual, presumably to garner the respect that sounding spiritual often grants to individuals in evangelical culture.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who speaks Christianese is a phony trying to advertise their spiritual bona fides. For many, it becomes such an ingrained habit that they lose all awareness that they always use insider terms to describe their spiritual experiences. But that’s exactly what they’re doing: using secret code words to describe gifts God gave to everyone. And that strikes me as fundamentally exclusionary, and hence elitist.
I was once part of a seminary class in which 48 of the 50 students had their assignments returned by the professor for being so unsatisfactory as to require a complete rewrite. The assignment? Write your testimony without using Christianese (though the professor didn’t use the word ‘Christianese’). Most students were in trouble before they started, because they didn’t see the dirty trick the professor was playing on us. He didn’t want our ‘testimony;’ that word is Christianese itself. What he wanted was a plain-language account of how and why each student came to profess faith in Jesus, but since he used the lingo students knew to give the assignment, they couldn’t complete it. Which means – and this was his point – that 48 seminary students, almost all of whom wanted to be pastors, were incapable of explaining their religious belief to someone who didn’t already share that belief. Their language betrayed them.
This problem doesn’t just arise in classes, and thus Christianese absolutely presents a barrier to the ability of Christians to communicate with those from outside our faith community. There are myriad problems with that, most of which are self-evident. One that might not occur to you immediately, however, is that it’s a step towards the undoing of Jesus’ incarnation.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but apart from dying for our sins one of the main reasons why Jesus became man and taught his disciples for years was so that we could understand God in God’s words. He became man so that God’s message and actions could be understood with clarity, and when we express our faith in a coded insider language, we make ourselves obfuscators of that which Jesus made clear. This is not, as they say, a good look.
My Christianese proficiency dramatically eclipses my Pig Latin fluency, but I usually speak them about the same amount, because I view them with equal contempt. I should also point out that when I remember that day in the tree house, I don’t wonder why I never bothered to perfect my Pig Latin. I wonder why a bunch of high school kids who could drive were in a tree house at all. That they were up there speaking Pig Latin so they could exclude a kid of about 11 from their schemes makes them seem even sadder, and the realization that evangelicalism seems to have no qualms about doing more or less the same thing is a part of evangelicalism that makes me rather uncomfortable.