Sunday, 9 November 2014

Words that need to die

The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Acts 11:26.

There are times I wish I could eliminate various words from the English language: they contain the “grrr”-factor - as in making me grind my teeth in irritation. This is usually because they have been emptied of any real meaning through constant careless use. Oh for a cosmic delete button!

A particular pet hate at the moment is “incredible” (not to mention its close cousin “fantastic”). Nothing these days is allowed to be just “good” or “excellent” or “outstanding”; it has to be incredible - a well-worked goal, a powerful bit of music, a slightly surprising piece of news. Incredible!

No! Incredible means defying belief, impossible to believe in. Suppose you switch on the television news one evening and hear the news-reader say, “Her Majesty the Queen was observed outside Buckingham Palace at three o’clock this morning dancing a highland jig to the accompaniment of the London Symphony Orchestra with One Direction”, or “Wayne Rooney has announced that he is giving up football in order to train as a ballet dancer” - then, yes, call that “incredible” by all means. But for things just a touch out of the ordinary, just a little bit special, no! Grrr!

Being a little more serious, there are a couple of words in the religious sphere which I wonder may have outlived their usefulness.

One is that word “religion” itself. I have come to detest it, because it conjures up in the minds of many people all sorts of negative images - old fusty buildings, people dressed up in strange outfits, weird forms of worship, incomprehensible language, not to mention hypocrisy and other nasties.

“Oh, you’re religious, aren’t you!” people have sometimes said to me when, perhaps, there’s a biblical clue in the crossword they can’t solve; and I feel like screaming “No! I’m not religious! I just try to follow Jesus.” The word “religion” has become a kind of rag-bag into which anything vaguely “spiritual” can be tossed.

Even more seriously, I sometimes wonder if the very word “Christian” is past its use-by date, especially in the supposedly Christian west.

This was brought home to me very forcibly many years ago in a conversation I had with a woman I had recently met. She was very interesting and open, and a point came when I felt able to inquire, very politely, “May I ask if you are a Christian?” She looked at me with an expression, first, of sheer incomprehension (I think she wondered if she had heard me right), quickly followed by one of affront: “Of course I’m a Christian!” as if I had deliberately insulted her. How dare I suggest otherwise!

I immediately saw where the problem lay.

To me, the question “Are you a Christian?” meant (though, don’t worry, I wouldn’t have put it like this), “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, that he lived a perfect life on earth, that he died an atoning death for our sins, that he rose bodily from the dead, and that he is one day going to return in glory?”

But to her the question meant “Are you a decent human being? Are you honest, kind, law-abiding?” No wonder she took offence.

To be a Christian is far more than to be a civilised human being. Plenty of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics - you name it - are civilised human beings, perhaps more so than many of us Christians. But they are not Christians.

A Roman Catholic theologian many years ago was troubled by his church’s teaching that “outside the church there is no salvation”. So he invented the idea of the “anonymous Christian”, by which he meant the vast numbers of outwardly good people who belong to some other religion or none. All right, they may carry the label of Hindu or Muslim or atheist or whatever; but really, in God’s eyes, they are “Christians”. Which sounded all very tolerant and enlightened.

But unfortunately for him some of these “anonymous Christians” got quite angry: “No, we are not Christians!” they said, “anonymous or otherwise.” They felt they were being patronised. And you can see their point of view.

I can’t imagine myself denying the word Christian; it is a vital part of my identity, and has been for fifty years. But I do sometimes wish we could do without it and all the misunderstandings it gives rise to. The word Luke uses in Acts 11:26 is invariably translated “Christians”, but it could just as easily be translated “Christ’s people” or “followers of Christ”, which is of course what Luke meant.

I don’t suppose my one-man war on “incredible”, “fantastic” or “religious” is likely to be successful. Oh well - at least it gives me something to be grumpy about. And I’m not sure I would really want to say goodbye to “Christian”. But the problem of words that need to die poses to us all the question: How am I seen by others? Merely as a “Christian”? Or truly as a “Christ person”?

Father God, thank you for the privilege of bearing the very name of Christ. Help me, day by day, to live worthy of that “name above all names”. Amen.

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