There are times when words stand in the way of meaning. Politicians are adept at saying plenty without actually answering the questions put to them. We are becoming wise to their “speak” and attuned to the phrases which tip us off: “according to the advice I have been given…”, and “quite frankly…” are two that come to mind. How we long for people to say what they mean and mean what they say.
But politicians are not alone. There exists vocabularies of technical languages which give us some understanding while at the same time meaning much more than we can know. It is this knowledge which both sustains different professions and extends their capacities to serve, while keeping the amateurs at a distance.
Different subcultures form according to the same principle. The evolution of slang terms helps gel the particular group and distinguish insiders from outsiders. Knowledge is power, and language is the currency in which knowledge is communicated.
But what happens when the terms themselves become a means of avoidance? People keep the terms alive while avoiding their reality: political accountability… open and honest government… creative new ideas…
The language of faith has been honed over two thousand years. Terms have been used, redefined, reflected upon and repeated. We have heard them ad nauseum in sermons, prayers and conversation amongst christians, but I wonder whether they have been emptied of their meaning?
There are scholars who argue that this was true of the words “Messiah” and “Christ” in the early church. Mark’s gospel attempts to supply meanings related to Jesus’ life and death, rather than a simple affirmation of religious triumph.
So many words of faith are in need of new life today. We often use them apart from the experience they imply: community, faith, knowing God, discipleship… yet our use reinforces the sense of “in” and “out”.
As we enter Holy Week, we will reflect once again on familiar stories and familiar words. For many they are a source of comfort and renewal of faith. But we need to be careful of allowing the words to become a vehicle by which we avoid the responsibility which falls upon all who would follow the way of Jesus today.
Are we a people who merely parrot nice phrases, or something much more profound?
March 13, 2005