Nomenclature Wars (Skirmishes? Slight Disruptions?)

People sometimes give us a hard time about how Circle of Hope is “picky” about nomenclature. I am not sure we are picky enough. For people constrained to speak the truth in love in a world of lies, words matter.

For instance, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, in her chapter, The Sin of Servanthood [In A Troubling in My Soul] suggests that the word “servant”  should be dropped from our theological vocabulary because it is used for evil purposes, and that other terms should be found to symbolize mutuality and nonhierarchical styles of leadership and community. She thinks the church should stop misusing the image of servanthood as the primary image of faithfulness to Jesus and  instead use the equally biblical image of “discipleship.” She says, “The language of discipleship for women provides the possibility of breaking down traditional exclusivistic understandings of discipleship. Overcoming the sin of servanthood can prepare us for the deliverance that comes through discipleship.”

I think that is the kind of dialogue the church needs to have in order for words to matter. Words do matter. And we don’t want to have the advertisers or dominators own all the definitions. If they do, we will be swept away on their flood of nonsense as they turn language into a means to confuse and direct, while most of us are unwittingly taught to think “whatever.”

Last week we had a decade-overdue chance for some dialogue between some pastors and our bishop (and other leaders) in the Atlantic Conference of the Brethren in Christ. We were struggling to find a way to talk about the unexplained resignation of our bishop and the subsequent reform in the denomination. The powers-that-be in the BIC have been devoted to communication control. It has been pretty much a monologue. The recent public statements about why our bishop resigned said perfectly nothing and left us to come up with our own interpretations based on hearsay and speculation. As we struggled to talk about this disaster, we had the predictable trouble that people who don’t maintain dialogue have – we did not have a mutual nomenclature. Sometimes we were not speaking the same language.

Among the Circle of Hope we have recognized that we need to speak a common language that is not owned by “the world” or even by some generalized theological school. We need to speak the truth in love and have a common meaning for what we are all about and what we do. Like Dr. Grant, we have something of a language of resistance (even in our mission statement) , that looks suspiciously at how the powers use words and which tries to maintain some sense of revolution in what we are doing.

For instance, we won’t call our meeting “services.” Theologically, the word probably refers to Israel’s worship in the temple, and that really does not fit when we are the temple. Moreso, the word doesn’t really have any meaning in normal parlance. So we call our weekly meetings PMs. They are public meetings and they are at night. The lack of general meaning for the term “PM” helps us fill it with our own content.

Likewise, we meet weekly in “cells.” This term can be confusing for people who connect it to terrorist cells or cell phone networks. But we like to be forced to explain ourselves. We are relating, not advertising. We use the term to connect to a biotic image. We are organic units forming organs that form bodies that form a culture.

We won’t call our leaders a “board.” For the sake of relating to the State of Pennsylvania and other governments, we have a corporation and and a way we define a board. But we would never let Penssylvania tell us how to think of ourselves and we are quite sure that the Lord is not interested in conforming to the ideas that make up corporations. We are a Leadership Team.

Likewise, our core team leaders are not “chairpersons,” they are just team leaders. We don’t have special chairs, certainly not thrones, in which a person of special authority sits. Our team leaders catalyze and listen more than they preside or direct.

On the other hand, we are not compelled to make up a bunch of new words when the old words work fine or they are so good we need to fight for their survival. For instance, we haven’t gotten rid of the word “church.” Our four local groups are congregations and they form a network, but the network is one church. We have not lost the word “pastor” even though it implies that he or she is like a person who wrangles sheep. We don’t want anyone to be like a sheep. But the organic, farmer-like sense of the word appeals to us and aptly describes what our pastors are all about. We have also not given up on the word “covenant” even though very few people make them or understand them. We might be able to come up with another description of how we relate to God and one another, but we think this word deserves respect.

I’d say we are in a nomenclature war, but it would have to be a very cold war, since most people don’t know it is being fought (or lost). The philosophers of the age are convinced that all language is socially constructed and that does not include God’s input. In a society in which the Supreme Court can declare a corporation has the free speech rights of an individual the social construction of language is the province of big entities like the government and Exxon. Followers of Jesus (a term with less baggage than “Christians”) have a responsibility to keep the faith in a way that provides an alternative to the domination system. How we describe the alternative helps make it real for people lost in the nonsense.

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8 thoughts on “Nomenclature Wars (Skirmishes? Slight Disruptions?)

  1. “How we describe the alternative helps make it real for people lost in the nonsense.”
    I really like using words like “cell” and “covenant” in ways unexpected to people who are getting to know the lingo. I think it’s difficult for any group to struggle to express who they are as a people, and especially so for us, who are attempting to communicate the God-with-us reality. I agree with the linguistic philosophy that says that even within a language group words are fraught with varying meanings and are attached to so many different experiences that people using words are often prone to misunderstanding each other. The difficulty and complexity of communication is real. We have to trust that the Spirit is in the conversation, too, and is helping us to make sense. Thankfully the Spirit is adept at understanding and redeeming our languages and will go to extraordinary linguistic lengths (e.g. Pentecost) to communicate through the church something that praises God using the innumerable languages and words that are out there. Our listening and speaking isn’t fruitless, we can keep it up and be creative about it.

  2. Erudite I am not – nor a scholar of philosophy. But I am curious about removing the word “servant” from our theological vocabulary. What would that do to our vision of Christ in Philippians 2? What about our call to imitate his attitude of humility and self-sacrifice? Henri Nouwen called this “downward mobility” in his book on The Selfless Way of Christ. It seems the nuances of this nomenclature (servant, servanthood) are hard to replicate with other words.

    I’m guessing I would probably resonate with a lot of Dr. Grant’s work, so I’m left wondering what she would do with the image of Jesus becoming our servant. Should followers of Jesus consider equality something to be grasped? Should we throw out His example of taking the very nature of a servant? Tough questions. Guess I’ll have to read her book. Thanks for the provocation.

    1. She is mainly focused on how the white males running the church for centuries have used the idea of “servant” wrongly (not like Philippians 2!!). They define their “serving” to match their present activity of domination while telling marginalized people, particularly women, to serve them, like Jesus would! In some sense, serving in a way that is not like Jesus and serving it up to a system that oppresses instead of disciples is sin. I have not done her justice, but I do resonsate with her provocative point.

      1. Yeah, I get it. Thanks for shedding more light on this – and for being a white male who embodies the best of Christlike servanthood as well as the spirit of Grant’s critique.

  3. I think I take issue with this characterization…

    “The philosophers of the age are convinced that all language is socially constructed and that does not include God’s input.”

    There is a wide range of debate in the scholarly community, and the dominant (or, possibly vogue) discourse follows Noam Chomsky’s notion of Universal Grammar which relies on an innate biological origin of constructed language. That underlying connectivity would imply, from a religious perspective, a scholarly embrace of “God’s input”. Whether the linguists themselves see divinity in that is a matter of personal interpretation. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the philosophers of the age as being convinced of anything. Grammar impacts meaning on a basic level, the nuances you’re discussing here are very much the product of social constructs and operate at a higher level of meaning than those elements which may be considered permanent or common across language.

    You have acknowledged that that Circle of Hope doesn’t exist on a linguistic island, but rather positions itself linguistically relative to the social orders and hierarchies it seeks to transcend. That’s necessary for proper communication. Just as Greek became the lingua franca of the earliest followers of Jesus, in spite of the discussion being more precisely addressed and transmitted in local Semitic tongues, the modern church needs to embrace socially constructed meanings to engage the world or risk losing meaning. Sometimes that means abandoning linguistic nostalgia for words that were, in the beginning, adopted analogs for words foreign to their audience. Language is transient and requires speakers discussing permanent ideas to constantly re-position and re-triangulate to shed light on monolithic ideas like God and truth and virtue.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: I don’t believe God needs to be injected into the ontological framework of of the language we temporarily use to discuss God and other permanent notions. If only the permanent ideas matter then we should always seek to use the best words available to us and our audience. In the case of Circle of Hope, in Philadelphia, in the year 2012: that is English words which do not reinforce unjust power structures. Next year, outreach might dictate the appropriation of the language of advertising and corporations, who’s to say that describing Jesus’ desire to quench the spiritual thirst of his followers cannot be meaningfully described as Drinkability? I know that sounds awful to us, but if it conveys permanent meaning… who are we to judge?

    Sorry to have written so much. I just thought you made the philosophers of the age seem clustered and limited, and I don’t think that correct discussion of permanent intangibles relies on divine insight from one of those intangibles.

    1. Most erudite reply ever! Thanks. We don’t agree on the needed input of “intangibles” but you have made a very good point. I did cluster the philosophers and they probably don’t agree on how they cluster, should they actually cluster.

  4. Thanks, Rod. I love your insight here. I would add two more points to your succinct post.
    1) I use language intentionally and think about what I’m going to say because I can so easily fall into the trap of not caring and using whatever the world offers me. I want to resist the tide actively and be intentional.
    2) Practically, sometimes words themselves aren’t even culturally accurate. For someone who isn’t churched, the word “service” has nothing to do with worship; as a gearhead, oil change comes to mind! “Meeting,” on the other hand, has something of a universal meaning in our culture. Sometimes the typical words are just bad matches.

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