A Week of Christianese: A Q&A With Tim Stewart
J: Tim, thanks for taking some time away from your word hunting to offer a few words of your own. Language continues to fascinate me, in its origins, usage, and change over time. Growing up in Evangelical Christian Culture, I am used to hearing plenty of these sort so of oddities. But I'd have to say, you've introduced me to some doozies. What has been the most bizarre term you’ve found to date? On the bizarre-o-meter, probably the sheer number of variations on "evanjellyfish" (a derogatory nickname for an evangelical) is the winner. When it comes to evangelicals, it seems like believers in America think they're either the greatest thing since sliced bread or else they're the reason that western Christianity is doomed.
J: Personally, Purpling (Also, Making Purple) is my favorite, both for it's awkwardness and the fact that it's trying to bypass direct talk about awkward subjects. While a lot of these seem good for some laughs, have any in themselves helped you understand a concept better?
By their very nature, Christianese terms are usually a mile wide and an inch deep. That is to say, they don't go very far into complex theological topics but they tell you a lot about the many people who do use the term.
I would say that the greatest takeaway I've gotten from studying these various Christianese terms is that even when Christians are using some of these jokey, cheesy, punny words and phrases, they are still very earnest about their faith. People can look at a Christian slang usage and say, "Look, he's using non-serious language, so he must not be serious about his faith either." It's just the opposite really. The more playful a person can be about their language when talking about religion and faith and God, it's almost the more personal and the more profound that person's faith is. I'm sure it's different for every Christian, but it's been a strong lesson to me that I shouldn't measure the quality of a person's faith simply by the sort of language that he or she uses.
J: How has the collection of items affected your own speech and writing?
My ear has become very sensitive to Christianese, either in conversations and sermons or when I read it in books, magazines, and online. I sometimes feel awkward when I'm listening to someone preach and I keep honing in on the Christianese they use, but for the most part I've accepted my hyperawareness of Christian slang as part of the job hazard of being a word researcher. The feeling is similar, I would say, to those folks who have a natural gift of spelling and have fits when they try to read the poorly typed menu at a Chinese restaurant. In my own writing and speaking, I've acquired a strong sense of what is Christianese and what is standard English. I cannot tell you how helpful this is when I'm speaking with non-Christians or writing for a non-Christian or mixed audience. It's my hope that many more Christians will take the time to learn what their most common Christianese words are so that they can turn them off and on as needed to keep their language meaningful and clear.
J: I would agree, I've found these sorts of things more of a hindrance than help to communication. Which makes me wonder how and why these phrases form in the first place?
It's a fascinating area of study. For the most part, Christianese terms are born the same way any popular catchphrase or slogan is born: a person will use a clever phrase and it becomes popular, either gradually over time or in a big explosion of faddishness.
Not all terms catch on, though. There's a somewhat famous American missionary named C. Peter Wagner who has been writing about church-planting and mission work since the 1960s. Earlier this year I was reading his memoirs, Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets and Theologians: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Church: A Memoir, and he has this choice quote about the various Christianese terms he tried to popularize: "I optimistically thought that the names of these diseases, like 'ethnikitis' or 'St. John's syndrome' or 'sociological strangulation' or 'koinonitis' or 'hyponeumia' would become technical terms used throughout the whole church world from then on, but sadly they never did!" We do still use "koinonitis" a little bit, though, so at least one of Mr. Wagner's words did make it into the Christianese dictionary. His other coined words that he mentions in that quote however were never widely used by anyone but himself, and so they probably won't be included in the dictionary.
J: Koinonitis? Does that require antibiotics? What is the most confusing term you've found?
I am constantly getting e-mails and voicemails (and even texts) from friends and contacts who want to tell me about the latest Christianese expression that they just heard someone use. This way I can I keep up on a lot of Christianese terms, both old and new.
Most terms aren't that difficult to track down. I have access to two seminary libraries here in Austin, as well as the mighty power of Google. It's a fairly straightforward matter to find someone somewhere who used the term in a way that I can get a helpful quotation for the dictionary and also provide a definitive definition.
If I had to pick a word that was especially bewildering when I first heard it, that would be "sloppy agape." I'm picking this word because when I first heard about it I was struck by how it's a combination of a fancy Greek word "agape" and a silly crude English word "sloppy." Apparently I'm not the only one who wasn't sure what to do with it. When I completed my research on the word, I discovered that it has three distinct meanings! You can check them all out on the Dictionary of Christianese website.
I'll be wrapping things up tomorrow with some closing thoughts and maybe a suggestion or two. Stay tuned.