Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Mr Andrew Boyd

Our salvation is in and through Jesus Christ.  As we hear our Lord and Savior tell us in the Gospel of John, “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). This Door, however, is not meant to be a secret known only to a select few, but to be shared with the all the nations (cf Mt 24:14). We Christians have the duty to point the way to that door, to be signs illuminating and revealing it.

signsLanguage is the most basic way that we preach the Gospel, and in our ever-changing culture, our language is becoming less effective as it blends more into the noise of trending social media topics, cable-news-led fear-mongering, and interest-group-based truthiness. Words are reduced to characters, conversations reduced to tweets and texts, and eternal truths reduced to sound-bytes.

On the opposite side of the same coin we are seeing increasing complexity and exclusivity within a group’s shared language. New terms are invented in pursuit of efficiency or because of a perceived inadequacy in past expressions, and in the culture where such a phrase exists, the fastest adopters are rewarded.  Society is constantly finding newer “politically correct” labels for people and events. Those in the medical industry have long complained that their dialect is a nonsensical slurry of three-letter acronyms. And the business world is a veritable linguistics factory, constantly churning out new ways of expressing “value-added” over and over again.

Exhausted_man_holding_headAs someone who works in corporate communications, I spend a good part of my day waging an uphill battle against “business speak,” coded phrases that mean little and make everyone feel part of a safe and special club. Phrases like “game-changing” “value-added” and “deferred success” are either lazy place-holders for original thoughts or fancy-sounding euphemisms (“deferred success” means failure). Although these expressions reach new heights in modern business parlance, such terms permeate our culture. One of the worst instances of this deliberate encrypting was the downright Orwellian “Failure to Thrive” diagnosis I once read on a hospital chart.  There is no reason to believe that tweets, texts, sound-bytes, acronyms, or clever amalgamations can  actually help us communicate more effectively. Only more exclusively.Meanwhile, so long as the speaker understands the point of the communication, it doesn’t even matter whether the message was actually received and understood.  I told them exactly what I meant. They just didn’t understand!

We Orthodox Christians fare no better. We have our own terms and our own ideas which, when taken to the extreme, serve to form our own safe and special club. Though most of us are capable of setting these phrases and ideals aside from time to time, it’s discouraging how quickly these themes surface in conversations on our faith.

Typically we share about our faith in five different ways. Each is perfectly understandable, but each one tragically misrepresents or outright ignores the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ. Each is a lost opportunity for sharing the Gospel with another person in our lives, and it is critical that we recognize where (and how easily!) we often go astray.

1. Ooh! It’s sooooooooooo  Pretty.
We love to show off how beautiful our faith is, which is not really a bad thing, but neither is it preaching or missionary activity. Despite one account of St. Vladimir’s conversion (you know the phrase: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”), few in our faith are here because it’s “pretty.” We’re here because of Christ. That’s not always a pretty thing, at least by conventional standards. Christ’s saving work on the Cross is to us the most beautiful Door towards salvation, eternal life, and the loving embrace of the Father.

history_lesson2. “Well you see, back in 1054…” 

Few are the people who want a history lecture, but this is the most common thing I hear when people start to answer any question about their faith. It’s right up there with the dreaded “We’ll we’re like the Catholics but… ( insert your difference du jour:  married Priests, leavened Eucharist. Filioque).” Our faith, our story of salvation did not start in 1054. Neither do we identify ourselves as “like those other people, sort of”. Christ is not a door to Byzantine history or sectarian identity.

3. “Is Outrage!” 

“I’m an Orthodox Christian so I find (x) to be a complete outrage”. In this equation, (x) can stand for anything from a specific social policy or politician, the current tragic situation in the Middle East, the movements of the moon in relation to the Earth (cough, calendars), the fall of Constantinople, really anything. This is a very tragic type of sharing because we use our faith to join the “look at me” culture instead of transforming culture and being in myself a sign pointing towards the Door.

4. “I’m Welsh, so of course I’m Orthodox”

We all know this one too, when we define our faith first by an ethnic culture. By doing that we but boundaries on the preaching of the Gospel that shouldn’t be there and anyone hearing or reading this kind of language is bound to react with “Well, I’m not Welsh, so I guess that’s not for me, those food/dances/music sure do look nice though.” This door reads “Welsh Only”.Blue Doors Locked

5. “Well, my Antiochian archimandrite said I should refocus my nous away from Patristic theologoumena

This is the most pernicious of all the ways we speak about our faith because not only does it rob the Gospel of its catholicity, but it makes us into gnostics. When we use these coded “Orthodox-only” phrases we, knowingly or unknowingly, tell the world that we are smarter and know more than they do, and that anyone who doesn’t know this specially coded language is on the outside. It’s reminds me always of all the questions that the Pharisees and other religious authorities tried to stump Christ with in the Gospels. Witnessing this way doesn’t just remove the sign from the Door, but dismantles it and throws away the instructions for rebuilding it (which in this extended metaphor are those very nice instructions from Ikea in multiple languages with efficient, Swedish pictures.)

These five ways are the most common types of how we speak about faith publicly, in conversation, at coffee hour, in social media, that I have encountered. They may have their value, but mostly they simply give us something to speak about besides Jesus Christ. Challenge yourself the next time you identify as Orthodox in public not to answer with anything but the good news of Jesus Christ. Take the social risk, don’t fall back on history, culture, coded language, outrage or aesthetics.

madisonI feel this challenge every day when I walk up Madison Avenue to my office. Today, will I have a genuine encounter with someone on the street? Will I preach a good word to them in language or action? Will I follow Christ’s example and step outside of social norms and comfortable religious definitions and meet a Samaritan at the well? Or will I do what I do most days, blast Byzantine chant on my iPod and complain under my breath as I push European tourists out of my way.

The choice is mine every morning.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

  1. Diane

    I don’t always get to read all of these articles, but I had to read this one because it covered a subject that drives me crazy, especially within the context of Church! The entrenched insistence on acute political correctness of language has become absurd beyond belief! It assumes general stupidity and weakness and Heaven help you if you utter the pre-politically-correct phrase! (Could I publicly say that I’m a native American? I was born here….but I am not of the race that existed here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.)
    Topping the list of most irritatingly misused words: “challenge”! We don’t have problems any more: We only have “challenges”! All those years ago, I thought my agonizing relationship with high school math was a “problem”….no one told me then that those failing grades were really a “challenge” to see if I could graduate! “The family needs to come up with $30,000 to pay off their debts or they’ll lose their house….it’s a real challenge for them!” Are they playing a game for fun? No – this family is in “crisis” mode, not engaged in an amusing competition! When did we get so “weenie” that we can’t call a problem….a “problem”? In a Kindergarten I substituted in, 5-year olds brought in items for “show and share”….don’t dare say “show & tell”! Apparently, to “tell” has just too forceful a sound!
    It’s been a theory of mine that the Orthodox Church (and others, I’m sure) goes through different “phases”. While Jesus Christ is the same throughout eternity, the people composing the Church can -and do- change radically over time. Some people are “head” people and some are “heart” people. This doesn’t mean that people are completely either one or the other, but lean strongly towards one or the other. Currently, in my opinion, we are experiencing a “head” time. Because we have more converts now than any previous time in the past 75 years, (a good thing!) and when a person converts, they do so largely because they’ve been logically convinced as to the “rightness” of Orthodoxy. (“Head”) A person who comes to Orthodoxy like this is much more likely to understand and use these Greek phrases in discussing the Faith.
    This can really annoy a “heart” person.
    For the majority of “heart” people now in middle age and older, no one ever used words like “logos” or “kenosis” during their formulative Orthodox years. (Unless maybe if you actually were Greek!) So what are these “new” buzz words and who are these people who use them as if they’re common place? A situation of language contributing not to unity, but tension.
    I also bristle at some of the concocted words used in English translations. What exactly is “pre-eternal”? How can there be a time before eternity? “Unoriginate”? If some something is not an original….it’s a copy! Both terms are awkward and meaningless in English…..if they even exist at all! They contribute to the “corporation” tone of the hymns. Is that the type of glory and beauty we want and should offer to our God? It’s not an “internal memorandum” after all! “Without beginning”…would make the point far more clearly and be understood by ALL English speakers.

    Christ didn’t need to use words and phrases that were either foreign or bizarre to His listeners….so why would we?

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  2. Fr. David Rucker

    A good word, Andrew. Thank you for exhorting us to not shy away from proclaiming Christ Himself. Reminds me of the exhortation of E. Stanley Jones, a Protestant missionary in India, who was way ahead of his time. In a little book called “Christ of the Indian Road” he shares his experiences of constantly talking about Christ and not about “Christianity.” He said the people of India were anxious and willing to hear about Christ, but not interested in Christianity as they had heard about it or experienced it with some Christians. It is so simple and yet so easy to forget.

    Reply

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