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.
Language 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.
As 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.
2. “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”.
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.
I 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.