Language Matters

The words that we use create the categories that we think in. Language is upstream of thought.

Which sounds like a completely crazed thing to say, I imagine, though I’ve touched on the concept before when explaining why we can’t be ‘fixed’ and why ‘family’ is not a helpful term to use for the church, unless you actually are one.

The metaphors that we use are often inspired by the world around us, but they come with an implicit set of assumptions that then create categories for us. Almost as though our metaphors are ploughs that run furrows down the fields of our minds. To think across the furrows is difficult work and can sound bizarre to those who thoughts flow neatly and clearly along them.

This is the principle at play in Orwell’s famous novel 1984. Language is tightly controlled, with the dictionary being reprinted regularly, because the words we do and don’t use surround the edges of our thinking like fences that keep the sheep from straying. It’s a rare sheep who decides to play on the other side of the fence anyway—these madmen are sometimes those who revolutionise the way we approach our lives and thoughts, and sometimes they are just madmen.

Language makes an incredible tool of control, and often unwittingly we let forces we are unaware of control us through its use.

You can see this at play in most of our lives. To take a church example, imagine a church is Complementarian by conviction—which means that they understand the Bible’s witness to be that elders or pastors are, by definition, men—like mine is. Then imagine that they are concerned that their application of true Biblical principles can unjustly prevent women from serving in ways that God would call them to: I think this is common, though plenty of Complementarians would disagree with me.

That church then calls women into a variety of ‘leadership’ positions that are not eldership, depending on their convictions as to where they draw those lines. If they start to use the same terminology to speak of all of these various people, office-bearers or not, perhaps calling them all ‘leaders’ generically, then to begin with their Complementarian convictions will be fine.

Before too long though, calling everyone the same title—using the same metaphors to describe their office or role or job or position—will make this church start to think of themselves as discriminatory. If everyone’s a leader, then why are some of those male leaders making decisions or taking actions or ‘teaching with authority’ (1 Timothy 2) without the other leaders. The slide toward Egalitarianism might be slow, but it’s inevitable, because language has created categories of thought.

What we call things matters.

I care about the example given above—it’s one of the reasons why I like using the word ‘elder’ to describe office-bearing pastors and also think we should have ‘deacons’ (1 Timothy 3)—but I care more about more mundane examples.

We live in a machine age, where demonic powers are keen that we don’t realise we’re flesh-and-blood embodied humans. You see this in the way we use technology, you see it in some of the ways we’ve adopted the psychological revolution, you see it firmly in the fruit of the sexual revolution.

We use machine words to describe ourselves. We call rest recharging, as though we are neat little capitalist consumer units who go home to plug in and regain our batteries until its time to return to the workplace. We are not units, we cannot recharge, and our lives are supposed to work around a pattern of work and rest that has little to do with energy and a lot to do with God and his people.

We like to process our emotions and ideas, but we aren’t factory lines. A certain amount of time won’t allow me to look like a perfectly rational human despite my grief. Death should make us all irrational: it cannot be processed away on a conveyor belt; it can only be defeated by the death of the all-conquering Son.

The psychological ideas behind ‘processing’ aren’t all wrong, but lets say what we mean. If we mean that you’re going to need to take some time to feel this set of events, then let’s say that. If we meant that you’re going to need to carefully think and weigh these ideas, then let’s say that. If we mean both, say that.

I was in a conversation a while when someone asked if we could reset. What they meant was ‘find ways to move forwards rather than rotate around this particular difficult circumstance forever,’ and what they meant was reasonable enough. Except, if we call it resetting then we will be confused when those difficult circumstances come with us on our journey together. They still happened, they still affect us, and pretending that they didn’t is not desirable. I’m not a robot, I can’t reset, I’m not a computer, I can’t restart when I hit a bug. Things happened and I must deal with them.

Over time each of those metaphors will change the way we approach the world. I’ve written a bit in the past on how we’ve essentially forgotten what it is to rest at all. One of the reasons is the language we choose to use.

When we use inhuman words to describe ourselves, we slowly imagine ourselves less human. In time we become less human because our metaphors matter.

In the church, the great Spirit filled vehicle of becoming more human as we become more like Jesus, more like the world that sin made us forget, we should be especially careful to use metaphors which advance our shared humanity.

There will be numerous examples of this, I’m sure, many of which I won’t have noticed myself. Do share them with me on the social media platforms (there’s an example—if we think that’s ‘social’…). Our metaphors matter.

Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

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