Verbicide

I might step on some toes here.

I am just as guilty here as the next person, but in C.S. Lewis’ masterful work, Studies in Words, p.7-8, the great Oxford don nails it:

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . . and to end up by being purely evaluative– useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

I see this type of verbicide happening all of the time among Christians, including myself. I will use a word like awesome, simply to say that I like something, which is hardly what awesome meant some thirty years ago, in normal speech. To create a sense of awe, or reverence, about something or someone, is what awesome has typically meant for years. Nowadays, awesome has become almost a throw-away word, used to describe how good that hamburger tasted, that you just ate for lunch.

But among fellow Christians, the problem seems like an epidemic. Some believers insist on the literal interpretation of Scripture, when it is clear that literal merely has an inflationary characteristic, that Lewis identifies back in 1960, when he wrote Studies in Words. It is found in the common colloquialism of “it is literally raining cats and dogs out there!” Surely, no one believes that your neighbor’s siamese cat and yellow labrador just landed on your front lawn. No, it simply means that it is raining really, really, really hard.

Verbicide. We have killed the word literally.

We have turned the word literally into something not literal at all. Or to recall the previous blog post, whereby we discovery that metaphors can become so stable, that they can actually become new words. Just think of the word concrete, which in construction lingo, refers to a mixture of cement and sand, and other materials. But it could also have a metaphorical meaning, abstracted away from its construction context, to mean something that is firm or stable itself….. You know, something concrete.

Then there is that old discussion about inerrancy. For some, inerrancy is an affirmation that Scripture is the Christian’s authority. Why would you submit to something as your authority, if you lack the confidence that it is without error? A humble posture of obedience to the teachings of Scripture is predicated on the assumption that you accept the Bible to be true. This is the reason why inerrancy, which affirms the truthfulness of Scripture, is so important.

However, often inerrancy gets spun around to say, “My interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, and your interpretation is not!” So, two Christians can both hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, but if one Christian does not agree with an interpretation of a particular passage, that another Christian holds to, in good conscience, sometimes they might pull out the charge that the other Christian is denying the inerrancy of the Bible.

Yet what they really are doing is arguing for the inerrancy of their own, particular interpretation of a Bible passage. When thought poorly, in this manner, biblical “inerrancy” has less to do with describing and affirming the authority of Scripture, and more to do with evaluating the acceptability or non-acceptability of someone’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, but when we do stuff like this with words, then the word inerrancy becomes almost useless.

Note, however, I am not saying that inerrancy is not a useful word. I still firmly believe that it is. You can have a correct interpretation of a particular Bible passage, but still refuse to submit to it, if you fail to trust the Bible as God’s True Word. Affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is the first step, but not the last step. We still need to learn how to interpret Scripture correctly. Hopefully, this makes sense and is clear.

So, what I am saying is that when a word like inerrancy gets transformed from Lewis’ descriptive sense; that is, describing the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, as in the classic usage, to Lewis’ more evaluative sense; that is, “your interpretation of the Bible is bad; therefore, you must be denying the inerrancy of the Bible,” then we have pretty much committed verbicide, thus rendering inerrancy as being an ineffective word.

And that is not good. It is not helpful. But that is what we do.

People of the Word can do some crazy things with words.

If you poke around on social media, whether it be following Twitter, reading Facebook posts, or in the worst possible case, that absolute scourge of the online era, reading YouTube video comments…. I find it to be a terribly depressing display of how Christians can commit verbicide, without much reflective thought. Why some people, even followers of Christ, would resort to such incoherent and even vitriolic language you find online, that they would never-ever-ever use in face-to-face to conversation, is simply appalling. But as the era of using social media has now pretty much become the norm, I am now starting to hear to such abusive talk, by the murder of words, ranging from comments given at a Bible study, to everyday face-to-face conversation with another believer…. And much of this we pick up from the world around us, particularly from our social media habits.

If I were the Pope, and we still had one organized church body, I would instigate a ban on all Christians writing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video comments, or at least impose a 24-hour cooling off period, before a Christian types out a response to something they have seen or read online, with threats of immediate excommunication, in order to stop the madness.

If I was smart enough, I would just stop right here….. But please indulge me a few more paragraphs to gripe a bit more about the problem with verbicide….. Otherwise, you can stop now, and enjoy the rest of your day….

Here is a classic example as to why I never simply assume what someone means anymore when they use particular words, particularly when it comes to social media: What grieves me these days is watching what has happened to something like the word gay. In the 1890s, it meant describing someone who was “happy.” Any sexual flavor to the word was simply unknown.

In popular culture, this meaning was preserved even in the opening credits of the 1960s Flintstones cartoon, “we’ll have a gay old time!”

That practice shifted, however, somewhere in my lifetime.

Thirty years ago, and for some of us, still today, gay means to describe the experience of persons, who find themselves with some sort of disposition of being sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. To be gay does not necessarily mean being sexually active, though that is possible. It generally applies to describing someone’s sexual orientation, which may or may not be immutable, but that typically does not change for most people, who think of themselves as gay.

Sure, there are reports that one’s sexual orientation may change over time, but such reports are rarely common. Being gay is more of an internal struggle, as indicating that one’s experience of sexual attraction, is outside of the norm. To be gay, in this sense, is a product of the Fall, but it is not an indication of any particular moral failure, on the part of the person who has this disposition, if they do not act on this disposition, either in thought or deed. To be gay, therefore, only becomes sin when one is tempted to act upon such desire, and succumb to that temptation, either through imaginative lust, or by actually participating in a sexual relationship.

Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the church’s response towards those who say that they are gay has been to try to get them to become heterosexual. But the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. Rather, the goal is holiness.

As a result of this misstep in the church, over time, the language of being gay has evolved for some, to be a type of descriptor of someone’s ontological identity. This shift has become sharply pronounced and accelerated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of merely describing a person’s experience of sexual attraction, the use of the word gay goes deeper than describing personal experience of sexual attraction, as it has come to describe “who I am, as a person,” for someone who thinks of themselves as gay.

A shocking example of this is the same-sex couple in Colorado, who took Jack Phillips, a master cake decorator, to court, for claiming that Phillip’s refusal to endorse a same-sex wedding, using Phillip’s skills as a artist, contrary to Phillip’s evangelical theological beliefs, was actually an attack on who they were as persons. This same-sex couple, and others like them, make the surprising leap that a failure to approve of a particular behavior, by not using socially approved forms of speech, is somehow a violation of someone’s else’s personal identity.

I do not personally know of anyone who consciously thinks of themselves as being gay like this, but clearly I do hear about it. Surely, as contemporary culture continues to raise awareness of “LGBTQ” concerns, the word gay is more and more used, in the media, as indicating a type of social or political identity, implying the active expression of same-sex erotic activity.

My concern is that in response, many Christians then take this word, gay, also in a morally evaluative sense. To be gay, therefore, has no place in God’s divine purposes, even indirect, and therefore not good, in any way, shape, or form. If someone’s experience of same-sex attraction persists, then many Christians believe that there must be something awfully wrong with that person’s faith.

What a shift from the 1890s, the 1960s, or even the 1980s.

So, when a Christian describes themselves as a “single gay Christian,” or a “celibate gay Christian,” they must be careful to define what they mean. But for a growing number of Christians, because of the morally evaluative sense, so prevalently attached to that word, “gay,” any attempt to define what the word means, in any merely descriptive sense, arouses deep suspicion.

Acknowledging the experience of being gay, as a product of the Fall, is insufficient, for some Christians. To the one who holds such deep suspicions, the language of gay must be rejected at every point, for the believing Christian. “Gay” and “celibate” are inherently contradictory, despite any effort at explanation and precise definition.

In other words, we have killed the word “gay.”

As a result, some Christians over the years, have cast aside the wholly negative language of gay, and then, in the most neutral sense possible, as so many of us think, and now speak exclusively of being “same-sex attracted.” In other words, to be same-sex attracted is to have such a disposition, or orientation, towards finding a member of the same sex attractive. This sense of being same-sex attracted can be characterized as allowing for a presentation of a temptation, that could lead to sin, either in thought, as in lust, or in deed, engaging in sexual relations. The same-sex attracted Christian then wrestles with their condition, seeking to resist temptation, that they might not succumb to sin, if they wish to be faithful to the classic teaching of the Scriptures.  Interestingly, the very language Christians use here has become a topic of intense debate, within the evangelical church.

A excellent example of this type of preference of one term, “same-sex attracted” against another similar term, “gay,” to describe the experience of some Christians, who nevertheless hold to the traditional view of marriage, as being exclusively between a man and a woman, can be found in a 2019 resolution among Southern Baptists.

In other words, for Southern Baptists in 2019, it is permissible to “identify” as being “same-sex attracted,” while still affirming celibacy. But it is NOT permissible to “identify” as being “gay,” while still affirming celibacy. Why? Because presumably being “same-sex attracted” carries no morally evaluative stigma with it, whereas “gay” does.

According to C.S. Lewis, this is how we go about murdering words.

But just within the last couple of years, I am seeing that same language of “same-sex attracted” being cast under the same, morally evaluative scrutiny as gay once was. Now even some Christians are calling on others to reject the language of same-sex attracted, as inherently being a damnable sin, by the mere presentation of a Fallen desire.

I am an advocate for ministries, like Celebrate Recovery, where Christian people gather together, and confide with one another that they are “recovering or sober alcoholics,” and the like. Granted, there is a danger here. For it might be misconstrued, that to describe one’s self as a “recovering or sober alcoholicis an unfortunate means of “identifying” with your sin, instead of trusting fully with Christ, as the very center and grounding of one’s identity. All sin is sin, so we should not major on the particularities. Christ and Christ alone is and should be our sole identity. I totally get that.

However, there is also an equally important danger going too far in the other direction. The aversion to using the language of a “recovering or sober alcoholicmight lead one to think that one’s particular experience, wrestling against a particular tendency towards a particular sin, might cause us to downplay the particularities of a person’s struggle. In other words, I am concerned that there might come a day when is it no longer permissible to self-describe oneself as an “alcoholic,” in this manner, because it inherently implies a morally evaluative status.

But this would be wrong-headed. For the best way for an “alcoholic” to make their journey towards recovery, is by finding support among other “recovering alcoholics.” There can be some overlap with “recovering pornography addicts” or “recovering gambling addicts,” but the experiences are nevertheless still different. Someone with a gambling addiction is not always the best person to help someone with an alcohol problem. A recovering alcoholic can only offer limited assistance to someone who suffers from chronic overeating.

I suggest, we should not shy away from talking about the unique aspects of one’s experience with unique sanctification struggles, for fear of “over-identifying” with something apart from Christ. Sadly, I believe that the Southern Baptist 2019 resolution can lead some towards this type of unhealthy shyness.

What makes the 2019 resolution so bizarre is that Celebrate Recovery, with its goal of helping people with their “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” had its genesis in a Southern Baptist church.

Theologically, it is like it is becoming more impossible to carefully distinguish temptation from sin, without collapsing the latter onto the former. It reminds of me of playing tag football as a kid, when my neighbor would move the goalposts, right in the middle of the play. I thought I was getting to the touchdown zone, only to discover that the touchdown zone had moved down the field, another few yards away.

What a frustrating thing it is, to have a conversation with someone, thinking you are talking about the same thing, only to realize that the goalposts have been moved on you, and you discover that you can not even agree on the basic terms of the conversation.

Perhaps it is because I do not watch television any more, on a regular basis, that I notice these things. Perhaps it is due to the way Facebook, and other means of social media exchange, take place in an online world. But it really bothers me to see so many, otherwise earnest Christians falling into these changing patterns of thinking and expression. And, if I am honest, it probably influences me in such subtle ways that I am not even aware of it.

Alas. We as Christians follow the ways of the world without thinking carefully and clearly, just as Lewis observed.

Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: language is changing, and these days, in the era of social media, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. But sadly, Christians can easily get stuck in certain language patterns, without realizing it, that can make effective communication exceedingly difficult.

We live in strange times.

Lord help us.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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