Watching my 13-year-old sit on the couch and text-message his pals, I intuitively know that our language—our use of words for communicating with one another—is at risk. Speed has become paramount. Using words accurately or thoughtfully seems about to become extinct.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and anyone who followed the media coverage of that occasion understands all too well that the identity of the civil rights leader is fiercely contested.
New inventions often result in new words, or neologisms. Radar, for instance, emerged as an acronym for a “radio detection and ranging” device. Cultural developments also evoke new words and phrases, such as cyberspace (originating from science fiction), soccer mom (from the world of politics) or prequel (from movies and pop culture).
A few years ago, when I asked the head of Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan to name his top priority for the school’s faculty and curriculum, he said without hesitation: “We need biblical language teachers.”
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, George Dardess, an English teacher in Rochester, New York, watched on television as the U.S. dropped “smart bombs” on Baghdad. He felt anger and self-reproach. He turned to his wife and said, “I am complicit in this war through my ignorance. I don’t even know if I could find Iraq on a map.
The word jargon suggests needlessly obscure words that insiders use to dazzle and confuse outsiders. But if we call the same words “technical vocabulary,” we’re suggesting a precise and established way of speaking that emphasizes accuracy. Christians have lots of words like hermeneutical, ecclesiology and sanctification.
I have a recurring nightmare about the final exam on which my college graduation depends. Thinking I am prepared, I open a blue booklet only to discover that I am being tested in a language I do not know. I try to explain that there has been a terrible mistake, but the proctor is unforgiving. I am sent back to my chair to take a test that I have no hope of understanding, let alone passing.
On the night of June 10, two men from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen fashioned makeshift ropes from knotted bed sheets, then hanged themselves in their Guantánamo Bay prison cells. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the prison, reported the deaths and commented: “They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own.
Two messages arrived on the same day, each one from a talented young adult concerned about how best to use Christian language. One person was concerned about the “large number of people my age who cannot seem to connect with God. I think part of the reason is because the church has a very traditional, peculiar vocabulary.”