Turning discourse into slogans

December 22, 2011

I
recently heard a panel discussion in which the conversation turned to the sorry
state of American political discourse, which too often descends into
sloganeering--assertions about "smaller government," "equal rights," "personal
responsibility" or "liberty," as if that ends the discussion.

One
of the panelists was biblical scholar N.T. Wright, who commented: "Turning
discourse into slogans is a classic postmodern thing to do."

His
point, I take it, is that if each person has access only to his or her own
personal truth and there is no publicly accessible version of truth in which we
all participate--as apologists for postmodernism would contend--then
disagreement can never turn into argument; it can only lead to an exchange of
personal assertions, expressed in convenient slogans.

Wright's
comment on "turning discourse into slogans" illuminates a good bit of our
culture. In a way, however, it is itself a kind of slogan--a catchy way of
making a point. It's not the end of the discussion of postmodernism and its
effects.

Slogans,
in that sense, are useful if they serve to provoke thought and enliven
discussion rather than shut it down.

Think
of Stanley Hauerwas's famous slogan, "The church doesn't have a social ethic;
it is a social ethic." This remark is meant to challenge a particular kind of
ethical reflection, not end an argument. When it does the latter, it ceases to
be useful.

In
a new little book (80 pp.) titled Lutheran Slogans: Uses
and Abuses
,
theologian Robert Jenson defines a slogan as "a placeholder for and pointer to"
a constellation of arguments and propositions. Slogans are necessary, he says,
both for practical reasons (we need shortcuts in arguments) and rhetorical ones
(we need vivid ways of summing up a position). Problems arise when slogans take
on a life of their own and become "untethered from the complex of ideas and
practices which they once evoked."

Jenson
proceeds to examine some classic theological slogans ("justification by faith,"
"sola scriptura," "priesthood of all believers") that have become untethered
and either twisted out of shape or applied in contexts that alter their
meanings.

So
for example, "justification by faith" is often used as a standalone summary of
the Christian message--in which case it can easily be construed as another kind
of work ("So have I really believed?"). The phrase is meant, he says, not as a
summary of the gospel but as a rule about the gospel for preachers, directing
them to construct their message around God's saving work, not human
accomplishments.

Jenson's
book is available from the American
Lutheran Publicity Bureau
.