October 5, 2015

Mind Your (Public) Language

The battle for religious freedom in our western nations will boil down finally to whether or not Christians get any opportunity to help frame the public narrative. How ethical, religious and social matters are framed, what language is used to frame them, and whose voice prevails will be the key.  Language is, above all else theological, because it is the ultimate revelatory tool.   We know this from Genesis, we know it from John’s Gospel, we know it from the book of Hebrews.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning In This Text? was a wonderful antidote to  my post-modern English degree by the way.  All along I had been told that language should be no longer used as a power play, but simply as a play thing.  We were lulled into believing that language could mean anything.

Well we were at university anyway.  Once language grew up, shaved, bought a suit and tie and started working in the liberal establishments, it gave up such childish notions. Once again it became a power play. But things did not revert to the old ways.  There was no way language was going to be given back to the old power structures that had so miserably failed our Western world.  Having been emptied of one meaning, language now had to be refilled with new meaning, ready to renew and recreate a world in another likeness altogether.

I was reminded of this again in comments made on the ABC news24 channel following the terrible shooting at a police station in Sydney on Friday. In that incident a civilian employee was murdered by a 15 year old radicalised Muslim boy, who in turn was shot dead by police.

Now, I have not seen the interview, but there’s a screen shot and a Facebook comment about it by respected Australian Christian historian at Macquarie University and founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity, John Dickson.  He remarks:

Just heard this ABC commentator say, “We have to empower people in schools, people in mosques, people in churches to be able to see the beginnings of radicalisation.”
I don’t know if it was a slip of the tongue or a studied attempt to take the focus off Islam by spreading the risk of homegrown terrorism to the Christian community as well, but it was striking.”

Striking yes. Slip of the tongue, probably not. It seems astonishing that it was not challenged.  Is there really an underlying belief that in light of this incident last week, that churches are also a breeding ground for such radicalisation? That somehow the average sermon in the average Australian church is fomenting a Christian form of jihad among its young people?

The irony is delicious. Here we have been for years, lamenting how so much of Western evangelicalism has been too much like the surrounding culture, giving itself over to “your best life now” prosperity gospel, when all along the problem is that we have not been enough like the culture! When all along we have been running the risk of being radicalised. Utter tosh, unless of course, you’re reading mainstream evangelicalism through the grid of outlying prepper groups in the back blocks of Montana (which if you are a cultural elite who has never darkened the door of the average Australian evangelical church, you probably are).

Where is the evidence to show this radicalisation process is taking place?  More to the point, how did the church move so quickly from being part of the solution to our cultural malaise, to being part of the problem?

Well the answer is, it didn’t move all that quickly, not if you had your ears open at universities in the 70s and 80s.  It’s simply that the mainstream narrative is now being run by those who were in the liberal arts departments during those decades.

What we are seeing here is the maturing, and centring, of fringe university thought and language into mainstream culture.  Things always move like that.  From marginal, elite thought, down into the mainstream.

In this case, the suspicion of all things Western that was locked in the universities has now been released into the secular landscape, and is bearing fruit.  That suspicion is primarily directed – for right or wrong – towards the most successful Western export ever – Christianity (never mind that it’s actually an import).

Universities – which used to pride themselves on radical thinking – produce the cultural elites who see it as their job to shut down radical thinking.  The irony is sweet. Now   anything that threatens liberal cultural hegemony must be reframed in radical language, and seen as the threat it is.

At one level, it’s just a re-run of what the early church experienced. This current language debate has much in common with the experience of the church in the Roman Empire.  Sporadic violence and persecution often erupted against the church due to the fear it posed a threat to the existing social order. How did that occur? Through the social media of the day.  Why tweet when good old social gossip will do the job just as nicely?

Of course, language doesn’t just hold power through what is said, but from where it is said, and how debate is framed. The commentator on the ABC did not need to single out the church as being a hotbed of radicalism that leads to such atrocities, she simply made the church complicit by association, whether there was any evidence of such complicity or not.

And notice how the comment was couched?  “We have to empower..” What a loaded statement that is.  Who is the “we” here, and what does “empower” imply?  The commentator is sharing an assumption with her interlocutor that “we” all know who “we” are who need to do this empowering.  And what a wide semantic field the world “empower” opens up.  Just what process would that take?  For what it’s worth I see that as an unacceptable threat to religious freedom to Christian and Muslim alike.

But how would one, for example, “empower” a church that had decided to take evangelism seriously?  Is proselytising part of what “we” think is radicalisation? Would “we” need to educate the church against this?  Or what about the texts that we use to preach?  Already Christian Unions at universities have to submit their teaching programs to the university in order to maintain their “club” status.

Most Christian unions play it smart. It’s one thing to write down “John 12” to keep the university moral gatekeepers sated. After all, what slightly bored administration officer, charged with maintaining the campus’s anti-discrimination and hate speech regulations, would even bother to find out what an obscure chapter in a book they have never read, actually says?

But what if some eager new Christian union intern wrote up the sermon subject one week like this: “This week’s sermon is based on the words of Jesus: anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  That might ring a few alarms bells among the gatekeepers!

Anyway, events such as these show us above all else, that public language is the key battleground in who gets to decide the cultural narrative.  It’s a sophisticated battleground, and one that Christians have not been taking seriously enough as they counter it.

In my next post I want to explore why the Christian framework has, for the most part, been on the back foot when it comes to countering the public narrative of the past twenty years. I will also offer some suggestions for ways forward that we might take.

Stay tuned.  Comments appreciated.

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