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.


  1. Hello again Stephen. Another insightful comment, thank you.

    Unqualified though I am to comment on the specifics, I do grasp the significance of your comments (I think :)), at least in part anyway.

    I have felt for a long time that the “Church”, and by my definition the Church being the sum of its peoples, has been silent for far too long. The result of this silence, IMHO, is to encourage a view/acceptance that the “other side” has won the debate.

    Given the opportunities that abound these days for individual Christians to offer support for their convictions they are, sadly, in small numbers compared to vocal secularists.

    One guesses the numbers for each/any, group represented, simply mirror those in the community. This too is worrying, but if practising Christians only make up 5%? of our community, then we can only be a small voice for influence at best, and irrelevant at worst.

    Whilst it may well be better to be silent, than to make foolish/inflammatory public comments, I nonetheless have been disappointed in my wider Christian family for their silence. I had hoped that they might have the courage of their convictions to say something, every little word helps I would think.

    Even close Christians friends, who are in all respects faithful, seemingly do not want to make a public stance. Why this is so troubles me greatly.

    In these days, being a “public” Christian is so very challenging (fearing vitriolic ridicule), and it may explain why so many, pastors and leaders included, are so reluctant to “strike their colours”, so to speak.

    I enjoy you encouraging comments for the very most part, and disagree only occasionally, usually on matters that don’t count for much really. The difficulty for me, and some of my brethren also, is keeping up with your cerebral commentary. 🙂

    Rod G

    1. Hi Rod – thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think you have a point about being silent. I agree with you that we should speak about such things, for me the primary issue is how to speak about them in such a way that they are heard in the manner we intend them to be heard. I do think that channelling public communication on such matters is better left to those who know the nuances of how public media work, so the likes of the Centre for Public Christianity, Freedom for Faith etc. What irks me is when those who think they have something to say, naively assume they will be given a fair hearing and then allow their words to be used against them. I guess I am saying that in this social media age when everyone HAS an opinion, it takes some humility to say “And you know what, I don’t articulate my opinion nearly as well as I could publicly, so i will find ways to support those who do, and can.” I think that in our church settings we should be clear, honest and direct, and train our people to have conversations with friends and family in clear, honest, direct and graceful ways.
      In other words, if you are the kind of person who is able to win the hearts and minds of friends, family, others privately, then maybe you are the person who could do that publicly. But people who come across hard and aggressive to people privately on this matter, are most likely to be like that publicly. And unfortunately, and too often, they are the ones that get airtime in a black/white media world.
      So, yeah, don’t hear me having a go at public proclamation, but simply saying that just because we live in a social media world in which everyone’s thoughts are always public, that that means ours should always be too. I don’t want to throw pearls before swine on this one! But as I said, appreciate your thoughts on it


      1. Thank you for responding Steve.

        Quote “What irks me is when those who think they have something to say, naively assume they will be given a fair hearing and then allow their words to be used against them” Unquote.

        This is me I’m afraid. I also have a failing in that I’ll always be drawn, even from a position of power/right, to continue until I do shoot myself in the foot. One only has to think about the sharp minded lawyers’ capacity to put words in your mouth to consider how easy this can be. Nonetheless, I think Christians should be encouraged to run their colours, even if just a few succinct words. The less said the better, obviously, and leave the real debate to fellows like you. It’s reassuring to know that there is a “voice” out there, I just wish there were more of them. Rod g

  2. Quick factual correction: Dr John Dickson
    is founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. CPX is not “at” Macquarie University. From the web page…”CPX is independent and non-denominational. We are governed by an independent board of directors and registered with ASIC as a company limited by guarantee.”

  3. I think the public perception is moving towards a point where religious = radicalised, in which case it’s easy to link a Muslim shooter with a Christian evangelist: it’s all the same risk!

    1. K & T : that strikes a chord; its what that subtle including of all religions in the radicalised basket, when its only one we’re talking about, is doing. Blurring those lines does start to make an act of evangelism almost a thought crime against some norm of religious tolerance.

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