October 7, 2015

When Language Falls Off the Wall

Well if Humpty Dumpty is right when he tell Alice that words only mean what he wishes them to mean, then the ability of the Christian church to engage meaningfully in public debate using a common understanding of language, could well be about to fall off the wall.  And once off the wall, it may be hard to put it back together again.  How so?  Well, let me explain.

Michael Jensen’s excellent response to the ABC television interviewee who stated after the shooting in Sydney last week of a police civilian employee, that  “We have to empower people in schools, people in mosques, people in churches to be able to see the beginnings of radicalisation” was pithy, funny and prescient. He pointed out that the problem is clearly, and exclusively, a radicalisation within Islam that has no bearing whatsoever to anything that is happening in Christian churches (or synagogues and temples for that matter).

Jensen makes this observation:

…in its rush to look tolerant and even-handed, the liberal commentariat has worked itself into a lather of confusion. It cannot name the thing right in front of its face. The truth is this: in contemporary Australia, it is Islam, and only Islam, that has the problem with radicalisation. Not the Sikhs, not the Jews, not the Buddhists, not the Christians, not the Greenpeace youth group that meets down the road.

And his words were followed, of course,  by a vast underbelly of vicious, sniping comments below the line utilising all of the usual culprits: “crusades”, “fundamentalists”, etc. etc.  We were also warned about not being fooled by Jensen’s smooth exterior (a point I will have to take for granted as I have never met him, though he looks pretty smooth in his Facebook pic, but as we know Photoshop works miracles these days).

Jensen made his point quite humorously, as the following excerpt demonstrates:

But now it is not just all mosques but all churches (no mention of synagogues or temples, note) that have to take care to watch out for “radicalisation”. The hotbed of radicalism that we have to check apparently includes your local Baptist youth group, that Bible study group that meets in the local high school, and the confirmation classes that my Anglican church runs.

Not just humorously, it makes the point clearly.  No amount of below-the-line spitting and snarling from  the ABC brigade – not the actual media station, but the growing number of Anything But Christianity acolytes – dilutes the strength of his position. Jensen is asking for some evidence – any evidence – that radicalisation is happening in churches across Australia.

And will evidence of radicalisation be found in Christian churches in Australia?

You betcha. Just give it time.  Not time for Christians to decide “You know what, I’m jack of this loving Jesus and serving others malarky, it’s time to go get me some guns”. But rather, time for the word “radicalisation” to come to mean something else altogether. Come to mean not simply something else, but the opposite of what it once meant!  Why is this so?  Because this is not just a problem of what the liberal commentariat cannot name, but also a problem of what the liberal commentariat wishes to rename.

That’s where Humpty Dumpty comes in. In speaking with Alice he offers a meaning for a term she uses that is completely at odds with her intent. Here’s part of their conversation in which he explain his theory of language:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.

Put simply, the way the public discourse is being shaped is skewed towards those who are most able to consistently insert their interpretation of what a word means into the public imagination. In other words, those who get to do this will be the masters of language, and hence of meaning.  And when that happens, any attempt at a common, and courteous, public discourse is kaput. 

And that’s exactly why the word “radicalisation” was used so seamlessly to describe what is happening in mosques AND in churches.  Meaning is determined by use – and use is established over time.  This was simply the first nibbling at the edges of meaning, which will, over time grow to be huge chunks of meaning ripped away, to be replaced by the opposite meaning.

Christians have been slow to wake up to this. All along Christian churches were at pains to show to the culture that they were not too conservative.  And all along the culture has been determined to show that the church is not only not too conservative, but rather, in this age of new moralism,  too radical!  And by radical, I mean in terms of the church’s traditional sexual ethics, the church’s understanding of long held traditional perspectives on Christ’s unique role in human salvation etc, etc.  These major theological and ethical perspectives were once labelled conservative and moribund (even as far back as the 80s when I went to uni).  I believe that soon, churches that hold on to these perspectives will be duly punished for doing so, whilst those who cave in and renounce them will be given a cultural biscuit and a seat at the table. The new morality will see to it.

And when I say “give it time” I don’t mean a lot of time. I mean that the process has already begun at a pace that would surprise you.  In my last post I talked about the use of public language and how the gatekeepers of public language are those very liberal commentators Jensen speaks of.   In other words, the word “radicalisation” will come to mean what these gatekeepers wish it to mean, and these will, in time, have political and legal implications.


As I have kept my ear to the ground I can hear the rumblings – distant rumblings to be sure – but rumblings nonetheless, of a language express-train heading down the tracks. And this train has appeared on the horizon already in places such as Victoria, where even today, the Victorian government has refused to allow any religious exemptions when it requires adoption agencies to sign up to anti-discrimination laws to receive funding.  You can read the article here. It’s interesting following the language being used to describe what is happening.

And as in the case of the Tasmanian transgender Greens candidate, Martine Delaney who is taking the Catholic Church to court for publishing and distributing a book to Catholic schools in Tasmania that, surprise, surprise, lays out the Church’s long held case for heterosexual marriage, the law will increasingly line up with the culture.

It seems to me that such laws are like those Chinese finger traps.  Once precedent has been established there is no pulling out – not without creating a mess anyway.  And it’s interesting that in the process Ms Delaney is not averse to pushing language to its outer limits – and beyond – in her argument:

She states  the language used in the booklet, subtitled “Don’t Mess With Marriage” states that “messing with marriage is messing with kids”, and that implied criminal activity.

She opines:

In Australian society ‘messing with kids’ is generally used right across the country as virtually code for sexual abuse or paedophilia. To quietly sort of add that to the booklet to me suggests that there is an attempt to lay some insinuations to make some statements without being honest about what you’re saying.

Notice that? Ms Delaney takes that term “messing with kids” and describes how it used across Australia to mean something else entirely – something bad. The Catholic document at no stage added the word “mess” quietly, it’s their slogan – on the front page! For what it’s worth I think the Catholic Church should have predicted that reaction to the word “mess”, and its use belies a level of cultural naivety at best, and disregard at worst.

The Catholic Church has never been anything but upfront about what it thinks of marriage.  It’s not like it’s been hiding its light under a bushel all these years.  But the document used the words “messing with kids” and that was Ms Delaney’s “in”.

Hence the manner in which Ms Delaney words it implies an underhandedness to the document that is slyly implying a link between same-sex relationships and paedophilia.  Which is clearly not the case, or is it?  Once language is out there, it’s hard to rein in.  It’s like that dog running away from its owner that however hard the owner tries to whistle it back with threats, curses and promises, the dog just keeps getting further away.

So, what does it all mean?  It means that the church, and its social and public advocacy groups, will have to engage in a conversation about conversation, just as much as it will have to engage in a conversation.  It is going to take a level of sophistication from those involved in the debate that is beyond shibboleths, slogans, and platitudes.  It is going to require those with linguistic and legal dexterity to figure out a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

For Christians, language is above all else, theological.  It’s been that way since God spoke things into existence, and they were what he spoke!  With God, unlike fallen humanity, there is no dissonance between the word spoken and what the word achieves.  Sin has corrupted language, just as much – if not even more foundationally – as it has corrupted everything else.  Praise God there is one King’s man – but only one – who can put language back together again: The Word of God himself.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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