On Christianity and Language


“A studio president once asked me if I believed in angels and demons. (My writing partner, Paul Boardman, and I had written them into a script the studio head had just purchased.) Sensing that he was really wanting to know if I was a Christian with an agenda, I said, ‘I think what I believe is irrelevant. What’s important is that people want to believe in spiritual realities.’ He thought for a minute and seemed to decide that he didn’t really care what I believed, just so long as I wasn’t there to proselytize him or the audience. He nodded, the meeting went on and the subject never came up again. I didn’t deny my faith. I simply didn’t answer the question–a little trick I learned from Christ himself.” 
Scott Derrickson, screenwriter, producer, director

I work at Barnes & Noble.  Sometimes in the morning my job is to shelf books that were delivered to the store the night before.  When one of my co-workers has this particular job she makes sure she gets the Christianity/Religion section done before the store opens so that she won’t be there when customers come in.  She doesn’t like the customers who come to that section.  They freak her out.

We often talk about movies and books and other things while working and I haven’t yet been asked point blank if I’m a religious person-slash-Christian-slash-freak.  I’m kind of glad I haven’t, either, because I’m not quite sure how I would respond.  Am I ashamed of being a Christian?  I don’t think so.  My hesitation comes not so much from being embarrassed for being a Christian as from having been told portions of the truth in a Christianese language that has begun not to work for myself and will most assuredly not work for my skeptical co-worker, and I can’t figure out a way to say it.  The goal is not to recycle meaningless words but to articulate this breathtaking reality in fresh language.  John Piper says it this way:


“My responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a teacher in the church is not to preserve and repeat cherished biblical sentences, but to pierce the heart with biblical truth.”

The problem with some fringes of the tradition I’ve come from is that what lies on the uppermost shelf of importance is not the truth but the language, and as a Christian it is my duty to be for what is ultimately real, not a system of beliefs surrounded by a few choice words.

“Nothing is more easily resisted than subcultural religious language. One of our primary responsibilities as artists and Christians is to invent a new language for old ideas. It is impossible for me to successfully talk with people in Hollywood about sin and salvation. Those words are no longer alive for them. Words are socially born and they socially die, and we have killed off much of our Christian language. In popular culture, words like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ have connotations and associative meanings that are so antiquated and negative that it’s impossible to use them effectively. What artists can do is to take the truth of sin, the truth of salvation, the truth of redemption and find new ways of representing them.”  –Derrickson


Words are socially born and they socially die.  When Billy Graham preached around the United States in the 1950’s through 1980’s he used words that people understood – sin, salvation, repent, born-again, etc.  The truth behind those words was true long before Billy came around and it will be around long after he’s gone.  The truth lives.  But the words?  The language?  I think they may have died, at least to the average person in America in 2008.

So, what if my co-worker asks me if I’m a Christian and I don’t answer her directly?  Am I denying Christ?  Or would I be denying a language? 

Maybe being a Christian is more about living in the world in an excellent way than making sure I conform my words to a certain acceptable language.  Maybe my agnostic co-worker is acting more like Christ than I am by working her hardest and treating the other employees with kindness while I lazily anticipate punching out so I can go home and eat, snarling at co-workers in the process.  Maybe what’s most important is living as in-tune with reality as possible, not making sure my doctrines line up correctly, and by “correctly” I mean the way I see things.

Nietzsche is famous for saying “God is dead.”  I agree.  “God” is dead, but the one outside of time who made possible for the tides to come in and go out while pulling the moon in like a kite, yay, who invented the human hand which pontificates on life, philosophy, animals, sex, politics, and even God, is more alive than our language allows us to express.

If I ever do feel guilty it should not be because I failed to recite the right words, but because I’ve been shown what it looks like to live in a way that most lines up with reality and I failed to conform.  Words are secondary and only hint at the truth.

Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human. 
   –NT Wright



  1. Great post brotherman.

    I asked my self the same questions when I worked as a server in Center City Philadelphia and continue to ask myself the same questions working at a community center in West Philly: how do I best reflect Christ to my co-workers?

    Sometimes people hear the word “Christian” and get freaked out because of the associations they have with that term. I completely understand why they would be freaked out because I’m often freaked out by the behavior of some of my brothers and sisters.

    The approach I took is that I did tell my co-workers that I was a Christian, but also made it a point to tell them that I didn’t/don’t agree with many things that go down in the name of Christ and that I don’t agree with the way many Christians go about their lives (i.e. threatening evangelism and telling people they’re going to hell). I then made it a point to work hard, be nice to all my co-workers, ask them about their lives, talk to them about their problems, and show them that I really care.

    Because of this, many of them have said that they never met a Christian like me. After a while they would approach me about questions concerning God, philosophy, morals, and/or ethics. Because I wasn’t a dick like most Christians are, they came to appreciate my opinion.

    I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back, because God is the one who did this through me. I could have never done it on my own. I just wanted to give you an example from my experience of asking myself the same questions.

    Whatever you decide to call yourself, I pray that your co-workers will not see you or your “title,” but, rather, see Jesus.

  2. I think that Derrickson sees his answer to the man’s question as being Christlike. I’m not sure about that. Jesus always confronted people with spiritual reality; leaving them to make a decision. What was accomplished through Derrickson’s encounter? I think he may have succeeded in making himself seem like a nice guy and may have avoided appearing to be another obnoxious Christian, but beyond that what was he accomplishing? I’m not suggesting a right or wrong answer here, but this question is important to consider. Is the call to be a nice guy or are we called to embody spiritual truth through our words and actions?

    The other difficulty is that one cannot live without word. Words are symbols. The Gospel is to be shared both through words and in our living because words are an important part of living. Of course, if the entire world went through one full day of silence, we mnight be astonished at how much peace we would create 🙂

    I’m not arguing that we should not change our language; although I am not so afraid of words like sin or salvation or redemption when they are placed in the context of appropriate Christian living. Jesus and Paul certainly used their own versions of those words/ideas, but it was backed up by their living. Of course, the cross did not ultimately convince many people either. The difficulty is finding a language that communicates these ideas without losing the Biblical truth that exists within them.

    All that said, I like your approach and it is an approach that I have been teaching in my own preaching and trying to model in my own living. Our actions must first give credence to our words.

  3. well said… I couldn’t help thinking about St.Francis’ great words when reading your post… something like:
    “go out and preach the Gospel, and if you really have to, you could even use words”https://thirtythousandpeople.wordpress.com/wp-login.php?action=logout
    Logout »

    We place way too much emphasis on language, when in reality… communication comes through many forms, not least our actions… the love we are expected to display.

  4. Wow, so true, and beautifully written as well. I’ve discovered when I’ve read my stories to non-christians and anti-Christians and ex-Christians, when I speak of my experiences as experiences, not in words … when I talk about the longing for God and finding him in odd places, then people respond to that. You are right, we must do away with words that were socially born and die. People don’t like the word “sin” but they know about brokenness and sorrow and poverty and bigotry. So glad to have found your blog.

  5. You can’t avoid words. Only humans use words to communicate. Language is invaluable and ideas can’t always be explained by action.

    The Word became flesh. But Christ used words to explain. Do you not understand? he asked. They could not understand his actions. So he explained and we have the benefit of the Gospels.

    Don’t knock words. Words are eternal and encapsulate doctrinal truths. God uses words to pierce hearts and judge conscience.

    It is not what you say but how you say it, how you weave the words to create the message and make your point. Sin,judgement, heaven, hell, salvation etc are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

    Without words and language there is no Christianity. In fact without words and language there is no civilization.

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