My two year old son Zach has just entered that stage where he says a new word or phrase just about every day. It is wonderful to watch, listen, and laugh. The other day he said “Batman” perfectly. I was so excited. I assured my wife (even though I am the world’s biggest superhero fan) that I did not know where he got it from. He just picked it up somewhere—seriously. Tonight at the church while we were eating, he put his blanket over Will’s (my 5 year old) head and said “Where’s Will?” That was awesome. New word every day. No kidding.
I remember when I first started teaching, fresh out of seminary, I was going to really shake things up. No matter where I taught or what I taught, I was determined not to dumb things down. If people did not understand the language of theology, they would just have to learn it. Like playing tennis with someone much better than you, just weather the storm and you will raise to new heights. This did not last long. While I am staying the course, determined not to dumb things down, I now know that I have to be more strategic.
One of the most difficult assignments I have as a teacher of theology is to convince people of the need to be familiar with and engage in theological discourse. People simply are not used to it. In all our ministries, from Parchment and Pen, Theology Unplugged, to The Theological Word of the Day, I am attempting to be intentional in the ways we bring a timid and intellectually insecure culture to a place where true learning can become a reality. I am still learning—a lot.
One of the most difficult things that I have to convince people of today is the need to learn a new language. No, it is not something other than English, but it is a sub-set of technical terminology that exists in Biblical and Theological studies. For the most part, people don’t expect nor (think they) desire to engage in such a learning experience. In church, we are told that people don’t understand this word or that phrase so you have to speak in such a way where all difficulty in comprehension is removed. When speaking about the “atonement,” don’t use that word. Replace it with “What Jesus did on the Cross.” When speaking about “redemption,” change it to “What Jesus accomplished.” When speaking about “predestination,” change the topic all together. No one is ready for that!
On and on I could go. We live in a time when people are “seeker-friendly” to such a degree that unless you dumb things down to the point where everyone can handle the serve, you are going to run them off. In this, we are saying a couple of things: 1) Even though my two year old boy can learn a new phrase in passing everyday, once people get out of college the have exhausted their ability to learn something new. 2) People don’t come to church or lessons to learn new concepts and ideas, but to take what they have already learned and have it restructured and/or be reminded of it. Therefore, we are limited in how we can communicate.
These presuppositions are completely unjustified and unfounded. I have never heard anyone defend this mentality outside of a desire not to offend people with “bid words.” But the problem is when we take this to its logical conclusion. Why stop at adults? Why not bow to the least common denominator. Let’s include Zach. Sometimes my wife brings him into the service and we don’t want to offend him, right? Therefore, let us preach “goo, goo” and “gaa, gaa” with an occasional “Batman” thrown in. That way we are sure not to offend anyone.
Here are reasons why I still use big words:
1. God created big words. Words are the basic building blocks of language. There is a reason why God created language. It was not so that people could communicate through a minimalistic paradigm, but so, as language is understood, concepts and truth can be further communicated.
2. Big words work. Have you ever had an abstract concept in your mind only to find out later that there was word associated with that concept? I have. In fact, I am continually searching for a verbal articulation of what I am thinking. I remember having an epiphany (i.e. a sudden realization) when I learned what the phase “irenic theology” (i.e. taking a peaceful approach to theological matters in order to stimulate learning in a non-threatening environment). I had this concept in my mind as I often thought about how much better I learn when opposing positions are presented in a persuasive yet peaceful manner. I just could not articulate it. But when the word “irenic” was applied to this, I could communicate it more tangibly to myself and others.
3. Big words legitimize. I often say that when you have a theological word or phrase that comes from the Reformers and you can say it in Latin, the concept that the word represents is de facto (i.e. as a matter of fact) true! In reality, there is a grain of truth to this. Not that the concept is true, but that words and phrases are legitimized to some degree because of longevity.
I taught tonight on the problem of evil. Many of the students had never heard of the words or concepts that I was talking about. However, all of them had thought deeply about the subject as evil affects all of us. One concept that I chose to include and not dumb down in wording was “privatio boni.” This word describes the idea popularized by St. Augstine that evil is not a tangible thing, but a privation of righteousness. Like darkness is simply the absence of light, so evil is simply the absence of righteousness. The reason I chose to use this Latin phrase instead of its English translation was because I wanted it to be legitimized in people’s minds. In other words, using the technical term helped people to understand that this was a real concept that did not originate from me. You see this happening from your doctor all the time. For example, what if your doctor was scared that you would be offended by big words and therefore diagnosed your condition as “blood hurt” rather than “Leukemia”? You would not think too much of his or her diagnosis would you? The doctors use big words. They know that when they use the technical terms associated with your ailment, you will understand the accuracy and seriousness of the problem as well as the legitimacy of their diagnosis. This same principle holds true in every area, including theology.
(Ironically, today’s Theological Word of the Day is a word I made up because I have not found a better or more traditional way to communicate the concept.)
When and how to use “big words”
We have all been in situations where the speaker talks way over our head. He does not speak to where we are. This is simply bad teaching. You have to know your audience. However, this is not the same thing as what I am talking about. To use big words does not have to mean that you are speaking over people’s heads.
1. Be wise in what words you choose to use. Of course some people could get up to the pulpit and read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek. This may provide for a more accurate reading of the Scripture, but, unless you are teaching a bunch of seminary professors, you are going run everyone off as you are wasting their time. When you use big words, make sure that you do in a way that is expedient to your audiences learning. In other words, when there is a word that communicates a concept in a particular way, having a rich tradition or a unique nuance to the concept, use it.
2. Don’t use big words to show off. I was at a seminar where J.P. Moreland was speaking. He could have spoken in a philosophical language that would have wowed everyone, causing us all to say “Boy, this guy is really smart . . . but I don’t know what he is saying.” But he did not. He was very strategic in his use of words. However, there was one gentleman who stood up to ask a question which amounted to a very antagonistic challenge to J.P.’s authority of the subject. The questioner used big words to show off how much he knew, it was easy to tell. It was very interesting how J.P. handled it. For a thirty second period, J.P. joined this gentlemen on the turf he had presented, spoke in a very technical language that only the questioner (maybe) could understand, definitively made his case, and the antagonist was silenced. The reason why J.P. did this, I believe, was to answer the challenge and move on. It was for the audience, even though most the audience did not understand what was said. This was to regain his command of the subject in the eyes of the listener, but it was not to show off. We need to very careful and strategic with the way we speak.
3. Always define the words. When you follow the first two, this is not enough. You can’t assume that people will eventually just catch on. It is not like tennis. If the big word or phrase is significant enough for you to use, then make sure you define it every time you use it until people get adjusted. Even though we live in the age of computers and iPhones (sigh . . .), you can’t expect everyone to have a dictionary out and ready.
4. Don’t assume too much (related to the last). This is going to be audience oriented, but one of the biggest perils of teachers and preachers is the assumption of understanding. When I was teaching tonight, I used the word “apologetics.” This is simply a (wonderful) word that means “defending the faith.” I use it so often and in so many ways that I am continually assuming that my audience, no matter where I am, has to be acquainted with this. But this is simply not the case. There may be about half that are, but what about the other half? You will lose this with too many assumptions.
In short, words are a gift from God. We could not communicate without them. They help us to understand, articulate, and believe more deeply and accurately. I thank God for big words. Don’t get offended by people who use them in a stategic way. They are simply being faithful to the Gospel message and, by using them, are pushing you to stretch in your understanding and love of God. Yes, it is like a new language, but it is wonderful and life changing. Besides, we can at least keep up with Zach can’t we?