This video is from a long time ago on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell engage in an epic “debate” on religion.

I think that video does an excellent job capturing the futility of how language and rhetoric are often employed by religious individuals. We developed our own “insiders-lingo” and see the world exclusively in those structures. Little do we ever pause to think that singing a song about the “marvelous blood that washes over me” may sound, from the perspective of an outsider, creepy to say the least.

Language is a foundation for how we, as humans, interact with the world. It is unfortunate then that most of our devotion to coming up with theories and systems of thought neglects the importance of using proper language to express these ideas. After all, our language is more fundamental to our human nature than our ability to create and understand the systems of thought we express. To illustrate this point, Noam Chomsky gives a hypothetical example of a Martian observing human development and maturity:

“However, if this hypothetical Martian were then to observe that every normal human child immediately carries out this creative act (of language) and they all do it in the same way and without any difficulty, whereas it takes centuries of genius to slowly carry out the creative act of going from evidence to a scientific theory, then this Martian would, if he were rational, conclude that the structure of the knowledge that is acquired in the case of language is basically internal to the human mind; whereas the structure of physics is not, in so direct a way, internal to the human mind. Our minds are not constructed so that when we look at the phenomena of the world theoretical physics comes forth, and we write it down and produce it; that’s not the way our minds are constructed.” [1]

Therefore, when discussing philosophical and theological issues, we must first have intelligible, clear, and reasonable language at our foundation.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. We use a style of speaking that is far outdated for contemporary culture. Or even worse, our pastors rely upon a scapegoating rhetoric and blame the liberals and transexuals for all the problems in our country. Perhaps an example will help.

I was once tagged in a Facebook post along with other members of my church. The post contained a video with a man using the problem of evil and suffering to argue against the existence of God. The young man who tagged my church members and me in the post asked how we would respond to such an argument.

One of the members of my church said the question is easy. The only thing the guy in the video needed to do was open up the Bible to Genesis 3 and see that the world was perfect until humans ruined it with sin. Therefore, the problem of evil and suffering is entirely a result of the recent actions of humanity.

There are a couple of things wrong with this response: First, we have empirical proof that such a view of history is not correct. There was death and suffering millions of years before primates ever evolved. And many scholars would not agree with such a literal understand of the ancient “creation-myth” of Genesis (“myth” here is a technical term that refers to something like a parable; it does not mean lie).

Secondly, if one were to use this line of argument against a non-Christian, it would have no affect. The non-Christian is not working with the assumption that everything in the Bible is true or that everything Christianity teaches is true. The man in the video does not believe Adam and Eve ever existed.

I think this is a consideration we often neglect to give credence to. Many of us have grown up our whole lives believing in Christianity, so it can be a tempting assumption to assume others are the same. Furthermore, many individuals who do not regularly attend church still give intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity; they just don’t care about them enough for it to affect their lives. We all know people who claim to be “Christian” but do not live out any of the teachings of Jesus. Too often, we assume that any non-Christian is like this as well. They already know Christianity is true — we might think — but they need to be convinced to live it out. But a lot of times, this is not the case.

Our failure to engage with non-Christian culture and listen to their viewpoints and concerns has crippled our ability to share the Gospel. Instead of being able to meet people where they are, we are talking past them in a foreign, religious language.

Try this experiment next Sunday: when you are listening to your pastor’s sermon, pretend you do not believe in Christianity. How does the sermon sound through the eyes of a skeptic or a non-believer? Do you think the rhetoric employed by your pastor would be at all useful in moving you to change your life? Or is this something more along the lines of Christian self-help book or pep-rally? What would need to change in order to reach a non-believer?

There many areas where Christianity desperately needs reform, and one of those areas is our ability to communicate to non-Christians. We have a moral obligation to change our language.

Note: I am not advocating any significant change in the contents of Christian doctrine. By all means, keep believing in e.g. the ecumenical creeds. But we have to learn to speak in a way that a non-believer can approach.

For those who are not academically inclined or for whom scholastic research is difficult to understand, the least you can do is watch videos/listen to podcasts of William Lane Craig or Ravi Zacharias. Try to observe the language they use and make note of how it is more “neutral” than conventional church-speak. It’s probably best to avoid any church sermons they give. Rather, find a video where they are speaking to a secular audience. Of course, I do not agree with everything they say, but learning from them may be necessary for you to be able to share the Gospel in the contemporary world.

For anyone who is in the ministry or pastorate, you bear a much larger responsibility. You need to study to deep stuff. Read articles on Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, study Karl Barth, study Soren Kierkegaard. Read books and articles by N.T. WrightC. Stephen Evans, Soren Kierkegaard, Emil Brunner, Richard Hays, and the like.

Finally, there are two websites I highly recommend for everyone, regardless of if you are academically inclined or not: Greg Boyd’s website http://reknew.org/, a Christian website “Raven Foundation,” and http://biologos.org/ for questions about faith and science.

I hope this post is helpful. Stay woke, Christianity.


[1] https://chomsky.info/1971xxxx/