Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Second Babel

Can you read this? I can’t.

I agree, in theory. So I read his article twice.

I may as well be trying to read Mandarin.

This seems to be how it is in Christendom these days. I find it increasingly challenging to communicate meaningfully with believers outside of my own immediate circle. Despite the fact that we are, according to the words of scripture, all one in Christ, it’s almost as if we speak different languages.

It’s a challenge any serious believer and lover of the word of God needs to face.

Now I’m not here to chew on Sam Luce. There are too many transparently make-believe Christians doing the whole unhinged ranting thing that one regularly encounters on the ’net (you know, the wolves who deny the Lord’s deity, tear whole chapters out of the Bible and dine on lamb or mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner). Sam Luce doesn’t come across like those guys. I like him.

Sam is a children’s pastor in Utica, New York, probably in his early thirties, with a wholesome-looking wife and more than one child of his own. He seems like a nice man sincerely trying to serve the Lord. He’s active in multiple areas of service, blogs regularly and passionately and appears to be one of those guys who wants to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

But Sam is my designated poster child for a vast modern evangelical Christian community that operates without the necessary tools for effective communication.

Where do I start? I suppose it’s necessary to point out that almost any successful transfer of information from one human to another of any complexity requires a common language.

I Can Has English?

English is the first problem. That’s surely not Sam’s fault: someone else is primarily responsible for his education, whether it was a semi-literate, well-intentioned home-schooling parent or a public system that has horribly, horribly lost its way.

In a six paragraph blog post, I find multiple missing commas that leave Sam’s intended meaning either ambiguous or clearly misrepresented. What does it mean to “step back and love protect and foster”? Are the statements “Kids and youth pastors don’t follow” and “Lead pastors push your kids” supposed to be read as declarations or appeals? I can figure it out from context, of course, but I have to stop and back up to puzzle out Sam’s syntax, which derails the momentum of his argument.

And every moment a reader has to spend consciously re-parsing an author’s grammar instead of meditating on the content of his message is a wasted one; a failure of communication.

Then there are the perplexing logical non sequiturs, like “I think we fail to ask the question no one is asking.”

So do I, Sam. So do I.

And don’t get me started on sentence fragments, like “While both of the statements may be true.” Put this sentence together with the one that follows and it may mean something. On its own, forget it.

Again, I’m not blaming Sam for the way in which his education has failed him. He may well be unaware that this inadequacy threatens to make his writing near-inscrutable, largely because as he hops around the Internet, he inevitably runs into the work of dozens and hundreds of other would-be communicators with exactly the same technical deficiencies. And a writer who has never learned to express himself clearly and succinctly is hardly likely to notice when he fails to fully comprehend what someone else has written.

People still get something out of reading; if they didn’t, they’d stop doing so much of it. But increasingly the message they take away is not what the author intends.

If Sam were one blogging children’s pastor in 1,000 with an inadequate command of English but a heart for the Lord, I wouldn’t even be concerned.

But it’s an epidemic.

The Spellcheck Generation

The spellcheck generation has grown up reading and writing auto-corrected six-syllable words and then misemploying them with hapless regularity. It’s university-level vocabulary in the hands of a six-year old.

How does one even begin to address the issue of multiple generations of quasi-literacy? Will this incomprehensibility/incomprehension problem compound itself in our children? That very much depends on who they learn from, but I suspect things will get worse before they get better. I don’t think Christians are going to get a whole lot of say in the future content of North American formal education.

When we speak to one another in person, communication failures are so much more easily addressed. Nobody notices sentence fragments in conversation. There are no typos, though there may be an occasional malapropism. And if you inadvertently blurt out something that makes no sense, you tend to notice the baffled looks on your audience’s faces and quickly rephrase. Problem solved.

But anyone can write gobbledygook indefinitely without ever becoming aware that much of their intended meaning remains untransmitted.

I do know this: even a semi-literate proofreading friend will catch things I miss in my own writing. If you discover you are having difficulty communicating, get someone else to read your writing over for you, if only to tell you where they have to slow down to figure out what you are trying to say.

I have also noticed that those attentive Christians who make it a daily habit to read, meditate on, and memorize their Bibles pick up a few communication tricks in the process, including a more intelligible use of the English language.

I Can Has Churchian?

I’m a patient reader. I can struggle through syntactical chaos. Sam’s biggest problem is not his English, it’s his Churchian.

What else can we call it? It’s certainly not the vocabulary of New Testament Christianity.

The spiritual buzzwords come at you so hard and fast that they trip all over themselves: “kids ministry community”, “youth pastors”, “ministry culture”, “pioneers in kids ministry”, “lead pastors”, “kids pastors leaving or being fired”, all tossed off as if they are perfectly commonplace.

To Sam, evidently they are.

Whether or not terms like “ministry culture” have a recognized meaning within evangelical North American megachurches, they communicate little or nothing outside those circles. And to be fair, it may not be to Sam Luce’s intended purpose to write for Christians in other circumstances or cultures, and that’s perfectly fine. But a term as content-free and foreign to the New Testament as “ministry culture” probably means as little within the modern North American evangelical context as it does outside.

What is a “kids ministry community” exactly? I’m guessing it means something, but nothing I’m interested in knowing about. I would be fine with “people who teach kids what the Bible teaches”, if that actually described what goes on in the “kids ministry community”.

I suspect it does not. Sam writes about “pioneers in kids ministry” in modern Australia when context tells us he actually means millennial American seminary graduates paid to entertain young people with Internet-age curriculum and strategies. (The real “pioneers in kids ministry” were Robert Raikes and his ilk, who instituted Sunday schools to give children a day off from the factories of eighteenth century Gloucester, England.) Sam was surprised to find out that “the whole of kids ministry in Australia is largely done by volunteers and part-time kids and youth pastors who were raised in the church they are serving”. Just like in the rest of the world — minus the “youth pastors”.

That’s certainly a different “ministry culture”.

Despite the proliferation of bafflegab, I think what Sam is trying to say is that discipleship is a good thing. Like, you know, older Christians teaching younger Christians to do what we do.

Which is a very good point, one made best by the apostle Paul to Timothy:
“… what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
It might have been useful to just say that.

Jargon that is foreign to scripture makes its author’s intended meaning impenetrable, leaving us in need of some sort of perpetually-updated Christian Dictionary to even engage in a dialogue with fellow believers.

It almost seems that the various subgroups and fellowships within evangelicalism have reached the point where, like the confused laborers on the plain of Shinar, they must throw down their tools, give up the notion of pursuing any goals in common, and wander off in search of those with whom they share a language.

Which is a shame. I don’t think Sam Luce is a bad guy. But working alongside somebody like Sam would require one or both of us to undergo a comprehensive reeducation program.

Or we could all just stick to the language of scripture.

1 comment :

  1. Good thoughts, Tom.

    The great (non-Christian) writer George Orwell said that there were two dangers in using jargon and inscrutable phrases -- firstly, the danger of lying to others in ways they could not detect, and secondly, of lying to yourself. By couching your statements in gobbledegook, you may hide even from yourself that the thing you are advocating is actually irrational, foolish, dangerous or immoral. Orwell added that resorting to stock phrases (like "ministry culture" or "pioneers in kids' ministry") is the quickest way to fool yourself.

    There is an honesty and sincerity in plain speech that is absent when the purpose is propaganda. But I think you're right to discern that today's poor writers are not propagandists per se, but rather those raised on the belief that "expression" is what writing is all about -- that if they (think they) understand what they mean, it is really the reader's obligation to interpret them as they intended, or the fault is on the reader's side for being insensitive to the "expression" being 'put out there.' That is, of course, absurd, illogical and utterly selfish. For when we take no care to make ourselves comprehensible, then we need not be shocked when we are misunderstood.

    In telling people the good news of God's love, we must be especially careful to speak clearly. In that situation above all, the enemy seeks to choke off truth with stock phrases.