After Church: Simple Language

Most people do not know how to write well.

Seriously, if George Orwell had written “Politics and the English Language” today, his words wouldn’t deviate much from the original text. Our language contains lots and lots of weasel words and disguised prejudice. It contains many outdated phrases and bizarre metaphor that make no sense.

Let me give you an example of the latter. The phrase “the cat’s out of the bag” doesn’t make sense anymore. It does not refer to a cat being in a bag (and for what reason would that be, anyway?). Rather, it’s an old maritime phrase designed for one specific purpose. The “cat of nine tails”, a whip-like implement used to punish crew who displayed mutinous and/or generally bad behavior, was kept in a bag. Once the “cat’s out of the bag”, someone has to be punished – someone on a ship was responsible for something, right? Whether crashing into the shore, or doing a bad job cleaning a deck, once’s the cat’s out of the bag, it doesn’t go back into the bag unless someone takes responsibility.

Now, in the time that I described and made clear the origin of said metaphor, I could have used a more evocative, clear, and prescient phrase for the particular moment. The specifics of that language isn’t important, but the clarity of the idea IS. Therefore, why bother using an outmoded phrase – especially in a way that doesn’t even reflect the original meaning, nor makes sense for the majority of people?

Orwell refers specifically to politics in the above article. Slippery language allows politicians to gloss over the harsh realities of whatever the current situation is. Platitudes and phrases disguise the real results by emphasizing a LACK of clarity, an ambivalence of MEANING. The language becomes insincere and deceptive, intentionally misleading the listener. Orwell makes this clear in his 1946 context:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

That’s as much a problem for the Church. We have a public relations problem precisely because we’ve let our language get slippery. By molding ourselves after secularism in an effort to appeal, we’ve lost the distinctive moral and spiritual character of the Christian faith as conveyed to ordinary people in ordinary language. What I’m not saying is that all appeals to modern culture should be stopped, but the gimmicks aren’t necessary. We don’t need rock music necessarily, or trendy “Christian” t-shirts, or what have you. Can you really reduce Christianity to a simple “saved from Hell” equation? Is it simply to get more people in the doors? Then you’re doing it wrong. Do we trust in our God or what? Then don’t deceive people into churches with fancy lighting, songs, or whatever. Some aspects of Christianity are bound to offend someone, but nobody said it wouldn’t, did they?

I’d even say Orwell’s language rules apply just as straightforwardly to our talk in churches as it does in politics:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These six general rules could, in fact, dictate the goal of the Church as well. There’s a balance between sacramental language and secular language that hasn’t quite might it to the mainstream. Usually, you get one or the other in entirely too much a quantity, so let’s change that. Even Jesus speaks in plain language; he means what He says. That doesn’t mean people want to understand it, as in John 6:

60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”61 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? 62 What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.”For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. 65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” 66 As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Speak the truth (well, make sure you’re speaking the truth) and God will take care of the rest. Don’t water it down; convey it simply and plainly using real language. If you understand it, you don’t need big words to convey it properly.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.