Culture At Large

Those Words You're Saying, They Don't Mean What You Think They Do

Chris Salzman

Jan has a fantastic post on words and meaning up on her blog, The View From Her. I'm reposting most of it here for discussion's sake, but please jump over there to read the rest and let her know some of your thoughts.

The main gist of her post is looking at the difference between what you think a word means and what the listener actually thinks the word means:

the greatest obstacle between the two schools of thought [Modernism and Post-modernism] is simply language.

Which makes the modernist/apologists crazy. "Words have specific meaning!" That is true, but there is no accounting for all the possible specific meanings with which someone else may hear what you say.

I suspect we've all heard of the advertising mishap in Pepsi's campaign "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation," which translated in Taiwan ended up: "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead." This is happening all the time between generations of believers today. It's as if the Modernists are speaking English and the Post-modernists are speaking Taiwanese.

An emerging church leader may say, "Who cares about doctrine if you don't have a real relationship with someone?" A modernist hears this and says,

"Aha! They don't care about doctrine! They are wrong! Having a warm, fuzzy 'conversation' over a cappuccino won't teach someone about the Atonement! Heresy!" When what the post-modern is saying is, "I can't go up to a complete stranger and bonk them over the head with correct doctrine. I need to establish a relationship first, and earn the right to share my doctrinal beliefs."

This next little bit is the most important part of her argument:

The word "sin" is one of the most divisive words in the heresy battle between the generations. The modernists rail that "sin" only has one meaning, and that the post-moderns don't like it because it makes them uncomfortable. The word "sin" is black and white. It has an absolute meaning in Christian doctrine.
...Except when it doesn't. If the world thinks "Sin" now stands for all the fun things people like to do that used to be forbidden, using that word is just a bad translation of a Pepsi slogan into Taiwanese - like saying, "Jesus died for the good stuff." It fails to convey the correct meaning across cultural divides. Yes, words do still have specific meaning. But it's clear that we have to work harder, ask more questions, actively seek to understand, and define our terms to make sure we really understand what the other person is really saying.

This incongruity between connotation and denotation is what's at stake. If I say the word "sin" to you and you think that means, "Stuff that's fun to do," then we're not communicating.

So, what does this mean for Christians when we talk to people about things that have to do with our faith? Other thoughts?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism