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When Chalcedon Meets Hollywood

October 9, 2009 

By: Bradley Shingleton

Bradley Shingleton

Bradley Shingleton

Writing at the threshold of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton noted that “Words are perpetually falling below themselves. They are ceasing to say what they mean, or to mean what they say…”1 Matters are no different today, thanks in large part to the impact of media on literary and cultural life. And perhaps no words have been susceptible to decay in meaning more than religious ones. This seems particularly true of Christian words, for its vocabulary has contended with secularism longer than any other religious tradition’s. As a result, the meanings of many of its words have become more and more muddled and diluted. A little more than fifty years ago, John Burnaby began his book Christian Words and Christian Meanings by asserting that “it is both possible and obligatory for Christians at all times to know and to be ready to say what they mean by the words which have been, perhaps irrevocably, consecrated to Christian use.” Nowadays, it is unclear whether any words are consecrated to such usage, much less irrevocably so. Yet the health of Christian tradition vitally depends on the words it uses.

Why have Christian words been so afflicted by misuse? Is there something inherent in religious language that invites misguided usage? That is surely a daunting question, but two thoughts come to mind. One has to do with how meanings arise, the other with the impact of context on meaning .

Linguists distinguish among different types of meaning. Simply put, one kind of meaning is lexical: it can be found in a dictionary. The definitions it contains indicate the various meanings by listing some (but obviously not all) of a word’s usage. They suggest its grammatical and syntactical behavior (its “grammatical markers”) and its relationships to organizational categories (its “semantic markers”). The most fundamental lexical meanings are referential—the referents are distinct entities, whether hummingbirds or tubas or an idea such as love. Their markers instruct how such words are properly ordered and deployed.

Another kind of meaning is contextual. It derives from, and is dependent upon, the circumstances in which it is used. Contextual meanings suggest there is an irreducible element of contingency in the sense of a word. It allows flexibility in usage, but can also create ambiguity and imprecision across the spectrum of possible meanings.

These two kinds of meaning are not mutually exclusive. Meanings can be, and often are, simultaneously referential and contextual, containing both referents and circumstances in their usage.

Over time, many words undergo shifts in contextual meaning without wholly shedding its earlier connotations. Multiple meanings accrete around such words, giving them facets of meaning that both intersect and diverge. The varieties of meaning that cohabit within the word “love” illustrate this. It is, variably, an emotional state between lovers, good will toward fellow human beings, or a pouring out of oneself for a perfect stranger, and so on. These multiple facets give the word richness and nuance; they create a penumbra of meanings that is present whenever the word is used. At the same time, particular meanings are more at home in some linguistic contexts than others. Each of those contexts is congenial to certain words and certain meanings, and hostile to others. It is usually daring to speak of “love” in a workplace; “truth” has different connotations in a sanctuary than in a courtroom. You might call these contexts verbal enclaves. In the course of a day, each of us passes through a number of linguistic environments, with their distinct frames of usage and meaning. We participate in diverse and contrasting contexts of vocabulary and meaning—some smaller, some larger—during the routine activities of commerce, politics, art, sports, personal relationships and so on. Churches are one of those contexts.

Although a person of faith may especially value the language of the Church (in the sense of the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed), no one speaks only its language. We speak what Robert Louis Wilken calls “languages within language” shaped by the roles and places in which we spend our time.2 (For simplicity’s sake, I will call the realm of activity outside of the Church as, collectively, “Culture”.) We routinely use, in other words, a variety of dialects in which we may speak the same word with differing connotations. Between these “languages within language”, the meanings of the same word may vary to the point of apparent or actual contradiction; a word can become a false cognate of itself, depending on where—the context in which—it is pronounced. Some of the words of Chalcedon may be the same as those of Hollywood, but their meanings are often worlds apart.

When context changes, meaning changes, and this applies to holy words just as to any other words. As many of the Church’s most closely held words have entered into common parlance, they have become transmuted. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the wholesale reversal in meanings of some words over time. This transmutation is usually a subtle and gradual process, as most of what happens to words happens gradually. While meanings evolve, discrepancies can arise that seem contradictory. Some meanings may be left by the wayside like outworn husks. And perhaps the meanings of a word will become so refracted and qualified that it is eviscerated, a shadow of itself. When I encounter the word “justice” in my legal work, its connotations are usually procedural, relating to the technical machinery of our legal system. These are far removed from the “justice” of the Book of Isaiah, for example. During law school I heard of a professor who divided these “languages within language” one from another. When a law student spoke of justice in a biblical sense in a class-room discussion, the professor retorted; “If you want to talk about justice, go over to the Divinity School.”

Certain Christian words have acquired meanings in Culture that diverge from what they meant and mean in the Church. Some of these divergences are complementary; whereas others corrupt the original meaning. Several years ago, there was a burst of national publicity about a death penalty case in California. Much of the debate about it was framed in terms of “redemption”, and concerned the question whether the condemned man was “redeemed” by decades of virtuous behavior, after having been incarcerated for many years for committing several murders. This struck me as strange because, in the Church, redemption is a word I am not used to hearing in connection with what a person may do for oneself. It seemed to me that a vital word was being generalized and psychologized to such an extent that it was doing being forced to do something against its will.

Consider the word “community” as another example. For St. Augustine, a community is a group of persons united by the love of something other than itself. For example, a community of faith has faith in God. In modern, conventional usage—particularly in political discourse—community means a group united by self-interest or by some shared characteristic like race or sexual preference. The word has, religiously speaking, been turned inside out. It has also been flattened by the elimination of its transcendent aspect. Other-directness had been replaced by self-interest. And words such as “spirituality”, “person”, and “faith” have suffered similar evolutions.

Some of what has happened to Christian vocabulary is a result of contemporary impatience with paradox. In common parlance, paradox connotes a conundrum. Since it involves inconsistency, it is problematic and asks to be resolved somehow. Current attitudes are cold to the tension at the heart of many words of faith, preferring to relax the tension by lopping off whatever aspect seems uncongenial to prevailing ruts of thought and manner. But this understanding is far removed from paradox’s root meaning. Literally, paradox means “against common opinion.” Chesterton defines paradox as “truth standing on its head to attract attention.” The essence of paradox is the juxtaposition of seeming contradictions. It implies similarity through dissimilarity, and vice versa. No wonder Culture has little time for it.

If you look up the word “incarnation” in a good dictionary, you will find it has at least two distinct strands of meaning, one theological, the other mundane. The theological meaning is paradoxical in its juxtaposition of incommensurate realities: divine and human. The mundane meaning of the word is simply an embodiment or representation of a thing. This is the meaning most often intended when we come across the word. It may be perfectly acceptable usage, but it is as different from the original, theological meaning as a lightning bug is from a lightning bolt (to borrow one of Twain’s images). If the vocabulary of faith is distinctive, it is partly because it is paradoxical in this original sense: it stands against the agreed wisdom of the day, the common opinion. It must preserve its ancient provenance and resist co-opting by alien assumptions. It must be faithful language.

One could say none of this matters as long as a speaker knows what she means by a word. However, this divorces language and thought from one another and both from a community of faith. It assumes that thinking is a solipsistic affair, and that communication is a one-way street. In fact, thinking is conditioned by its tools, and as the principal tool, language subtly guides the course of thought. The quality of thinking depends on the quality of language.

How can those of the Church reclaim and preserve its words? Even if it were possible, language cannot be controlled. I am not suggesting that the Church owns the words it uses. Nor I am saying that it should be able to dictate how they are to be used. Words are common property. They are ‘democratic possessions’, and recognition of that requires you to have a strong stomach. What I am suggesting is that if people use words for things that matter deeply to them, they should take care of them, respect their historical roots, and not blithely tolerate their use for trivial matters or ends. They should profess them, ‘dictating’ them by speaking them deliberately and knowingly.

In the essay in First Things mentioned above, Professor Wilken urges that the Church be bolder in speaking its own language. Culture, he suggests, contaminates language; he warns against “inculturation”. This makes sense. Nevertheless, the meanings of the Church’s words are commingled with those of Culture, and this all too often leads to confusion and timidity on the part of the Church’s followers. The work of caring for the vocabulary of faith begins with the reclaiming of its often rough and distinctive edges, and by speaking its words deliberately. Whatever else may be necessary, it is essential that the Church regain its prophetic distance from Culture, and that begins with its vocabulary.

Chesterton wrote that words are the only things worth fighting about.3 You could likewise say that a person of faith lives by the words that claim her, and that those words are preserved only by being lived out and spoken to others.
Scripture directs us to hold fast to sound words, especially those of the Church (II Timothy 1:13). The meanings of many of those words are constantly evolving. But—to use a metaphor—the Church’s sacred words have inviolable souls, and to respect those souls is to aim for consistent usage and faithful meaning, for these things give words their form. The Church’s words began with a primordial Word and their meanings are rooted in it. To hold fast to those meanings, to tend them, to pass them on is a weighty deed of fidelity.

Bradley Shingleton is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds degrees from Dickinson College, Harvard Divinity School and Duke Law School.


  1. G.K. Chesterton, “On Maltreating Words,” in Generally Speaking (New York: Dodd Mead & Co. 1929), p. 163.
  2. Robert Louis Wilken, “The Church’s Way of Speaking”, First Things, Aug.-Sept. 2005, pp 27-31.
  3. G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross, (New York: John Lane Co. 1910) p.96.


One Response to “When Chalcedon Meets Hollywood”
  1. Agnieszka Wincewicz says:

    Very insightful analysis of an important (and certainly underestimated) problem. It seems that we should be particularly alert to the increasing misuse and abuse of the Christian vocabulary in the popular language of political marketing. Powerful words like “hope”, “peace” or even “faith” are often instrumentalized by prominent political figures who, by thus addressing people’s emotions and nostalgia rather than actual political problems (let alone the solutions), succeed in inspiring affection in the masses of voters. Ironically enough, through this they win for themselves the attribute of ‘charismatic’, even if a few flowery and meaningless clichés are all they have to offer. Needless to say, this irresponsible manipulation of language further leads to a shallowing of the public debate, which in the long run desensitizes society’s attention to, and understanding of, issues that matter. It proves one of the theses of the article that the quality of thinking depends on the quality of language. The former will continue to deteriorate, unless responsible Christians seriously take care of the latter.

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