Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Learning to Avoid Short-hand

In high school I remember taking a course in short-hand. Beyond that, I don’t remember much. I do recall that short-hand consists of a series of odd squiggles and lines and dots that are supposed to represent different letters and words. Learning to use it was supposed to help us take notes more quickly—though I have no memory whatever of actually using what I was learning in this course. So I guess it wasn’t so helpful at all, except perhaps in keeping my GPA nice and steady.

Thinking about it now, I’m sort of glad that I have long forgotten how to use it. I also don’t have any evidence that I actually took the course, no notes filled with tests and quizzes and assignments on short-hand. And again, I’m glad. If I were to find them now, I’d have no way to read those notes shy of re-acquainting myself with short-hand. The notes would be useless to me and indecipherable to anyone else—unless they happened to be adept at this particularly arcane skill. But, honestly, unless you’re in need of some sort of code language to hide secret messages, why would you want to know how to use short-hand?

It strikes me, though, that in our world people use all kinds of short-hand, even if not of the formal sort that I once learned in high school. Being able to use a form of short-hand is basically about being able to say more with less or at least the same with less. It’s a language, a way of communicating without having to have an abundance of explanation. To that extent, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to make yourself understood with minimal verbiage or by using mutually understood terms and references that get the point the across between parties that already understand the terms and references.

Often organizations and groups and limited networks of people develop forms of short-hand. This is even true in churches. As Christians we use all kinds of terms and references that are a form of short-hand. (Check this post for instances of this—see what number you come up with!) For instance, we will ask a fellow Christian about a third party, “Is he born again?” or “Is she saved?” This is short-hand for asking if the person has placed their trust in God, asked him to forgive their sins and has entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and has confessed him as Lord and Saviour.

As you can easily see, asking if someone is born again or saved is a lot easier than asking if they have placed their trust in God, been forgiven, has entered in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by confessing him as Lord and Saviour! But even in the longer form of the question, there are terms and references that could be considered a form of short-hand, such as “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” What does that mean?

Some of the short-hand in the church is straight out of Scripture and most of it is at least biblically based. It’s a form of quickly summarizing what we believe and what we want to say around people who already have something of a grasp of the in-language. I would never suggest ridding our vocabulary of these terms or our conversation, prayers, sermons, and studies of these references. Especially when it comes to the terms that come right from the Bible, I would argue that we need to retain them. But we do need to realize that as a form of short-hand, using such terms and references thoughtlessly comes with a few difficulties and pitfalls, both for us and for those outside the church.

First, us. One pitfall about such short-hand or in-language is that when using it we often, even in churches, assume we mean the same thing by the same terms. We’ve all heard about the danger involved when we assume something (or at least I assume you have. If not, break down the word into three parts and see what the two parties become who make assumptions in conversation!).

Seriously, this probably happens more than we think. Words carry loads of meaning, even beyond their biblical intention (that is, when they are biblical terms). People bring to the words they use wads of associations and experiences that may or may not be shared with the person they’re talking with over coffee after the church service, colouring the meaning such that, were the persons to carefully define their terms, they would realize that they were not on the same wavelength at all.

I know that certain terms and references some Christians use cause a certain reaction in me, not based on what they might mean by those terms but by what I have come to associate with those terms. One of those, just as an example, is when someone refers to another Christian as anointed, meaning that said individual is specially used or gifted by God to speak or minister in an especially powerful way. Usually the term is used of leaders in the church, pastors or teachers or sometimes people who minister through music.

Now when I hear the term anointed, what it says to me has something of a Pentecostal ring to it. That is, for a preacher to be anointed his preaching, both through content and delivery, has to result in a lot of amens, tears, and even conversions. It suggests to me that the response to the sermon is immediate and emotional and direct. You know as you preach how people are responding to your preaching.

One the flipside, it suggests that preaching that is not like this, not anointed, is somehow inferior preaching. It may have been a good message, but it was not one that moved people. It wasn’t Spirit-filled even if it was Word-filled. Now there may very well be lots of sermons that have great content but perhaps aren’t very inspiring—and don’t result in emotional responses in the congregation—but I wouldn’t limit the power of a particular sermon to this understanding of anointed.

For me to associate all of this with the word anointed may or may not be right. But all I have to hear is the word—“That pastor is anointed!”—and that’s what immediately comes to my mind. And, subsequently, I wonder what such a person would make of my sermons, which hardly ever result in noticeable emotional responses. What does it say of my preaching? In my worst moments, when I hear such language, I question whether I am anointed in any sense of the word!

Another problem amongst Christians when it comes to in-language is that when we become too accustomed to such terms and easy points of reference, we run the risk of not thinking more deeply about what we’re saying, about the words and language we use. If our thinking doesn’t go deeper than the formulaic terms we use, that is a definite problem.

But we don’t only misunderstand and confuse one another with our in-language. We confuse non-believers, people who don’t have the advantage of having some familiarity with our way of using what a friend of mine used to call “Christianese.” People who aren’t believers also bring a bunch of baggage to some of the terms and references we use—just think of what more liberal Americans think when they hear the terms “evangelical” or “born-again Christian.” They hear things, in some cases, that we don’t want them to hear.

For someone to use churchy-talk with a non-Christian is just as problematic as me using academic theological language with other believers. So, for instance, while some might know that soteriology is the study of the Christian doctrine of salvation, many if not most Christians would not—but they don’t really need to since to understand salvation knowing such a specialized academic term is unnecessary.

To that extent, I would not use a word like soteriology in everyday conversation and if I ever did use it in a Bible study or sermon, I would carefully define it so people would understand—never use such language simply to impress people, to let them know that you know what it means even if they don’t. The problem, though, is that we don’t have to use a word like this to confuse or mislead someone outside the faith—just saying so and so is “saved” might be enough. Depending on the person, what we say might be no more decipherable than those short-hand squiggles and lines I learned in high school!

This kind of thing occurs to me when I’m preaching or leading my congregation in prayer—because I can sometimes catch myself using words and phrases that are essentially short-cuts, especially when in the moment no other words or phrases come to mind! So I’m guilty of this too!

But if instead we intentionally steer away from using short-hand in-language or at least become more accustomed to articulating our beliefs using language the person on the street can grasp, not only will we be better communicators to those around us who aren’t Christians but we will also be challenged to think more deliberately about the faith we profess. It does us good also.

We should—once in awhile—stop and think about how we express our faith to those around us. We should consider our words, and understand that our words matter. Because if our goal—or one of our goals—is to proclaim our faith, to communicate it clearly, and articulate it in ways that people can understand, then we should make the effort to ensure that people’s first-hand experience of our faith is not our short-hand.

1 comment:

Janis said...

I can't believe you actually took shorthand... that is too funny! I was looking at (and really, I'm not saying anything whatsoever about your age here, haha!) a shorthand textbook at an antique store and laughing about how this "shorthand" was supposed to make writing notes or dictation easier... it looked like a completely different and infinitely complex language to me! But if you did have the patience and perseverance to learn it, it would make a really cool secret language between friends!