In Praise of Clear Language

Σύμβολον τῆς Νικαίας     or     τῆς πίστεως
The Symbol of Nicea, Symbol of Faith

One of the dozen or so books I will devour in the coming weeks is titled “Do I Make Myself Clear?”* by Sir Harold Evans, (hard-hitting British journalist who resides in the US and has held leading journalist positions with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and currently editor-at-large for The Week). I commend this book to every English-speaker who wishes to be clear in their written and vocal expressions. We have a clear warrant from scripture for this where Jesus tells us to basically say “Yes” or “No” to things and not insert a lot of words. Words are important. They can commit murder and they can lift up the brokenhearted. 

I see our American language and culture as a victim of marketing gobbledy-gook. First the marketers used words to tell lies. For example, they changed the size description of ordinary laundry detergent from “Small,” “Medium” and “Large” to words more attractive to the consumer such as “Economy,” “Value” and “Giant.” God help us. This process has continued ad nauseum with commercial products, but worse, with politics. I’m not sure who came first in this arms race to the bottom, but here is what George Orwell says in his 1946 polemic Politics and the English Language, about the use of words in politics, “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservative to anarchist—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I have also been “reading the Bible horizontally” as described by Duke University professor, Bart Ehrman. In this process, you read the same story in the four gospels (and Acts where they occur) in the order in which the books of the bible were written, i.e. Mark in 65 AD, Matthew (70 AD), Luke (80 AD), Acts (85 AD) and John (90+ AD). When you do this and ask questions like “When in the bible did Jesus become fully divine?” you will see the steady development of Christian doctrine over the 40 year writing history of the New Testament.

Today, I am concerned with the central tenets of Christian faith, i.e. the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, transubstantiation, the trinity, etc. The fact that nearly every Christian belief that we recite in the creeds every Sunday actually evolves in the Bible itself and then further evolves in the early theological councils of the church. Most people, including many clergy, don’t understand this evolutionary process. As a result, sermons on Trinity Sunday are often a mish mash of unclear thoughts and words because the doctrine of the trinity itself is a complex, nuanced historical product.

I must confess that I have fallen prey to muddled thought in writing and preaching at times. As I contemplate why Evangelical churches seem to grow like weeds while mainline denominations are struggling, I wonder if our theology and our message is just not clear. On the one hand, I fault the evangelicals because much of what they advocate is not really Christian, i.e. biblical infallibility. But one must admit, they are totally clear about what they believe. Evangelical beliefs are simple, focused, shared in the community and easily understood. What we say in the Nicene Creed every Sunday is the exact opposite.

A laudable goal for all of us would be to distill our beliefs into clear, easily shared language that guides our lives in the modern world. When, in 381, the Emperor Constantine presided over the ecumenical councils that produced the Nicene Creed (in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, just a few hours by boat and bus from here), I bet he never dreamed that his political compromise to save the empire would be used as a befuddling theological litmus test for 1600 years.

*Evans, Harold. Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters (pp. 11-12). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


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