Friday, March 09, 2012

Learning Christianese

* I must confess, I began this post as a rant of sorts, but I've restructured it to be more helpful to conversation.
Defining Christianese
Christianese is an in-group jargon used most notably by members of “low” Church denominations—usually Charismatics and Evangelicals. David Martin defines this discourse as “a lens for concentrating a particular angle of vision” (9). Like any in-group language, Christianese developed out of prolonged contact between people who subscribed to similar beliefs. It is characterized by the common usage of certain words, theological terms, and catchphrases. These words and phrases are usually found in standard English but with different meanings; without an understanding of the Bible or evangelical culture, the listener has no context to understand what is being said. For example, a Christianese phrase like, “set me on fire” is a request for God to renew religious passion. However, without an understanding of common Christian metaphor which equates God’s power with fire, this statement could seem like a suicidal request.
You may have heard or seen some Christian slogans in your lifetime.............. They are often created as jpeg images, T-shirts, billboards, or bumper stickers. A common trend has been to alter popular logos and trademarks by changing the wording to reflect a cryptic message referencing God, grace, and the like. Capitalizing on the successes of large corporations—often at the risk of federal trademark infringement, can seem rather dangerous for a small organization such as a church, IMO.

To be fair, Christians aren't the only ones doing this. It's an easy way for small businesses or activist groups to gain attention as well. But Christian culture rips off anything; even if the reference isn't clear or relevant. Paired with using Christianese, it's become an inside joke, really. These become the T-shirts that stay in our closets, only to come out for a church gathering.

Christian slogans are designed objectively to implement the 'Great Reversal' of Jesus—that is, the reconciliation of secular culture. We are infatuated with the way Jesus communicates: the surprising morals of his stories, his unconventional healing ministry, his quick wit when chastising hypocrites. But the difference between hijacking trademarks and the message Jesus' intended is simple: we cannot expect anyone to find truth in a counterfeit.

Counterfeits are imitations of superior value. It's not difficult to see how this method of evangelism is confusing for people. Infringements aside, anything that causes people to question the integrity of the product you're pushing is a sin, regardless of a clever acronym. This transcends the lousy T-shirt; it has ineffectually created an entire culture of apathy.

South Park, S07 E09
The way Christians have infiltrated the music industry has been nothing short of embarrassing. Christianese lyrics carry double meaning or no meaning for most listeners, while maintaining an uncomfortably positive vibe throughout. On iTunes it dominates the Inspirational genre, while blurring the line of what it means to be inspirational. This is clear because of the negative way many talent-privy listeners (Christian and non-Christian) have reacted. When Christian music labels arent infamously employing musicians to play Top 40's cover songs, they're making worship music. This serves a purpose, I concede, but I'm criticizing the tendency to produce songs that celebrate an ideological standard versus honest reality.

The Christian film industry would be the same way, save for its non-existence. Films are expensive to make, so the most prevalent content that any Christian film companies produce is Sunday School curriculum and infomercials. Any feature films that do get produced are revolving around an exasperly overt 'rebirth' plot, thus preaching to the choir, as it were—and include homework. This is just more Sunday School curriculum.

Putting ourselves through self-inflicted persecution that has nothing to do with Jesus' message of grace is a dangerous mistake, which I believe should be taken very seriously.

The goal in multimedia creation should be nothing more than to simply start a dialogue with people who notice. This is done by connecting with them on a level of familiarity, yet subtly (or unsubtly) presenting an ideology to a potential spiritual seeker. Sociologically, it's possibly the most effective way of evangelism, but sadly, it's been poorly executed. Who is your target audience? Will only church-goers understand the obscure Jesus-connection and cultural references? The question is, how do we accomplish this goal without looking like turds?
Knowing you are good at something requires precisely the same skills you need to be good at it, so people who are horrible at something tend to have no idea they are horrible at all.
- John Cleese
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cross-cultural study that tends to focus on American subjects. It concludes that many of them, at least sometimes and under some conditions, have a tendency to inflate their worth.

Why is this important? Most Christian propaganda, paraphernalia and multimedia is produced in America, for starters. Secondly, the companies creating this content are structured so that their strategic focus is largely dictated by non-creatives (John Cleese also talks about this). Thirdly, scripture is misappropriated to reason away communication error.
E.g., this string of arguments:

For I am the Lord, I do not change.
- Malachi 3:6
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
- Hebrews 13:8
"When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself." - Jesus
- John 12:32
So we don't need to worry, because, 
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
- Romans 8:28
Christians can use scripture to excuse their efforts in partnering with God to produce good work. Incidentally, the number of Christians in church communities who possess creative abilities but are disengaged is astronomical. The 'Church collective' is a resource for this very purpose.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men
- Colossians 3:23
With regards to creating meaningful content, I think it is important to recognize the value of communication science. The human mind connects messages on a subliminal level that, if used properly, can communicate positive undertones combined with core values, etc. Of course, this can be manipulated. However, by not paying attention to these subliminal connection being made, you are more than likely sending a confusing, or worse, conflicting message. After all, living in the Information Age, we are doing Christ a disservice by not communicating to the highest level of our ability. Looking at early Christianity, it was evident that communication methodology was carefully considered when sharing the simplest of truths. I think we can especially draw from the parabolic method of Jesus.

Foot Washing (leading by serving)
Workers in the Vineyard (unfair wages)
The Widow's Offering (giving what you don't have)
The Good Samaritan (loving people who hate you)

The list goes on.

Jesus was a revolutionary communicator, who used palatable concepts and universal language. Everything He said challenged the way we live our lives, and did nothing short of flip our world upside down to help us understand how backwards his message was. Above many things, I think what we can take from this as storytellers, artists and designers is one guiding principle: Your theme cannot be more important than how you communicate it. Whether that's a story, a song, or a bumper sticker, if you do not allow yourself time to be creative, and your screening process does not involve test subject criticism, you may not be the right person for the job, and you will never realize that.

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