What Language Do You Speak?

Are you born again? Have you been slain in the Spirit? Have you walked the aisle to receive the baptism of the Saints? Are you washed in the blood, blessed by grace, favored for your labors? Have you testified, been sanctified, and placed a hedge of protection around yourself? Do you covet prayers? Are you blessed with singleness? Do you know folks who are lost, caught up in the world, surrendering to the flesh, or backslidden?

Do you commit the unpardonable sin, as a writer, of (a) talking this way and (b) writing this way?

I spoke at a writers conference in Vancouver, BC the other week, and was fascinated by the makeup of those attending. There were those who believed in God and Christ, some who believed in God, some who believed in neither, and even someone, I was told, who hates God. And yes, this was a Christian writers’ conference. So you can imagine how interested I was to engage folks in conversation. And within an hour, I realized something was missing.

No, not God. He was there, shining out in the people I met and talked with. Yes, even through the one who hates Him. Funny how He can do that. No, what was missing was Christian-ese. Those phrases and words we hear so often in our Christian circles, and that, if I’d said them in this place with these folks, they would have been sure I was speaking in tongues! Oh, wait…not sure they’d know that one, either. <smile>

Seriously, it was fascinating to me listening to the group of writers the many ways they talked about God and faith, all without using the terms that too often pepper the speech of those in churches or Christian circles.

I’ve counseled writers for a lot of years that you don’t have to use explicit or graphic language or scenes to depict evil, darkness, or depravity. You can show the depths of human nature far more effectively by language that’s evocative, not explicit. It’s what is implied and hinted at that hold real power. Think about it. That monster in the close or under your bed was terrifying. You never saw it or heard it, but you knew it was in there and it was awful!

In the same way, when we seek to depict God and Christ and what it is to live an authentic life of faith, we need avoid those pet phrases and words that Christians too often love to use. Write about God, yes. But in terms your readers will connect with and relate to. Be clear, be honest, and please, please flee Christianese. For one thing, too many people won’t understand it. (It’s kind of like when I explained to a nonpublishing friend that the typesetter had to kill the widows and orphans on the page and be sure nothing bled into the gutter. His response: “Who knew publishing was so violent an endeavor.” He had no idea…<grin>) For another, it’s stereotypical and clichéd.

Being a good writer means you paint pictures with your words. So make sure, when you paint the picture of God and Christ and faith, that you do so with words that are emotive and clear and beautiful. Because, my friends, there is nothing more emotive, clear, and beautiful than God. And Christ. And a life of faith.

Do I hear an amen?

21 Responses to What Language Do You Speak?

  1. DIANA HARKNESS June 4, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    I completely avoid “Christianspeak.” Why speak or write words that many of my friends and acquaintances could not fully comprehend? As Karen states, pictures are the best way to communicate, especially when expressing emotion or concepts that are difficult to understand.

  2. Ane Mulligan June 4, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    I’m so glad you wrote this post. I’ve read some books like this and it’s a turn-off to all but perhaps the choir director. I’ve always tried to”plant seeds” of God’s truth in my fiction, but not beat them over the head. The thing is, people let down their guard when they think they’re being entertained. Then, when they least expect it, the words can reach out and touch their heart and change their life.

    IMHO. a book filled with Christianese isn’t entertaining; it’s preaching.

    • Karen Ball June 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Exactly! Thanks, Ane, for these insights.

  3. Dina Sleiman June 4, 2014 at 6:34 am #

    A big amen!!!

  4. Theresa June 4, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    Amen!

  5. Janet Ann Collins June 4, 2014 at 7:07 am #

    Amen. Let it be so.

  6. Donna Nabors June 4, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    Amen!

  7. Pamela S. Black June 4, 2014 at 7:24 am #

    AMEN SISTER! Not sure there’s much to comment, other than YES!

    Great post Karen! :D

  8. Xochi E Dixon June 4, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    Amen! Thanks for challenging us to speak in the language of the people. Jesus spoke in a way that all people could relate to, taking into account the current culture when sharing a parable. The disciples also considered their audience and adjusted their words to reach their audience. As we do our part to spread the gospel, it is wise to remember that God can bring us readers who don’t know Him. Writing in a language that sounds churchy can isolate them instead of inviting them into the kingdom. This post was both refreshing and convicting. I’ll be doing edits focused on eliminating Christianese! Thanks, Karen.

    • Karen Ball June 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

      Good points, Xochi. Thanks!

  9. Rick Barry June 4, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    Your good post reminds of Ron Howard’s 1995 film, Apollo 13. Howard went to great lengths to guarantee historical authenticity for the movie, but he also had to axe tons of aerospace jargon that audiences would never comprehend. By cutting the specialized language, he enabled outsiders to understand and follow the story in all its true emotion. Thanks, Karen!

    • Karen Ball June 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Oh, Rick, I love that example. Perfect!

  10. Ellen Stumbo June 4, 2014 at 7:46 am #

    Let me speak not only as a writer, but as a pastor’s wife: Christianese is not helping us. Christianese quickly becomes a cliche, something we say without thinking about what our words mean, or the message we communicate. Not a fan of Christianese, and so glad someone else is using the term “Christianese” ;)

  11. Jeanne Takenaka June 4, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Amen! I work hard to make sure that I convey God’s truths, but avoid Christian-ese. Most phrases are cliché to begin with. Secondly, using those terms smacks of lazy writing. It’s better to find the way my character would describe the concepts behind the phrases in the way he or she thinks and speaks.

    Great post. And, who knew there were so many Christianspeak phrases?! ;)

    • Karen Ball June 4, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Ellen, as a preacher’s kid and grandkid, I can give a hearty AMEN to your thoughts!
      Jeanne, there are far more phrases than this! Frightening, but true.

  12. Lenore Buth June 4, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    Great summation of Christian-ese, Karen. Those words and phrases have been used so often they’ve become meaningless, a.k.a., babble.

    Hmmm.

  13. Carolyn Curtis June 4, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    A loud amen as I forward this terrific post to my writing and editing colleagues!

  14. Marcia Brinkley June 4, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Thank you for this post! The minute someone starts speaking Christianese to me, in person or in writing, I turn off my attention. I feel like they are trying to prove their superiority and/or special connection to God to the exclusion of others.

  15. Karen Ball June 4, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Lenore and Marcia, thanks for the thoughts, Carolyn, thanks for sharing the post!

    Everyone, thanks for your thoughtful responses.

    Karen

  16. Peter DeHaan June 5, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    I recently submitted an article to a magazine that strongly opposed using these types of Christian terms. I thought I nailed that requirement, so imagine my surprise when I saw the published version with some of these phrases inserted into my piece by the editor.

  17. Lynn Johnston June 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    I agree completely. When I write, I want my readers to have a closer relationship with Christ. That is my purpose. If I can change a life, deepen faith, or offer hope, then my writing is fulfilling its purpose.

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