28 May 2009

No, It Isn't Ironic

I'm going to step away from writing to the Church. At least for one blog. (Notice i didn't say writing a Christian blog; that's a hint at what i'll tackle next week.)

Instead, i'm going to take on a word that many people use, but a select few know it well enough to use it correctly. Dave Eggers even goes to town on this word, saying how much he hates it because of its rampant disuse, and i have to agree with him, mostly. I don't hate the word, but it does grate me that it's so misused and overused.

The word in question is 'ironic.'

Irony is a very fickle thing. It doesn't pop its head up all that often, and when it does, it's a subtle thing. The purpose of irony is to show two things out of sync in such a way that it is funny. That is to say, one thing will come to pass in a way that is entirely contrary to how it should. A good example is one i ran into with my girlfriend, Briana. I was writing her a letter, and in the process i misspelled the word 'perfect.'

That's not ironic. What was ironic was that it was the only word in the letter than i messed up and had to scratch out and rewrite.

If that had happened to any other word, say, 'misspelled,' it would not have been ironic. Even if it was a misspelled 'misspelled;' that would have just been appropriate, but never ironic.

Let's take a look at Alanis Morissette's 'Isn't It Ironic.' It's an assortment of the many misuses of the word.

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day (That's just bad timing.)
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay (Gross, but not ironic.)
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late (Perfect example of bad timing, but not ironic.)
And isn't it ironic... don't you think

It's like rain on your wedding day (Bad Luck)
It's a free ride when you've already paid (Close, but not quite)
It's the good advice that you just didn't take (Poor choice, not ironic)
Who would've thought... it figures

Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
"Well isn't this nice..." (Not ironic. Just bad luck.)
And isn't it ironic... don't you think



A traffic jam when you're already late (More bad luck)
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break (Just a poor choice of location)
It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife (This is the closest we get, but still not there)
It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife (Unfortunate, but unfortunately not ironic)
And isn't it ironic...don't you think
A little too ironic...and, yeah, I really do think...

It may sound like i'm whining over semantics, but what it comes down to is the fact that the word 'irony' has a very specific meaning. When it is not used for that meaning, when it is tossed around and treated with disrespect, it grows weak. Irony is one of the deep humors, one of those things that when it appears can be both poignant and laughable. When we call something else by the name of Irony, it taints Irony's good name.

Help me bring back irony's usefulness by refusing to use it unless you know for certain it truly is ironic. Besides, you never know when there will be a Dave Eggers in the crowd who will tear you to pieces for using it wrong. Ahem, i mean, using it incorrectly.

20 May 2009


First, an apology. If the last post was too harsh in demeanor or tone, i'm sorry. I did not mean for it to be. As a member of the Church, it makes me sad to see us less than effective, only because we have failed to grow in our language. Just as a young child grows in language and moves from 'Da' to 'Daddy' to 'Dad,' so we should as we grow in our faith. As well, the Church as a collective should grow in language as we grow collectively. Even if we are 2000 years old, we can still grow, we still have things to learn. So our language should grow and expand with us.

But i don't see that happening. Instead, i see our language digging itself in, making a home in a place that was never intended to be permanent.

The ideas and thoughts we hold inside that are bursting with creativity and excitement and potential are wasted on language that can convey none of that. Everything starts to sound the same. What is new and growing gains the appearance of the old and wasted.

So if i sounded despondent or angry in the last blog, i apologize. It upsets me that we have come to this place of stagnation through language.

It's not just based on one phrase from the book of Job, either. That is just one example of a wider phenomenon. As any culture, or sub-culture, does, Christianity has its own sub-language. It's an inevitability that any culture will create words and phrases that have idiosyncratic meanings. Ask a gamer and a biologist what 'spawn' means, they will each answer according to the culture they are part of. The gamer will tell you it's being 'reborn' in a game, after you have died. You spawn at your last save point, or at a spawn point. The biologist will say it's about reproduction, particularly in large numbers.

Same word, different meanings, both centered around the culture of the individual. In the same sort of way, Christianity has gathered around itself idiosyncratic phrases and words that have different, or no, meaning outside of its borders.

It's a language i call Christianese, and we speak it subconsciously and freely among our own.

If we were to read as literal the phrases 'accept Jesus into your heart,' 'moved by the Spirit,' 'called,' 'walk with the Lord,' or 'placed on my heart,' we would find meanings that are far different from their use within Christianity.

I am not saying that all of these phrases are empty and worthless. There is some value to them, which is why they are in existence. Nothing exists that is useless. Yet, their value has dropped significantly since their inception because of their overuse.

To be 'called by God' is supposed to give this image of God waiting for you to follow after him. He has called after you, like a man calls after his son who has fallen behind on the trail. So God is waiting for you to join him someplace else. What it has turned into is the idea that God has taken specific interest in our lives. It's not that he doesn't love you too, but he called me specifically into this, so i have a special task or ministry or job that needs done. But this only applies to Christian ministry. You don't feel a calling into custodial management. You aren't called to be a starving artist. God doesn't call people to take out the trash every Thursday night.

See how ridiculous this can get? Even the beginning of that last sentence sounds funny. 'God doesn't call people....' Or its reverse, 'God calls people....' We are called by God? What's his number?

The problem i have with Christianese is how limiting it is. We cannot effectively explain our faith in the language of Christianese because we then have to explain the language we use to explain our faith. Language should open you up, allow you to explain what your thoughts are. If the language you are using needs to be explained to be understood, it is not doing the job it was made for. It fails.

12 May 2009

Church Language

I have a confession to make: one of the main reasons i started this blog was for the Church.

As a follower of God, and a member of this group called The Church that seeks to join together in seeking his Kingdom on earth, i find it disconcerting how much dead language thrives within the Church.

It is my belief that the Church should not be sequestered away from the rest of the world, sending emissaries to do the work of God, but not being active itself. The church should be getting its hands dirty, up to the elbows, working out the Kingdom in the world around.

More and more, the Church is doing so, except in the area of language.

The longer i'm involved in the Church, the more i run across language that has lost most, if not all, of its meaning, yet is still in regular use by the Church. The Church still uses language that has lost its heft, that no longer has weight. We tell people we believe in the one Truth, the true Love, and the great Redemption, then we give them empty language to talk about these things.

It's like the man who told his friend how special and important his computer was. He tells him how much work he can do on it, how necessary it is to his life, how much it has become part of his day-to-day activities. Then when he passes it over to his friend to see for himself, his friend discovers the computer that can seemingly do so much can no longer perform the basic tasks it once could. The hard drive is full. The processor has slowed down. The internet is dial-up. Even the fan is broken. The computer is simply overused.

That's not a condemnation against the computer for failing to live up to what it should be able to perform. It once could. But through simple use, the law of entropy is pushed into motion. Things fall apart. What once could speed you through a game of checkers in less than a minute takes longer than that to open a single web browser. Things fall apart as time moves on and they are used. That applies just as well to language in a kind of linguistic entropy.

If God is the center of life and regeneration and rejuvenation, then the Church should also be part of that. As such, our language should reflect our beliefs. Our language, the language we use to describe Life, should also be alive and full.

One of the great things about the Bible is how old the text is, even while retaining its relevance. The way it tears into the soul to reveal what it underneath transcends any era. The images used by the prophets and poets still hold their weight.

But there are sections that we have drained the use out of, in terms of imagery. Looking at age, not chronology, Job is the oldest book of the Bible. It was written before any others. Therefore, when the writer tells us Satan said that God had put 'a hedge around [Job] and his household,' it is one of the oldest phrases in Christianity (as well as Judaism).

So why does it persist today? It is not unusual to be praying over a friend who is about to take a journey, or a family going through hard times, and hear someone asking God to 'put a hedge of protection' around them. I understand the sentiment, but i think we, as the church, should retire this phrase. Or at least update it. We have things better than hedges now: they are called fences, or walls, even.

The idea that 'hedge of protection' represents--that of God's protection and safety during difficult or trying times--is a great one, but there are many other ways to say it. We shouldn't use the phrase, any phrase, just because it is a part of Scripture. Rather, we should use a phrase, any phrase, no matter it's origin, based on how it conveys the idea we want to express and how well it expresses it. A phrase older than Moses himself has lost much through linguistic entropy.

From here on, i will mostly be talking to the Church. There will be times when i switch back to something more universal, or even when what i talk about concerning the church is applicable elsewhere. But, for the most part, i want to see a change happen within the Church and how we use language. May it better reflect the life we have come to know by also being filled with life.

05 May 2009

Beauty and Truth

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

-John Keats

There is a church i pass quite frequently in my weekly travels. You see, it's along the route that i take when i travel south, to Elk Grove. If nothing else, i will pass it when i go to work and when i go to church. This church is one of those churches that are peppered across the country, the kind with the lighted sign out front with the weekly sayings. You know the ones. 'Eternity is a long time to be wrong.' 'Without Jesus, there would be hell to pay.' 'God answers knee-mail.'

I don't like these signs.

Their purpose is to at least get people thinking about God and at most come to church on Sundays and start following Christ. The three i wrote above came from the site One-Liners for Reaching the Lost. In all honesty, i have no clue how those are reaching people who don't know God. If i wasn't already a follower of God, a simple sign wouldn't pull me in or deter me from my way of life.

If i were the sign-guy, the one who recreates the sign each week, i wouldn't try to think up something catchy or something that rhymes. I would put up something simple each week, something like 'The Word became skin and bones to live a life alongside us,' or even 'On behalf of Christians worldwide: We're sorry.'

Instead, the sign outside the church i pass tends toward catchy or rhyming sentences. Last week's said, 'In prayer you lie to God if you don't rely on God.'

I have a problem with this. I also have a problem with the way we perceive language as well that ties in with this bad theology.

I call it bad theology because it tell us that every prayer must be the prayed with trust and reliance on God. Forget those prayers when you question God. Forget about the prayer on the cross when Jesus cries out 'My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?' I think the most honest prayer we can pray is the one that ends in a question mark. I also believe that my God is big enough to handle any of the crap i hold against him.

A couple years ago, i saw a video of a man wearing boxing gloves and shorts, getting into an argument with God as he boxed a sequoia. Every time he took a swipe at the tree, he'd yell at God for something. His doubt and his anger was his fuel, but eventually all of those burned up and he was left panting on the ground, squeaking out 'You win. You win.'

This is honesty. This is prayer. It's not that the only prayer worth praying is the one that relies on God; the only prayer worth praying is the honest prayer. If you don't rely on God, pray that. It's better than 10 insincere prayers that are reliant.

This small rant has a place in this blog about language. This is where my rant and language collide.

Most people acknowledge that OJ Simpson most likely was the murderer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, even though the jury decided in his favor. (The civil court did not look as kindly upon him, deciding against him.) During the trial, back in the 90s, one of the defense attorneys, Johnny Cochran, famously said 'If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.' He said it multiple times during the closing arguments. 'If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.'

I won't argue that this rhyme is the reason that Simpson got off. All i can argue is that when something is said or written in a catchy manner, a rhyme for example, people tend to listen closer and more quickly believe it to be true. If that weren't the case, Cochran wouldn't have used the rhyme to argue his case, pastors wouldn't start every point in their sermon with the letter 'J', and signs like the one i pass every week wouldn't work so hard to sound catchy.

You might say it simply makes things easier to remember if it has a certain poetry to it (rhyme, alliteration, etc.), and that's true. Yet, with how our memories work, the more we hear something, or remember something, the more likely we are to believe it as true. So the catchier something is, the more weight it carries on the truth scale.

We have degraded our language to a point that anything reasonable sounding that rhymes or alliterates holds a nugget of truth, no matter the actual merit of what's behind the words. We have forgotten to examine what is said under the microscope Truth and instead examined what is said under the lens of what is Beautiful, thinking them to be one and the same. They intersect, but they are not the same.

Truth is often ugly, that is why it is called 'brutal honesty.' What is beautiful and smooth sounding is not always true. Remember that, even if it doesn't rhyme.

Truth is a bitter friend.
-Nickel Creek

02 May 2009

New York Times Article

Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus

The above is an article on the group ecoAmerica and their efforts to change the way environmentalism and global warming are talked about. It talks about some of the same things i've talked about here, but it also carries with it the idea that using different words to describe the same ideas (saying 'climate change' instead of 'global warming') is misleading and manipulative.

What are your thoughts on this? Would changing the words we use when we talk about global warming do anything meaningful? Would it get around people's preconceptions so we can arrive at an honest discussion?