Every successful public speaker, songwriter, or politician knows that the definition of a word is rarely as important as it’s connotations.
So if I say “restructuring,” the oxford definition of that word is unlikely to excite much of an emotional response in you. But if you or someone you love has recently been laid off from a job, you may find yourself emotionally lashing out at this term with a fury that would otherwise seem uncalled for.
Connotations are not the things that a word directly points to but are rather all those other images loosely floating around that word’s gravitational field. They’re the interactions and experiences that
suddenly pop into memory whenever that word is used. Connotations have less to do with a word’s meaning and more to do with one’s personal history with it. They’re the flavor that a word leaves in one’s mouth.
What kind of connotations pop into your head when you hear the word “Christian?” I can’t blame you if your images and experiences of that word aren’t altogether positive. Neither are mine. I’d be about the last to argue that Christianity’s PR problem in the general culture isn’t well deserved (though I might add that good Christian stories are at a permanent disadvantage to bad Christian stories in terms of press coverage).
This is why I felt it worth suffering a grammar lesson for this blog. Those of us who identify as Christians often tend to assume that fixing our PR problem is going to be a matter of verbal argument, attempting to define and redefine what a Christian is for the surrounding culture. We even have a word for this. We call it apologetics.
The issue, of course, is that an apologetic is typically a denotative solution to a connotative problem. If we were used car salespersons, this would be like cheating someone on a deal and then trying to explain to them that a used car salesperson is not necessarily someone who cheats.
True. Not helpful.
No, fixing the PR problem in modern Christianity will require the much harder work of changing the connotations, the images and experiences, that people have with Christians. We need to leave a better flavor in their mouths. And that’s not a matter of defining stuff differently. It’s a matter of doing stuff differently.
It’s important to mention, too, that it’s not enough for one oddball Christian, here and there, to upset expectations by being understanding instead of judgmental or humble instead of dogmatic. This doesn't change perceptions of Christianity as a whole. In my experience, when I've actually managed to be understanding and humble, it just causes people to see me as an anomaly—like my Christianity somehow doesn’t line up with the fact that I don’t jump down their throat for kicking out the jams with Rage Against the Machine in the car. They don't realize that there are swarms of other Christians out there, who have no problem with the RATM and perhaps even saw them at Coachella in '07 (just sayin').
Understandably, non-Christian friends of mine, who are skeptical of Christianity and whose only encounter with Christians is through talk radio and their one angry Uncle, don’t say, “Jared is a Christian, so Christianity must be different than what I think it is.” I don’t expect them to. Instead they say, “Jared is a Christian, but he’s one of the more relaxed kind.” In other words, “Jared is a Christian, but he must be the exception.”
If it's not enough to be an anomaly by ourselves. We need to create more communities that flip the script on what a Christian is with the way that they live together. And the thing is, we have the goods to do it. Two thousand years of crusades, inquisitions, colonialism, and bad televangelism later, the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who some call the "Christ," still has a way of tugging on people like a tractor beam and compelling them to find a "third way" of being human together, an alternative to everything else that humans have tried.
What I'm not saying is that individual Christian’s should “Get better!” That admonition has never worked. It might even be the problem. Getting better is not really something that humans are into on a person by person basis.
Yet history also recognizes this strange occurrence, over and over, that whole communities of people can take on an internal reality or a “spirit” that makes the individuals in them something far different than what they would have been on their own. The "Positive Christianity" supported by the the Nazi's was a very different kind of thing than Franciscan Christianity and not because of the innate goodness or evilness of every solitary individual in either movement.
So if we could form any kind of new community, what kind of connotations would we want that community to leave with the people who encountered them?
“Christians. Oh yeah, the people who are humble and never claim to have all the answers because they follow a person rather than a belief.”
Or “Christians. Oh yeah, like that man who really listens to me without judging because he knows that he too is nothing without God’s grace.”
Or “Christians. Oh yeah, like that woman who is always baking cookies and visiting the prison because Jesus told her to.”
Or what about this one...
“Christians. Oh yeah, those weird people who don't just mindlessly pick a side in our public shouting matches, but who always look for a constructive third way to channel their anger.”
As usual, Jesus said all of this more elegantly than I can: “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.