Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Though in growing up in this denomination I developed a broad vocabulary (see my June 4 letter), I’m no language maven and certainly no expert in English language usage. However, I am fascinated by what some view as the decline of the English language—a decline that has been occurring for several hundred years. In the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, wrote this:
I do here in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain to your Lordship, as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar (A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue).
I wonder what Swift would write today! Word meanings slip-slide in various directions over time, often making a word’s modern usage quite different from its original. Though this “semantic shift” typically is not a problem, it’s fascinating to observe. Each year, the dictionary adds the new meanings that have developed. A recent example is the word literally. British journalist Martha Gill explains:
“Literally,” the most misused word in the language has officially changed definition. Now as well as meaning “in a literal manner or sense; exactly: ‘the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle,'” various dictionaries have added its other more recent usage. As Google puts it, “literally” can be used “to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” ”…Literally,” you see, in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can’t do anything right” (“Have We Literally Broken the English Language?”, The Guardian [UK], August 13, 2013).
Examples of semantic shift abound, especially as we look back to Old and Middle English:
- meticulous once meant “fearful or timid”
- sensitive once meant “capable of using one’s senses”
- thing once meant a “public assembly”
- silly once meant “blessed” or “innocent”
- officious once meant “hard working”
- aggravate once meant to “increase the weight” of something
- nice person once meant someone who was ignorant or unaware
- awful once meant wonderful, delightful and amazing (as in full of awe), now it means exactly the opposite!
Today’s media often help bring about semantic shifts as they seek to shape opinions and thus worldviews. The shift in the meaning of the term pro-choice is an example. The idea that everyone should have the right to choose sounds logical. But labeling one side in the ongoing debate as “pro-choice” misrepresents the other side and obscures the nature of the debate, which is about making moral choices and passing laws that promote right moral choices. All criminal laws restrict behavior in some way and become laws because they are believed to be morally right and thus a means to promote the common good. Those who are opposed to legalized abortion for any reason (often referred to as pro-life) advocate laws they feel are morally right and thus will be a means to promote the common good of mothers, the unborn and all society.
Freedom is another word that has been reloaded in our culture. For many, it now means the right of individuals to do whatever they want. It thus typically means freedom from, with little conception of freedom for. It’s perhaps most often used to refer to the “freedom” of having sex with anyone—typically without any relational ties or emotional strings, duties or obligations. The moral meaning and significance of sexual relations is thereby obliterated and the result is that sexual relations become little more than matters of personal preference—like preferring (or not) anchovies on one’s pizza!
Semantic shifts like these raise an important question for us to ponder: Who is discipling us—the culture or Jesus?
I lament the current shift in the meaning of the word Christian. The word, which once meant a follower of Jesus, is shifting to become something negative. Deliberately or not, the media now often uses the word to refer to someone who is intolerant, bigoted, extreme and even hateful. Though it’s true that a few zealous and uninformed Christians are intolerant, bigoted and hateful, the vast majority are not. I have wondered out loud if this change in meaning is fueled, in part, by Christians acting as though they are Old Testament prophets rather than those who join Jesus in his loving, transforming, redeeming ministry. To combat this negativity, many Christians now refer to themselves as Christ-followers or disciples of Jesus. I believe the more we join Jesus in sharing his love and his life with others, the quicker the word Christian will again evoke positive responses.
Regardless of the many semantic shifts occurring around us, the meaning of one word never changes: Jesus. He is the Word (John 1:1, Revelation 19:13) who having been made flesh…dwelt among us (John 1:14 KJV) to redeem the world he had spoken into existence. Jesus, the Word of God, is the life (John 6:48) and light (John 8:12) of all the universe. He is our hope, security and salvation.
Through Jesus, God speaks (Hebrews 1:1-2) and we as Christians must heed his words. He said that he came to give life…to the full (John 10:10)—not to condemn, but to save (John 3:17). Having received his word of life (Philippians 2:16) we are commissioned to share it with others—reaching out to our families, friends and communities—living and sharing the gospel (Mark 16:15). Congregations involved in that sort of outreach are active participants in the continuing ministry of the Word who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
Word meanings will, no doubt, continue to change. But, praise God, we know the Living Word who does not change. May we continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
P.S. In this issue of Weekly Update we give tribute to our dear brother and fellow-laborer Bernie Schnippert, who announced last week his retirement from GCI employment. As you know, Bernie is battling cancer and his declining health makes this retirement necessary. Be sure to read in this issue the announcement of Bernie’s retirement and also the “Up Close and Personal” article about Bernie’s life, including his many years of faithful, excellent service to our church. I know you’ll join me in continuing to pray for Bernie, his wife Arlene and their children and extended family.