Last month I was talking to an 80-year old gentleman I know quite well. He’s bright, cultured, active, and very combative about aging and the whole notion of death. He is also no fan of “the religious.” And yet, last year he chose to fly to Spain for his annual hike and walk the Camino de Santiago, a renowned route of Christian pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Over the holiday, at dinner, the topic of my new book Loaded Words came up and so I asked him how he felt about, say, a word like Confess.
“Confession,” he said without hesitation, “Is one of the very few things that the church got right.”
I was startled, to say the least. I can think of a great many people who feel that confession is The Church’s way of trying to exert power over individuals, or keep people in a perpetual state of fear.
“Well, you know,” I said, trying to build on his thought, “If you are feeling that you want to confess to someone, you don’t actually have to go to a church. Any willing believer can hear your confession and offer you absolution.”
And then he said the most shocking thing of all. Swiping his hand dismissively, he snorted, “I’d never do that. If I’m going to confess I want to make sure it’s official.”
And so it goes in the cognitive dissonance that is the modern spiritual dilemma. Belief, disbelief, some belief, anti-belief, all rolled into one, and often time revealed under the finger scratch of these old, hard Bible words.
Last week I asked readers here and on Facebook to help me with a short survey I was doing to prepare for a conference next month. The simple, 10-question survey— Loaded Words: What do you think of when you hear these words?— was quickly shared by people both inside and out of the faith world. Many asked if I was going to share the results. And so below you’ll find, not a list of data and numbers, but rather the sort of human details that help us recognize the layers and disconnects that have been heaped upon these words, and the very real need for a thoughtful, intentional re-education process.
That said, I offer a few impressions beginning with the results of Question 5: Which Christian word makes you cringe the most?
1) Saved (by a wide margin)
3) Born Again
4) Sin & Repent (tie)
(This was reaffirming as five of these top six unprompted answers are chapters in the book, Loaded Words. Obey, under the heading of Submit).
Other words with at least one mention: Tolerance, Blessed, Spirit-filled, Holy, Hell, Joel Olsteen, Adultery, Heathen, Christian, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Culture, Pastor, and Praise Chorus.
Although the mention of Saved as the most “cringe-worthy” was unprompted, I concluded the survey with a more direct question:
Q10: Have you ever been asked if you were “saved” and, if so, how did it make you feel?
A few people had never been asked. One such answer was particularly compelling. He/she wrote: “No. They assume that I am.” This seems to indicate that this person participates in the world as a “believer” or affiliates to such an extent that no one would question it. His/her other answers reflected a disbelief in heaven, hell, and Satan, and confessing to another human being. They found both the words “Church” and “Christian” to be “mostly negative.”
Many people had been asked and were either neutral, fine, or happy about the question, saying it made them feel “comfort,” “calm and at peace,” “grateful,” or “confident in the blood of Jesus.”
But nearly two-thirds of the respondents (who appear to be a mix of both believers and not), had personally been asked the question and took deep offense to it. As to how it made them feel, their answers included: defensive, labeled, judged, eternally wrong, furious, stunned, violated, creepy, queasy, odd, irritated, shunned, sorry for the person who asked, “like they want me to be a cookie cutter of them, their religion and beliefs,” and “like they wanted to slap the person.”
One responded said this, “As a kid in the south, I was asked often. If you didn’t immediately say yes, people would surround you and try to save you. I learned early on to say yes, quickly.” This respondent’s other answers reflected a range of beliefs. About the words “Repent” and “Judgment,” he/she said that the word that came to mind was “church dogma” but as to whether the word Christian was positive or negative (Q7), he/she said, “depends on the person. Can mean Christ-like, good. Can mean judgmental.”
As we can see, Loaded Words are a complicated business. The second most complicated is, based on this small sample, Judgment. And not only because it is the second most cited “cringe” word, but also because it revealed such a broad range of meaning/understanding.
When asked what words come to mind when they hear the word Judgment, several people said, simply, God. They did not elaborate or editorialize. One noted it was “something that does not come from us but from God,” another that it was “God’s will,” and a third wrote simply “end of days.” There were also several who understand Judgment through the lens of a benevolent God, citing words such as justice, just, mercy, necessary, getting what one deserves—reward or punishment—even “jealous God.” One noted, “not worrisome, justice will be done for many.”
But the bulk of the responses fell into two distinctly different categories: 1) those who saw the word through the lens of a Supreme Being who was angry/punitive, and 2) an essentially human application of the word, in many cases formed by the behavior of Christians.
Some of the word answers from the first group would be: hate, wrong, fear, condemnation, shame, punishment, pay back, a price to be paid, a harsh God, and terror. It was interesting to note that the person who responded to the word Judgment with the word “terror,” said that being asked if they were saved made them feel “comfort.” A similar link was seen in two other respondent’s answers: 1) asked about being saved made them feel “fine, because I am,” and the words that came to mind about Judgment were “a harsh God.” And 2) Judgment to this person meant “God, saved or unsaved,” and the question about their salvation made them feel “calm and at peace.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there were answers about Judgment that did not include God, per se, but seemed to include a reaction to His people. Their words included: hypocrisy, hate, religion, harsh, unfair, small, close-minded, smug, self-righteous, discrimination, blow horn, religious, a—holes, “belief that isn’t positive,” “not living up to someone’s standards” and “judge me; judge you” (which actually comes from Jesus, Matt 7:1-3) One respondent wrote, “the word judgment in combination with religion makes the word small and narrow-minded.”
There were those who heard the word Judgment in wholly secular terms ie: lawsuit, decision, review, greater (greatness), consequence, decision by a court, thoughtfulness, “ideas and actions requiring our own internal judgment rather than judgment as punishment—or a scorecard—by a divine being.” And those who expressed a wide range of associations—both secular and religious. Here a single person wrote these words about Judgment: insight, judgmentalism, hate, justice, discerning.
Another wrote simply Hate under not only the question about Judgment, but also Sin, and Hell. Curiously, he/she said they had a positive association with both the words Church and Christian.
I will close with two responses that I found particularly moving. Judgment means “someone doesn’t understand you.” And judgment= “unkind seeing.” Although neither of these seem to directly acknowledge the Divine, they feel to me like a cry for one. “When I call, answer me, O God of justice; from anguish you released me, have mercy and hear me!” (Psalm 4:1)
More results later. Until then, let’s continue to ponder together the challenges of Loaded Words.
This month I was honored to have my story told by Concordia University. The story of how I came to faith, came to be a writer, met my icktank parter, Leann Luchinger, and the lessons we learned in our MA Theology program. If you only know me from my words on the page you might be interested to put a voice to it. Reclaiming the Christian Conversation Video.
I need your help! I’m doing some research in preparation for a presentation on Loaded Words next month. I would like the answers to these 10 basic questions to reflect a wide range of opinions and beliefs—so if you’d like to share the link, by all means, please do. The survey is short, anonymous, and there are no wrong answers. Would you mind taking a moment to help me bring some of the very real word challenges to light? The survey starts here.
“Orthodoxy moves, because times change. It is not a matter of always saying the same thing in the same way, but of responding faithfully to our changing setting as our ancestors did to theirs.”