Terminology Muddle

unlostI would like to propose an adjustment in Christian terminology.  I mean, after all, approaching someone who isn’t Christian and hanging the title “Lost” around his or her neck isn’t really very inviting, is it?

As I drove down the highway past some set of car dealerships the other day, I once again noticed that we don’t call used cars used anymore.  Now we call the “pre-owned.”  The implication being that someone owned, rather than merely used them before.  And we all know that with ownership one takes on some level of responsibility, right?

Reading this morning some articles about the Gosnell trial in Pennsylvania, I was plunged anew into the abortion debate in America.  Here, too, I found adjusted terminology.  The “unborn” are now the “preborn.”  Apparently, in the battle over terminology, abortion opponents believe that the word “preborn” evokes more and stronger feelings of connection and empathy than does “unborn.”

This, of course, is just the latest step in the terminology battle regarding abortion.  Surely you’ve noticed the tendency to refer to one’s own position as “pro-” something and the others as “against” something.  Hence we have pro-choice v. anti-choice OR pro-life v. anti-life.

I wonder if non-Christians among us would take more kindly to being thought of as “pre-saved” or “pre-redeemed” than the word we have historically come to use regarding them: “lost,” “unsaved,”unregenerate,” etc. (Pre-regenerate has a certain ring to it…)

Car dealers and abortion supporters and foes are surely onto something; the words we use affect how we understand issues.  Sometimes these words follow from a position, sometimes they draw us toward one position (or away from another).

Here’s my request for the day: are you willing to make your claims in a discussion using the terminology of someone with whom you disagree?  Rather than battling over words, I believe that if we make an attempt to communicate with others using their words, we are far more likely to reach a place of understanding.

3 thoughts on “Terminology Muddle

  1. To at least some degree, people who are not Christians inhabit a different tradition of discourse than people who are Christians. My reading of the New Testament inclines me to believe that I should not be apathetic about the existence of those who are not Christians; on the contrary, I ought to use my resources (time, talents, words, influence, etc.) toward the enterprise of helping people who are not followers of Jesus to become followers of Jesus.

    Given this situation, it is not surprising that those in one tradition of discourse will have different terms (ways of referring) for those who are participants in the tradition and those who are not. It is highly likely that (a) these terms will be peculiar to ones location inside or outside the tradition, and (b) may only make sense in terms of a person’s location relative to that tradition.

    When Christians speak of those outside the tradition as “lost” they are building from a perspective that sees Jesus’ stories in Luke 15 as normative. They take these stories to represent their own experience (to at least some degree), particularly with reference to how they came to inhabit the Christian tradition. They analogize from their own experience and location to that of those they take to now be outside the tradition.

    The first problem with this is that “lost” is a term in both traditions of discourse (for ease of communication I’m referring to the wide medley of ways of not being a part of the Christian tradition as a tradition, though to imply any unity to this “group” is clearly unrealistic); both kinds of people use it. They use it, however, in different ways, and with reference to different kinds of people and situations.

    A second problem is creeping in from the back side. In our attempt to make the Christian way easy, we have often avoided the hard work of building up clear training in the Christian tradition of discourse for those who have become followers of Jesus. We want to keep things simple. We emphasize translation and continuity with the large culture(s), minimizing the need to learn any specialized vocabulary. This failure/weakness makes it hard to use some of our traditional vocabulary well.

    • I appreciate what you share here. I think you are very generous in your wording: “when Christians speak of those outside the tradition….” but this proves your point – Many more use the term, I wager, than could link it to Luke 15.

      • Sure! Too often because when we do retain the vocabulary we too often neglect or minimize the narrative context in which it arose and finds its meaning.

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