Loud and Clear!
I hate politics.
We’re hitting that time when everything everywhere is saturated with political jargon, candidate commercials, and party flyers in the mail. I hate it. I always have, and I suspect I always will. Not that there isn’t a place for politics, because there is. And not that it’s not important, because it is. But in addition to my firm belief that the spread of the gospel is 1 billion times more effective in changing the world than setting up the right governmental structure, more relevant to this post: I simply can’t stand the way people in politics talk.
I think you know what I mean. The term “politically correct” is well-known for a reason. To survive in politics, one must become a master at saying something without saying anything at all. Politics is all about how you present things, how you can use words to create just the right amount of uncertainty about what you are saying without feeling like you’ve dodged an issue. It is about wearing a mask, or at least putting forth a specific image that is very intentionally crafted to draw in as many followers as possible while somehow still holding to some form of personal convictions which, if known, would drive those followers away. People in politics are forced to cloud their words with haze, because they need to be liked by people. But they also are supposed to be standing for a particular viewpoint, which many wouldn’t like. And as a result, the language is intentionally vague, like walking into a thick fog. It lacks any helpful clarity at all, like a map that’s been painted by Picasso.
University English Made Me Hate Unclear Language
Personally, I hate it. I can’t stand when people talk that way. I get very annoyed when people try to sound like they are saying something while also trying to keep from saying it with real clarity. It just drives me nuts! I realized only the other day where the root of this mentality of mine came from. It came from a class I took in university on English Literature.
I’ve always been a good writer and a solid student. And so, when I signed up for this particular class, I figured it would be a breeze. I quickly found that it was not. The top students were lucky to get 75% on a paper. I was used to getting 80’s and 90’s in high school, so this was a change of pace for me. But eventually I figured out what would get me better marks. If I stopped saying things in my essays with any degree of certainty, but rather used vague language, my marks went up. I would have to say something like “the dark imagery hints at the mortality of man” instead of saying “the black crow is a symbol of death”, or something of the like. Basically I would fill my essays with a bunch of high-sounding nonsense, sometimes to the point where I’m not even sure I knew what I was saying. But I noticed that the more I used vague language, the better off I did. And any time I tried to make anything concrete, I lost marks. So I changed the way I wrote so I could do better in the class, despite the fact that I began to hate everything I was saying – or at least the way I was saying it.
Granted, it was a class heavy on poetry, which is a genre of literature that is rife with symbolism and allusion and satire, and so it makes sense to interpret it that way. I get it. But at the same time, this class began to birth in me a real distaste for language that lacked clarity. I had not known that this was a value of mine before. It has translated well into what I now do for a living: teaching the Bible. If there was ever an area where one should walk on the opposite side of the road from vague language, surely this is near or at the top of the list!
The Lost Virtue of Clarity
Yet I am very saddened by the reality that many Christians do not speak of their faith with clarity or conviction. They have begun to adopt political-correctness and statements aimed to displease as few people as possible. I think that in most cases, the motive is good. We Christians need to be careful with how we talk and we should not make it our effort to offend people unnecessarily. Our speech should be laced with grace. To that I say, amen! Yet at the same time, we must understand that our message is inherently offensive, and therefore divisive. Christians, of all people, ought to be those who master the use of good language, as we aim to speak the truth clearly and powerfully with heavy doses of grace and tact.
I would like to advocate for Christians to be people who speak with particular clarity and precision. I desire for us to be people with the sharpest of language skills. It is certainly to our advantage! How often, after all, are Christians wrongly criticized (even by each other) for simply failing to say clearly what we were really trying to say? In the age of the internet, I think this happens all the time. There is certainly a sense in which many people are simply far too critical or quick to jump to conclusions, but there is also a sense in which many people have lost the ability to share their thoughts with clarity. I think we sometimes invite confusion and misunderstanding by not making our own statements clear.
A Messenger Worthy of the Message
I do not think that I am simply being picky in this regard. Consider, for instance, that at the very centre of Christianity is the gospel – that is, at the centre of our faith is a message. At the centre is good news. The very core of our faith is something that is shared by communication. It spreads only by the use of words. If that is the case, shouldn’t we then be people committed to using language with all the skill and precision that God has given us? Indeed, to be otherwise careless is to mock the value of the very message we share!
The apostle Paul certainly thought this way. Consider how he thought clarity in his preaching was of the utmost importance:
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2)
As Paul considers his ministry, one way he describes it is as an “open statement of the truth”. Clearly he has in mind here the way he preaches the gospel of Christ. He sees it fitting to share Jesus with others as an open statement of the truth; or, in modern vernacular, to “say it like it is”. It can be inferred that he values precision and clarity. He is not aiming to be vague in any way, but just the opposite. This clarity of his public speech is contrasted with “cunning” and “tampering with God’s word”, which describes some sort of manipulation of language that veils what is really being said. This kind of coercive, shady way of speaking is particularly disgusting when it comes to speaking of Christ, and is considered to be “disgraceful” and “underhanded”. It is not fitting for the spread of the gospel, and has no place in the mouth or mind of a believer, especially one in some kind of teaching role.
Paul says it another way in Colossians:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:3-4)
When it comes to declaring Christ, how ought one to speak? The answer is “clearly”. And to that end, Paul covets the prayers of the Colossians. He knows that there are temptations to waffle when harsh criticism comes on account of the Word, and against such temptations he must resist. He explicitly asks for the believers to pray for him to preach Christ clearly, since he knows that is the only kind of speech fitting for the declaration of truth. He asks for prayer because he needs God’s help to do this well and make the gospel understandable to his hearers.
Beware the Fog Machine Preacher
I find it a very frustrating thing when one speaks with a lack of clarity, particularly when sharing the Word of God. To be fair, some people are simply better communicators than others, and in that there is grace to be given. Yet if one aims to be a sharer of God’s truth, he or she must be committed to doing their best to speak the truth so as to be understood. At the very least, a concerted effort must be made to this end. But far be it from the preacher that he aims to intentionally be vague with his words. Such a thing is despicable, especially when it comes to the central truths of our faith. This is one thing that has gotten many Bible teachers into trouble (including, not that long ago, Rob Bell). It is not fitting for a preacher or Christian writer to speak in a way that has hidden meaning or intentional vagueness. Such a thing is not art. It is rubbish, and has no place in God’s Church, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Truth is not guarded when it is shrouded in mystery, nor is it’s power unleashed when it is too muddled to be recognized. There is something to be said for the beauty of a clearly spoken word about Jesus, and the thing that is to be said is that it is wonderful.
In this regard, I think we ought to be evaluating our communication so as to get the best results possible. We may ask ourselves, for example:
- Am I using a vague word or phrase when a more clear one can be used?
- Do my illustrations make my point clearer, or less clear?
- Am I using words that can easily be misinterpreted?
- Am I using words that warrant some kind of definition? Might others use the same word but mean something different by it?
- Would it be useful to supplement what I mean by saying what I specifically don’t mean?
- What questions or objections might someone raise to what I am saying, and how can I acknowledge and answer them directly?
Additionally, as we read and listen to others:
- Before I criticize, have I fully understood what this person is saying?
- When in doubt, is it possible to seek for additional clarity?
- If I were to restate a person’s claims in my own words, would they affirm that I have understood them correctly?
- How can I better determine the sense in which someone is using a particular word or phrase, if they have not clearly defined it?
I think these kinds of questions are helpful to aid in better communication, both incoming and outgoing. As as people who highly value truth, we Christians out to be precise in our use language, so as to honour Christ and honour each other.
A Plea for Clarity
My friends, may we not mimic the world in all its political-correctness and shady use of language. Also, may we neither be bullies who use our words to beat people into submission. But instead may we be craftsmen who use language in such a way that the very message we are sharing is honoured by it. May our talk of Christ be clear and precise, as it ought to be. May our Saviour be shared in a way that lifts the veil of mystery that so often surrounds him. May our hearers (or readers) come away absolutely certain about what we are saying (and what we are not) so that they must deal with the message presented. May it be that Jesus is seen as he is, clearly by others, in all his splendour and glory. And may we be ambassadors worthy of the news we carry, though we be but jars of clay.