Tuesday, February 09, 2010

In Other Words--Noun or Adjective


We were watching an episode of a British car show on television recently. The presenter has a disdain for all things "American." He will tell you that Americans (the people/the noun) are "loud," "brash," "overindulged," and "fat". I try not to be offended, but I often can be. He is harsh when he describes the people of America (and by that he clearly means the U.S. because the rest of the Americas do not register), but when he describes an American (the adjective) car, all bets are off. American as an adjective to describe a product to him automatically means "rubbish." He uses the two words interchangeably.

It makes me wonder about our use of words. Are we adequately able to encompass the meaning of a word when used both as a noun and an adjective? Sometimes, perhaps. But not always.

“Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.”

Rob Bell

"Christian" as a noun should mean a follower of Christ. It should be attributed to someone who has made a deliberate decision to align their allegiance with Christ and follow in his footsteps. The names is an identity moniker.

That seems to work well. Just as I am an American because I was born in the U.S.A. and my national allegiance is to that country, I am a Christian because I was born again into the family of God and place my allegiance with Christ.

The problem comes when when use "Christian" as an adjective to describe everything from books and music to t-shirts and tattoos (go ahead and google it). What does it mean for a product to be Christian? Does the product itself serve allegiance to Christ? Of course not. The use of the word as an adjective is usually as a marketing tool. Christians (the noun) are the target market for the product so the product gets labeled as Christian. The problem is, describing some product as Christian tells us nothing about the product. And we end up with no real comprehension of what the descriptor means.

It can actually become a detriment, both to the product and to the target market. The presenter in my opening scene has a bad experience with an American car, so in his mind all American cars are rubbish. Someone has a bad experience with a Christian book so all Christian books can be seen as not-worth-reading. That would be a shame. There are, truly, a lot of books out there marketed as Christian that are shallow, or worse untrue to the Scripture. I have read some. I'm sure you have too. If I thought that was the standard for "Christian" I would want nothing to do with it. And I would end up missing blessings in so many other books. This scenario is sad, but the next scenario is more telling. I do not know which came first his caricaturisation of Americans or his disdain for products from America. But they feed one another. A bad impression by a "Christian" product can offput someone from wanting to be around Christians. Likewise, we as Christians can create such a reputation that someone would not want to utilize products that are deemed Christian.

Ironically, the author of today's quote is a perfect example of this. His books and videos are marketed in "Christian" book stores. But even among Christians the verdict is divided. Some say that he gives Christians a bad name because he is not direct enough in his presentation of the gospel. Others say that he is a breath of fresh air because he speaks to people in a way to catch their attention and intrigue their interest in things of Scripture and church. Some say "that's not my brand of Christian" whilst others praise "I'd be interested in that kind of Christian." I personally look at his work and his public ministry and I see a someone living out their understanding of their call and Scripture. I do not agree with everything he writes, but I do find that he makes me think and evaluate what I believe. I know that not everyone agrees with me. On this blog, I do my best to live out in words what I see as my calling to follow Christ. For some of you that works. Others, may think that my flavor of Christianity is too serious. Still others may question why I have things like my stitching on their when this is a "Christian" blog. Every blog writer knows that she/he will never please everyone in their audience. For my experience, and for what I see Rob Bell saying, we can take the moniker Christian as our identity and become the noun. But when we try to apply it as an adjective we start a slippery slope of "by who's definition" and will rarely find a consensus.
“Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.”

My dear sister in Christ and blogging, Tami, is our hostess today. Please visit. Have a blessed day!


Tami Boesiger said...

I love it, MiPa. You've summed up my feelings better than I did. Bravo.

Karen said...

Very good, I should of read yours before writing mine, I think I was way off. I wasn't thinking in terms of a label. Maybe I'll go write a second piece. No, maybe I better go get ready for Bible Study. Have a great day.

Vee said...

Excellent food for thought, Miriam Pauline. Truly.

I can't remember the exact quote but I remember C.S. Lewis writing something about just doing a wonderful job at what we do and then letting people being surprised that, wow, that person is a Christian. For example, I work as an editor. God has given me the skills to be an editor. Instead of considering myself a Christian editor, I am just the best editor that I can be. And then as people come to realize that I am a Christian, they will think, "Hmm, she's a good editor and also is a Christian." And in their minds, they realize that being a Christian is not incompatible to being a good worker or a good this or that.

I've had the same thoughts regarding my blog. It's not an overtly Christian blog, but neither it is overtly this or that. But I think it's not compartmentalized either. My being Christian isn't a matter of preference or a hat I wear or a role I play. I am a Christian. It defines my life, gives reason for it, makes me who I am. But it's just like I am a mammal. It's an inherent part of me. I can't separate it from who I am ...

You're right, though, about being people flinging the term Christian around, though. I've a friend who detests "Christian" music. She thinks all Christian music is about synthesizers and blandness. Just because she once heard such an album. And so what if some people like synthesizers? There's more out there. But she cannot wrap her head around the possibility of diversity among how Christians express their faith. It's sad, actually.

I'm sorry this is so long!

Esthermay said...

American = rubbish FuNNy!!

In my study of First Century Culture, I don't think the word "christian" was ever used as an adjective. Using the label as a descriptive is a fairly new phenomena --(probably "American"). And probably for the purpose of marketing products & services. (Almighty $$$) That's sad. . . . And in that process, the word's meaning has been cheapened.

I like the way you've condensed this topic so well. And I'd take your critique of Mr. Bell a step further because many people have rightly labeled him a "false prophet" since he does not believe the message of Salvation is relevant. Nor does he believe the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is significant. This makes him an excellent motivational speaker, but by only the loosest definition - a "preacher of the gospel." (And yet another example of the cheapening of the meaning of the word "Christian.")

I like your post very much. I've read it twice now. Very good!

Nic said...

My dear friend, I really like the way you illustrated your point on this quote through the marketing aspect. That is so true. Sometimes I think that the TERM Christian as an adjective and noun are way overused and instead of letting things speak for themselves, people are turned off by the slapping of the label Christian on everything that has to do with spirituality or religion. It muddies the waters and the perceptions of what others perceive Christians to be.

Well done, sweetheart!

Kristin said...

Great post MiPa. It really mad me think.