Editor’s Note: The following is the introduction to the newest Threads short-term study, Holy Vocabulary by Michael Kelley, which releases July 1.
Klingon is an actual language. That’s right—the war-loving, spear-toting villains of Star Trek world have their own official language. And people speak it. In fact, you can even get a college scholarship if you’re familiar with the alien language. Similarly, there are people who write letters to one another in Elvish, a language that originated in The Lord of the Rings.
More common is the vocabulary shared between people who know a thing or two about cars. Enter into their conversation and you might hear stuff about carburetors and engine blocks. There’s also a culture of couponers, who talk about BOGO discounts and rebates, and inform one another about which store is selling Pampers® wipes at a discounted rate this week.
Stick me in any of these situations and I’d be totally lost, completely uncomfortable, and speechless. But if you consider yourself part of the subculture of Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, auto mechanics, or thrifty shoppers, you might feel right at home.
Subcultures are like that. They have their own language, dress, and customs. If you’re a part of that subculture, you’ve integrated the speech, clothes, and food into your daily life, and now you don’t even give it a second thought. You freely communicate in Klingon with your friends, not worrying too much about the unenlightened individuals who haven’t bothered to pick up their own pronunciation guide.
But if you’re the unenlightened individual observing a subculture from the outside, what you see means relatively little to you. You see groups of people convinced that how they communicate with one another is normal. However you, the outsider, hear nothing but confusing rhetoric. You live in the real world, where people actually speak languages that others can understand.
The Christian Subculture
Subcultures are everywhere. Chances are you belong to at least one, even if you don’t realize it. You might be a member of the technology subculture. Or the home school subculture. Or the SEC football subculture.
Me? I’m a card-carrying member of the Christian subculture. We have our own rock stars, communicators, authors, schools, radio stations, and lines of apparel. We even have our own arguments that mean relatively little to anyone outside the subculture. The Christian subculture is filled with customs, dress, food, and a vocabulary of holy words that, to the common observer, are as unfamiliar as the cliffs of Mordor or the parts under the hood of a car.
A non-Christian walking into the church today might as well be stepping into a comic book convention. They would likely find a group of people so entrenched in their own subculture that they don’t even think about what they’re saying, singing, or preaching. After all, they all understand each other; they’re speaking the same language.
Subcultures do have a positive side—they’re safe. They’re comfortable. They’re easy. They’re part of who you are. Inside the comfort of a subculture, you don’t really have to think a lot about what you’re saying or the meaning behind it. For example, if you’re in the Christian subculture, it’s natural to assume that everyone around you knows what it means to be “saved,” they know how to “repent,” and they know what it means to call God “holy.” So you just rattle on, firmly entrenched in the familiar.
The problem is, not everyone does understand. Within the church, we operate under the assumption that people know what we mean when we talk about “church” things. For 2,000 years, we’ve been using classic words of the faith to describe what Christianity is all about. But in those 2,000 years, there have been countless arguments, discrepancies, and qualifications about these terms. The same terms that “everyone” understands. I can’t help but wonder if we, members of the church, even know what we’re saying anymore.
And that’s the danger of living inside of a subculture—you can get so accustomed to certain aspects of that subculture that they lose their meaning. The Lord’s Supper becomes just a snack between the songs and the sermon, and the Bible becomes the hard surface to put your intra-worship doodle pad on.
Uncovering the Value of Our Words
As the Christian subculture has grown, somewhere along the line we’ve stopped thinking about what we say we believe. I think it’s time to bust up the subculture. To start thinking. To remember. To stop living on the surface. And one of the ways we do that is by rescuing the language we use to talk about our faith. These words—such as holy, sin, lost, fruit, justice, mission—are important words. They are essential descriptions of the Christian faith. But they’ve been hijacked by familiarity and have lost the punch of their meaning. Let’s get them back.
Holy Vocabulary is for all of us—those inside the Christian subculture and those outside of it—because all of us need to know what these words mean. All of us need to remember who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. And that means starting to understand this language so freely spoken inside the walls of the church.
The seven sessions of this book are divided into the classic categories of systematic theology—God, humanity, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, church, the end times, and Scripture. Within each session we’ll unpack five of the key terms associated with that topic. Holy Vocabulary certainly doesn’t cover all the terms of faith; it barely scratches the surface of our language. But it does provide a good foundation—a starting point, encouraging us all to know what we mean when we start talking about God, or the Holy Spirit, or even the end times described in Revelation.
If we can reach the point where we truly understand what we mean when we talk about the essential elements of Christianity, then maybe anyone encountering it for the first time won’t feel like they just stepped into the origin story of Wolverine or the complicated universe of Green Lantern. And maybe those of us so ingrained in the subculture already can actually start to understand the meaning behind the words we throw around each and every day.
It’s a language jailbreak; we’re busting loose from the confines of the familiar and taking the words of the faith with us. In the end, we’ll find the rock-solid truth of faith buried beneath the overused terminology we so easily take for granted.