One Little Word Shall Fell Him

Comedian Roy Rogers used to say that he only knew what he read in the papers. Well, if you’ve been reading the paper lately, or the online paper, there is a decided trend against Christianity. For a few recent examples click here, here, here, and here.

What are we to do? Chesterton once warned that if the right idea becomes less powerful then the wrong idea becomes too powerful. Right and wrong mean true and false. That which is true is communicated through words, as is that which is false.

The message of this essay is simple. Christians can do the job of making the right ideas more powerful by refusing to conform to society’s newspeak. This requires that we speak the Christian conscience rather than conform to the vocabulary of the moral revolution.

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:32

Reader’s of George Orwell know that “newspeak” refers to the language of Oceania, the totalitarian nation that is the setting of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspeak is a restricted vocabulary designed to restrict the individual’s concept of reality. When the main character, Winston Smith, is sent to a re-education camp, he has to learn doublethink, also designed to defy reality, as seen by the three slogans of—”War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.’”

John 18:37

So it’s not just that Christians should speak the truth, but that they should speak the truth about those things that are no longer deemed acceptable by those who do the deeming. Norm Chomsky—admittedly not one of the church’s favorite thinkers—explained that “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow lively debate within that spectrum.” For example, it’s acceptable to debate whether or not the next Covid stimulus bill should be $1.2 trillion or $2.1 trillion. It’s not acceptable to ask, “What if we balanced the budget and opened the economy back up?” (Now, you at home come up with your own examples, maybe as a family discussion at the dinner table. Everyone thinks of one thing that is acceptable to debate in 2021 and one thing that is outside the permitted spectrum).

“Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.”

Ephesians 6:14

Language means things and implies things such that a difference in semantics matters. Language shapes beliefs. If inaccurate language is used, then that weakens the church’s ability to speak in a distinctively Christian way. Why? Because over time, the words we use and the categories we accept change the way we think. Once we accept the terms of certain language, we have changed our beliefs to match the words. In his book The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, Charles Taylor argues against the Darwinists who say that language merely vocalizes thought processes. Taylor argues that language does more. Language creates thought. As Taylor puts it, language development is constitutive of thought, not merely descriptive of already existing thought.

George Lakoff, a professor in cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that people possess “frames.” These frames shape the way people see the world. Once a frame is solidified in the neural circuitry, certain languages, images, and ideas come. The point is that differences in language, even minor differences, really do shape people’s thoughts and their interpretation of their experiences. Language creates plausibility.[1]

Many Christians, no doubt, find it easier to just play along with newspeak. Maybe they wonder why Christians don’t just adopt the secular worldview and somehow make it Christian by baptizing secular language in a few bible verses. They may say, “What’s the harm if we adapt our language to the newspeak?” The harm is this doesn’t make the worldview Christian or biblical.

Other Christians, not willing to conform to newspeak, may default to silence, thinking this is the path of least resistance. True that may be, but only in the short run. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn confesses that when the communists came to arrest him for not being a communist, he kept silent because there were too few people present to make any difference. He thought there weren’t enough people present to justify speaking up. Later, in prison, after comparing notes with the others who didn’t speak up, he came to regret his silence. If he had cried out to the few that could hear him, and if the millions of others that were unjustly dragged off to the Gulags had cried out to the few that could hear them, then millions of people would have heard the truth about what the communists were doing.[2]

Likewise, too many Christians today think it’s not worth it to speak up. After all, they don’t have a platform. Only a few people would hear them anyway. They think it’s the job of the preacher with a book deal to speak up. But if every Christian started telling the truth about reality—that we have a Creator who ordered the universe, that there is a biological difference between boys and girls, that the Supreme Court doesn’t have authority to redefine marriage, that legislation is not a substitute for the nuclear family,[3] that a gentle answer turns away wrath—then millions would hear the truth. C.S. Lewis, talking about encounters between Christians and non-Christians, wrote “there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”[4]

“Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

1 Corinthians 5:8

On the surface, it may seem as if newspeak just gets the masses merely repeating new catchphrases, words that are, as C.S. Lewis once said, all smudge and blur. But if language shapes beliefs, and beliefs shape expectations, and expectations shape experiences, then it is more than just a surface-level problem. When one starts speaking the new vocabulary, it’s difficult to disentangle from what’s being said. George Orwell explains, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”[5]

So I encourage you to speak the Christian conscience, to tell the truth, to use terms and categories as God has given them to us in the Bible. When we are in a conversation with people who use newspeak, our default shouldn’t be to keep quiet. There are times where we should speak up and say, “That’s not what that word means. I refuse to use that term. I refuse to organize my thoughts with those categories. I can’t share those assumptions, and I don’t think you should either.”

[1] George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014).

[2] Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 18.

[3] See the book by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society.

[4] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 262.

[5] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” The collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angos, Vol. 4, ed. 1 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1968), 127-140.

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).

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