Learning the language of Christian culture

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When I was in seminary (a rather impulsive decision after college, thinking God was calling me to faith-based counseling), I joined an on-campus Bible study. I remember sitting on the floor of my friend Isabel’s living room, munching on frosted cookies and sipping lemonade, thinking that the dainty yellow plates and flowered napkins were an odd juxtaposition against the heavy subject matter: Isabel’s beloved grandfather had just passed away.

The sad news created a thick atmosphere in the room; no one knew what to say. No one ever knows what to say when there’s a death. Then Isabel gave a sigh of relief and explained that, despite the awful disease he’d suffered, at least he was now in heaven. In fact, he had accepted Jesus as his savior just a few years back, before dementia set in. The mood of our meeting completely changed as the women rejoiced and praised God: at least he got saved before it was too late.

I was the only one who remained silent. For my father, according to traditional Christian doctrine, there is no such relief. There would be no such praise. I cannot hold onto the hope that other Christians have about the eternal fates of their loved ones, since mine are all Jewish.

And it occurred to me, for about the millionth time since I’d started seminary, that Jews would never say such things. Announce a death in a room of Jews and you’ll likely hear, How awful. That’s tragic. I am so sorry. Can I bring you a meal? There would be no concern for where the loved one’s soul is residing, and no one would think to ask.

“Let’s pray before we begin,” announced Colleen, who chose the reading for the week. We all bowed our heads: “Dear Heavenly Father,” she began, “We are saddened by the loss of Isabel’s grandfather, but we praise you so much for reaching his heart before he died. Use his life to remind us all to share the gospel with everyone you have placed in our lives.”

I couldn’t help thinking, Jews don’t say this. A Jew would never say this. If this Bible study were a Jewish one (which would be more aptly called a Torah study), the language would be completely different. Christian prayer is often riddled with expressions like “use my life,” “touch his heart,” “guide me through your Word,” and other sentiments that, quite honestly, I understand without actually understanding. I know that “touch his heart” isn’t literally about feeling the organ in the crevice of one’s chest, but to inspire, to encourage, to comfort.

I thought to myself, Why not just say that, then? Why all the vague imagery?

Expressions like “quiet time” and “love on” mystify me: the former just makes me think of nap time, not individual worship time, and the latter has a creepy, sexualized vibe to it—especially when used in an ad for childcare on the student center bulletin board (“We need devoted Christ-followers to love on our kiddos Tuesday mornings from 9 to noon!”). None of it felt right on my Semitic tongue. I was learning lines, but was not a good enough performer to convince an audience that I knew my part.

I thought to myself, This may be my religion, but these are not my people. How could that be? What is religion without a community to go with it?

It’s not because we don’t all believe the same things (more or less), but like the Tower of Babel, our speech has gotten confused. I cannot effectively communicate with this group if their language is not my mother tongue. Then again, the women of this Bible study would have found it just as strange to use the Yiddish-isms I grew up hearing from my mother and grandmothers.

Churches still, for the most part, abide by the teachings of ancient holy texts, but the surrounding culture is unique to each generation of followers. Fifty years ago, worship bands did not use fog machines and flashing lights. It was not expected or even normal to find a full bookstore and coffee shop next to the sanctuary. YouTube videos with catchy, self-deprecating titles such as “Stuff Christians Say” did not exist, as the “stuff Christians say” was still in development. Much of these trends are the mark of a generation trying to keep faith relevant in a high-tech, modern age.

And that’s not a bad thing. The problem is when the culture is conflated with doctrine itself. It’s one thing not to understand the theology of heaven or hell, but seminary was filled with awkward moments where my obvious lack of passion for worship music, winces at “Christian-ese” terms, and discomfort with praying out loud raised suspicion that I was even a Christian at all.

There are many sticky parts of adopting a faith in adulthood when it’s not something you took for granted as a child. Thus I consider myself a perpetual seeker, always hoping to brush up against Truth even if I never own it.

Excerpted from Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter.

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