What? You’re still reading this?
That ridiculous, pretentious title didn’t totally turn you off? You’re too kind. The reality is, however, that most of us are not so forgiving. Our eyes glaze over halfway through a title like this one; and we are gone, never to return.
Jargon has that effect. It fills a room with anesthesia, and only those with strong constitutions can fight it. It’s an important lesson I learned writing for young readers. It is widely assumed that writing nonfiction for children is easy; the higher the reading level of the audience, the greater the skill required. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Writing for very educated adults on a professional level allows me the liberal use of jargon. As George Orwell commented, such writing can be accomplished simply by pasting together words and phrases of specialized vocabulary. I can sound very polished without saying anything. The hardest thing about writing for such an audience is avoiding the almost irresistible temptation to coast along on jargon, and actually write.
In writing for kids, on the other hand, I often spent a long time trying to find a way to rewrite a sentence in a way that kids could actually understand, without the benefit of a large vocabulary. That was the most difficult writing I have ever done, because it forced me to be crystal clear on what I meant.
Similarly, the hard part of communicating religious ideas is avoiding the easy slide into jargon that writes itself and communicates little. A few examples:
- Prior to seminary, I had never even heard the word “salvific.” Within months, I could hardly keep it out of my writing assignments.
- In one text for a seminary class, the author used the word “juxtaposition” so often it became a running joke among the students.
- I heard a children’s sermon once that made repeated use of the word “discernment,” and virtually every sentence included at least one word that none of the kids understood.
Jargon is a lazy way out because it allows us to sound professional without saying anything. The effect of jargon is to create a narcoleptic and uninformed church.
Jargon takes at least four forms that I can detect:
1. Specialized vocabulary for concepts or objects that exist almost exclusively within a given field.
In the Christian church, this includes two categories of words: a) those we need to use, and b) those we should reserve for the specialists talking shop.
Category A includes words such as “grace,” “salvation,” “atonement,” and “stewardship.” While we need to use these words, they should not be thrown around as if the definitions are a given. Some explanation is almost always required.
Category B includes words like “hermeneutics,” “salvific,” and “eschatology.”
2. Specialized vocabulary that has become inside knowledge or even cliché among those in the know.
Thanks to the wording of the Apostle’s Creed, visitors at funeral services in Lutheran church have remarked on more than one occasion that they weren’t aware Lutherans were Catholics. A nice bit of confusion created by a jargon word used in place of the more accessible “Christian” or “universal.”
3. Archaic language that sounds churchy.
Words like “beseech,” the “shalts” and “doths” of the King James, and constant references to sheep in an overwhelmingly urban society (the congregation as a pastor’s “flock”) divorce religious language from the real language of the community. My confirmation students had no clue how to obey several of the Ten Commandments simply because they don’t understand terms like “in vain,” or “Sabbath.”
4. Words that we use only in church just because it’s trendy to do so.
For those who claim contemporary services are jargon-free, what’s with the description of God as “worthy” in so many songs? Do we ever describe anyone as worthy, apart from church or politics (“my worthy opponent”)? Is “fellowship” anything that ever happens outside a church?
Luther’s Small Catechism is a wonderful example of a jargon-free discussion of profound religious issues. I submit that a jargon-free sermon is a worthy goal.