The Alley and the Meaning of Words, by Klemet Preus

Lately I have been musing over the disappointing decision of the MNS district in allowing a congregation called the Alley into the synod despite the fact that the congregation assiduously avoids the name Lutheran in its publicity and promotional materials. One more consideration is below.


Anyone who has read the primary or secondary sources of postmodernism knows that one of the key differences between the world of the first half of the twentieth century and the postmodern world of today is over this question: “Do words have meaning? Or do people have meaning?” Christians believe the former. But recently a generation of people have been taught and many have accepted the idea that “not words, but people have meaning.” The assertion suggests that words and language – including the words and language of the Bible – do not have meaning within themselves. Rather language has meaning only when someone provides an interpretation to it. People give meaning to the words and these meanings vary from culture to culture and even from individual to individual.


The goal of communication in this model is to anticipate the meanings that your audience will put upon certain words or concepts and adjust your language accordingly. For example, let’s say that the word “Father,” if spoken to an abused child, conjures up very negative feelings. You need to accept the child’s understanding of “Father” and avoid that word since the word itself has no meaning except that which the child has placed upon it. OK. That sounds like a sensitive and sensible approach.


But what if you want to teach the Lord’s Prayer – The Our Father – to such a child? Do you alter the words of the prayer so as not to alarm the child? Or do you attempt to teach the child that the word “father” is a good and godly word? Do you teach that the child’s abusive father not only hurt his child but also stole from him the gracious word “Father?”


What’s at stake are not only the feelings of the child but the possibility of objective communication. If we cannot use words because they may be misunderstood or may even evoke pain then we will soon be unable to use any words at all.


The word “Father” has evoked pain. The word “Christian” has as well. If you don’t think so visit your local bookstore and check out all the books which attack Christianity for her many atrocities imagined or real. But shall we stop using the word “Christian?” The word “justify” has been used by Romanists to tyrannize souls and create godless doubt in the hearts of Christians. It was used by Wesley to describe a process which neither he nor his followers could attain and is subsequently held in contempt or misunderstood by many American Evangelicals. But should we stop using the word “justify?” So also the word “Lutheran” has caused consternation in the hearts of some because it is associated with mainstream Christianity which has often been indifferent to human pain. It is understood in New York, I am told, to be associated with the gay rights movement. It is understood in Sweden to be associated with the pagan state church which persecutes true Christians. The name “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” is viewed by many, especially in Minnesota dominated as we are by the ELCA, to be associated with a wooden, doctrinaire, intolerant, uptight, self-righteous, insufferable hubris. Should we abandon our birthright because other Lutherans have vilified us? No.


The way we learned to talk was when our mothers pointed to a certain thing and spoke its name. When we emulated them, they affirmed or corrected us. That is how Christians learn to talk the unique langue of the faith. This learning process often involves unlearning the wrong definitions of words, words which forces hostile to God have imposed upon those words.


When congregations do not use the name “Lutheran” because the word has been vilified or misunderstood, these congregations fall into the trap of post-modernism whether they realize it or not. They accept some else’s wrong definition of a word or someone else’s emotive import to that word. And they sacrifice its use in order to gain the ear of the other person. The name “Lutheran” is considered expendable in the greater goal of saving souls.


But what happens when the name of “Jesus” suffers the same cultural fate? It has and will happen. It’s happened to the name “Jesus,” the word “Christian,” and even the display of the cross or crucifix. These have been vilified and misunderstood by the world. Of course the people of The Alley would not sacrifice the name of our Lord. Instead they will be forced to do what Christians have always done; properly define this holy and precious name to those who have a sour taste in their mouths because it has been used as a weapon or otherwise abused – much like the word “Lutheran.” And when the people from the Alley watch with horror as their neighbors erase the name of Jesus from their literature, all in the quest to save souls, then they will know how others feel about their reluctance to use the word “Lutheran.”


Of course now I will be accused of elevating the word “Lutheran” to the level of our Lord. This I have not done. I merely provide an analogy. There is not a Christian group alive today, nor has there ever been one, that does not suffer the galling fate of having their words redefined by enemies. I for one am not going to let the name “Lutheran” go without some protest. It’s a hill worth fighting on. It’s a china shop into which the bull should be released.    


Besides there is that nagging issue of the distinction between fides qua and fides quae.





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