On Words

I think about words all the time.

As a writer, an online activist, and someone serving on the boards of two start-up non-profits, the words I use are not just mine. They belong to and reflect on many different projects, groups, and people. I agonize, sometimes for days on end, on which exact words to use in which exact contexts. I am constantly thinking about both words as well as contexts. The words I select to convey the ideas in my head can make all the difference between communication and miscommunication, between solace and pain; but the contexts in which I speak those words can radically change the shape and shade of the words I pick. Words that I pick to communicate solace can, depending on the context, cause nothing but pain for the reader.

Communication is neither a one- nor two-way street; it is metropolitan transit system overwhelmed and underfunded.

As much as I think about words all the time already, I have been thinking about them all the more so as of late. What provoked these thoughts was a comment left on the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog about the recent controversy over Matthew and Maranatha Chapman speaking at the 2014 CHEO convention. (The Chapmans have since withdrawn from speaking.) Someone who knows the Chapmans personally attempted to portray them as happy, wonderful people who are not “extreme fundamentalists.” To give credibility to that claim, the individual stressed that she, too, was also not a “fundamentalist extremist.” The evidence provided was the following:

I wear pants, listen to Lacrae, and am an avid reader of Anne of Green Gables.

No offense intended to the individual, but I laughed when I read that.

I laughed because, in my mind, there is no better sign that you are a fundamentalist than claiming you are not because you allow yourself to read Anne of Green Gables. It’s not that reading Anne of Green Gables — or wearing pants or listen to Christian rap artists, for that matter — makes you a fundamentalist. By no means. In some circles, women wearing pants is outright heresy; likewise with listening to any music with a steady beat or reading anything other than the Bible. It’s that, if the litmus test in your mind for whether you are fundamentalist is whether you wear pants, then you need to seriously re-examine your litmus test.

The difficulty, of course, is what “fundamentalist” actually means. To this particular individual, “fundamentalist” is — from what I gather — somehow tied to a species of hyper-legalism. (And in that case, even Kevin Swanson is not a fundamentalist, since he ironically fashions himself as a warrior against “legalism,” too.) Thus to wear pants is to rage against the oppressive power structures of fundamentalism. To me, however, that really tells me nothing. It tells me you might not be a hyper-legalist as far as clothing choices go, but it tells me nothing about your position on legalism in general or — more importantly — your position on fundamentalism. Because in my mind, fundamentalism is not legalism and legalism is not fundamentalism.

The root of the issue is what we mean by the word “fundamentalism.” In historical terms, the word designated something specific: the so-called “Five Fundamentals” articulated in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church in the USA. These five beliefs were considered “necessary and essential” to the Christian faith. If you did not affirm them, you were a heretic. The five beliefs were:

  • The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this
  • The virgin birth of Christ
  • The belief that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The historical reality of Christ’s miracles

Lyman Stewart, a Presbyterian oil tycoon, used his wealth from 1910 and 1915 to publish twelve pamphlets which expanded on these ideas. Those pamphlets were collectively known as The Fundamentals. It is generally recognized that the words “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” come from the title of that book.

Of course, when most people talk about fundamentalism these days, they do not have this context in mind. There is nothing wrong with that; language changes as cultures and societies change. But problems arise when a word has not entirely lost its former meaning and thus has not entirely taken up a new meaning — or when it has lost its former meaning but then taken up a whole number of other meanings, some of which are in contradiction with one another.

As an evolving word, fundamentalism can mean any number of things: it can be ideological, like a strict demand for adherence to certain religious ideologies or doctrines; it can mean an attitude, like “a particularly aggressive style related to the conviction that the separation from cultural decadence and apostate churches are telling marks of faithfulness to Christ”; it can be a matter of prioritization, like “prioritizing movement politics over people, and ideology over intellectual nuance”;  it can signify operating in a world of extremes, as in “people of extreme” who “discipline in extreme ways”; or it can be “a habit of thought patterns based in fear.”

Each of these different definitions arise out of different contexts that have specific needs and goals in mind. It’s a tricky task to say one is “right” or “better” than another without entering the context of each writer and deciding — from within that context — whether the word furthers the needs and goals relevant to the context. Using “fundamentalism” to describe adherence to certain doctrines, for example, does not help me personally in describing the problems I see within the Christian homeschool movement. I still use the term frequently, because frankly I am currently at a loss for another word that would be a better descriptor.

I personally use “fundamentalism” to describe the practice of valuing ideology over people.

I have reasons for doing so. They are in my head and I think about them all the time. But I also feel inadequate in articulating exactly what those reasons are to other people.

It’s the same dilemma I have when using the word “cult” to describe patterns in the Christian homeschool movement. I know what I mean by cult, and I know what other people mean by cult; I also know that what I mean and other people mean is not what academic researchers and writers mean. Academia has in fact switched “cult” for “new religious movement.” I understand why they have done so, but “new religious movement” describes nothing along the lines of what I need to describe. So I stick with “cult,” for better or worse.

It’s the same dilemma with all sorts of other words — like “right,” “left,” conservative,” and “liberal.” These words can advance understanding and create common ground or they can be used as thought-stopping cliches.

It’s an aggravating process, this struggle to put words to feelings and patterns that I’ve experienced my entire life but for which I do not yet have the vocabulary. It can make me feel powerless.

If I cannot put my experiences into words, if I cannot share them with the world, the silence binds me into solitude.

Breaking out of that solitude and silence is the first powerful step to making the world a better place. This is one reason why the seemingly simple act of sharing personal stories can have such a profoundly healing effect: when we share our unique and diverse narratives, we are exposing the lie that the dominant narrative is pure. This is why the act of reclaiming words — like Samantha has done in her “Defining the Words” series — empowers and frees. As Samantha says,

Naming is a powerful thing– so powerful it’s been the foundation behind magic systems in fantasy novels for generations. But first, you have to know the word. Sometimes that can mean reclaiming what the word means, redeeming it from those who have misused it. It can mean broadening or narrowing that definition. It could mean adding a personal meaning to the word. For better or for worse, words are what we use to shape a large part of our reality.

We can reclaim our words. We can find our voice.

But it’s a process. It’s an agonizingly complicated process. We not only have to reclaim and relearn words we thought we knew, we also have to come up with new words — or redefine old ones — in order to create order out of the chaos we have inherited.

We have to chart new paths out of the culture wars we were groomed for while still bleeding from the collateral damage.

Sometimes we fail. Sometimes, when we thought we had been making something clear for months, we realize that no one understood what we meant. Sometimes, like in the case of the Anne of Green Gables individual, we realize that the way we use a word might give license to people to think they’re on our team when they are actually not.

But as we work together to find out who we are and where we want to go, as we all travel in the overwhelmed and underfunded metropolitan transit system that is language, we cannot rush the process.

We want things to be done now. We want people to understand now.

As a writer, I experience communication road rage.

But at the end of the day, I am back where I started. Retracing my steps. Putting thoughts into words. Using more words to explain what the first words meant.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

I think about words all the time. But that’s exactly why I like to write.