Skip to site content

How Language Stopped Reinforcing Virtue, Faith

In my previous post, I quoted Amos Wilder’s observation that “the language of a people is its fate.” What we say and how we say it shapes our lives.
That column looked at the growing acceptance on profanity and the lack of civility it breeds. Profanity (language) shapes our fate (growing disrespect).

Perhaps you’d expect a puritanical view from a minister. But let me say that I am more concerned about the vocabulary that is now M.I.A. in our culture than I am about profanity.

In 1992, William Kilpatrick wrote a great book titled “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong,” in which he shared the following story.

“(An) incident happened five or six years ago during an exam. One of the questions concerned sex education and contained the word ‘abstinence.'”

“It was a poor choice of words,” Kilpatrick wrote. “In a few minutes, a student came up to my desk. ‘What’s abstinence?’ she asked. I thought for a moment, then said, ‘Oh, just substitute the word ‘chastity.” There was a brief pause, then, ‘What’s chastity?’ she asked.”

Kilpatrick continued: “I mentioned the incident the next semester to another class thinking that it might amuse them, but I was wrong again. Half of them had never heard of ‘chastity’ either. I was reminded of Orwell’s observation about the difficulty of practicing a virtue or principle when one lacks the very words for expressing it.”

How does a Christian celebrate the sacredness of sex – how does a Christian family pass along their convictions about sex – when the culture lacks a vocabulary to support the conversation?

Language contains a culture’s values. It communicates a culture’s experience of reality.

How far is it from never speaking about chastity (to use the example cited above), and the practice of chastity disappearing from our society? If the words don’t exist (or simply aren’t spoken), can the virtue be passed along?

How many times in the past month have your children heard about divorce or separation? Now compare that number to how many times someone has spoken about fidelity and commitment in their presence. Which is the stronger “reality” in their lives?

Things spoken of often are real; things never mentioned don’t exist. Language is their fate.

What about the vocabulary of faith? Compare the number of times your children have heard profanity to the number of times they’ve heard anyone outside your home speak of grace or forgiveness.

The deep, basic words of our faith are not used often on the news, Facebook or Twitter. Therefore, if children are not involved in intentional faith development, will they ever hear enough of a faith vocabulary to understand the experience?

Once upon a time, the culture around us used a common language that instilled and reinforced virtue and faith. Not so anymore.

Families must be more intentional than ever to use language that speaks of character and faith. Participation in faith communities where other families use a common vocabulary helps reinforce convictions and experiences that come from our faith in Christ.

I don’t advocate only having contact with people who believe exactly as we do. This column is not about separation from the world.

It is simply a call for us to recognize that children can’t believe in something they never hear about. Words rarely heard cannot form deep convictions.

Language is the fate of a people – and their faith.

Joel Snider is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga. A version of this column first appeared on his website, The Substance of Faith, and is used with permission. Joel’s sermons appear on EthicsDaily.com and are available here.

Editor’s note: Joel’s first column on the impact of language on culture and society can be found here.