God, Smoothies and 80s Pop Stars

free beer

I was in a cafe this morning and decided to have a smoothie.

This is not as easy as it sounds if you’re British, because we’re not as able to ask for ludicrously-named drinks as other nationals. Maybe it’s the accent (something else it’s hard to do with an English accent in particular is complain – you inevitably sound like an Imperial Officer in Star Wars threatening an Ewok. So you overcompensate, become embarrassed, and end up sounding like Hugh Grant trying to ask someone out in a 1990s British rom-com).

The smoothie in question was made of kiwi and pineapple. They had named it a ‘Naughty Crush’.

This is a challenge I have experienced before. The parade of coffee shops up and down the High Street do not serve ‘small’ or ‘large’ coffees. They serve ‘grande’ or ‘medio’ frothalottahunkyfunkychunkycheekyccinos. Ordering cocktails also involves similar linguistic acrobatics. So I was disturbed – but not surprised – to discover that the perfectly-usable names of fruit on the menu had been replaced by Strawberry Kiss, Carribean Way and, incomprehensibly, Bananarama Llama Farmer.

“Hi,” I said, determined to keep this engagement as sensible and silly-name-free as possible.

“Hello!” said the smiley cafe person. “What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a double espresso and a kiwi and pineapple smoothie.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have any,” she said. And then after the briefest pause, added, “we have a Naughty Crush, though.”

I was not expecting this sly but subtle counter-attack. I took a moment to rally my thoughts, and then delivered my order with aplomb and free of silly names.

“I’ll have one of those then, please,” I said.

(The espresso, by the way, came in a giant cup of such proportions that Wifey asked where the rest of the coffee was.)

What’s going on with all this tomfoolery is an attempt to heighten our customer experience. It’s about suggestion. Give a smoothie an edgy, trendy name and you feel edgy and trendy. Make someone order a coffee in Italian and they connect to an imagined Italian coffee experience. If Bananarama Llama Farmer – which is pulverised banana – was named accurately it would be called Baby Food With A Straw.

The church has, it seems, largely resisted the urge to re-name stuff to make it more attractive and influential (possibly because the church tends to largely resist everything). In fact our own name – Christians – wasn’t even a brand we came up with, but probably originally a derisive term coined by non-Christians. Presumably we’d have been happy to keep calling ourselves Not-Necessarily-Jews-But-We-Do-Buy-Into-The-Old-Testament-But-In-Support-Of-Our-Recognition-That- Jesus-Is-The-Messiah…ians.

At face value, this seems great. We’re authentic. We don’t need advertising executives to tell people about Jesus, we tell it like it is, right?

Almost.

Yes, this is a real thing.
Yes, this is a real thing.

A Brand New World

What the branding world is on to is that the human mind cannot escape making associations between things it knows, and the new things it’s encountering. We short-cut. So the cafe wanted me to associate my Naughty Crush with a cheeky but pleasurable feeling – a deeper emotional connection than simply the taste of kiwis and pineapples.

So when we talk about God, or Jesus, or church, the people we talk to will automatically interpret them in the context of how they’ve been previously presented. And if that portrayal was negative, then what you’re saying is going to get viewed within that framework.

This blog has already ranted ad nauseam about the use of religious language, but there’s a couple of other things we need to watch out for.

The first is how you portray Jesus when you talk about him. Look at how he portrayed himself. Study it. Emulate it. This blog would argue that Jesus portrayed himself as an open set of arms, with a social justice agenda, urging a focus on principles rather than religious dogma, who mainly saved his moral criticism for religious hypocrites. Is lecturing people on their sin (for example) and issuing them with a religious to-do list the best way to introduce Jesus? How does he come across when we contribute our viewpoints in public life? Do we get the balance right in presenting the full range of Jesus’ teachings and personality, or do we find ourselves focussing on certain aspects and risk misrepresenting him?

The second is to recognise that when you talk about Jesus, you may be at cross-purposes (yeah, I know) with the person you’re talking to. You think of Jesus as forgiving and loving – but they may have heard nothing but hellfire and damnation their whole life. When you talk about Jesus as ‘forgiving’, you’re making the assumption that this carries the same collection of impressions and emotions for them as it does for you.

It’s Still Just A Smoothie

A great way to short-circuit these two issues is to avoid talking in generalities completely. They just get filed in the person’s head under whatever category Jesus is sitting. It’s not always appropriate to talk like an international super-evangelist. We’re not spiritual troubleshooters either, using our negligible understanding of God’s plan for people’s lives to diagnose why they have trouble with the idea of God and giving them an action plan to fix it. Being a Christian is not like being a technician at Kwik-Fit.

Instead, talk about your experience. Just tell your story. Tell others about your Jesus. Tell people about how you know him. About how you and he dealt with issues of forgiveness, love, peace, sin, belief, doubt and healing in your life. When you find yourself talking in generalities, that’s the time to wind it back down and get back to the personal level.

Non-Christians are – contrary to how some of us think – not a hunting ground for religious scalps. This is not gaming season, and we don’t get extra credit in the exam of life for having ‘led someone to Christ’. All any one of us does is play a role (cameo or starring) in the story of that person and God. It might be a romantic comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an adventure – who knows?

But you get to choose what role you play.

Will you confuse the hero, or help them?

How will you describe the smoothie?

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“Can you tone the language down, please? There are non-Christians here.”

footieI just don’t get football.

I don’t understand what any of it means. I’ve never understood it. There was a brief moment during Euro ’96 when I stood a reasonable chance of keeping up during a conversation with the barber, having presumably absorbed key facts by accident.

I know that England aren’t as good as they are convinced they should be (1966 anyone?), like a singer who had one great hit in the Eighties and has never been able to let go and get used to being a motor mechanic. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United until, like, just now. But as I go on, I am rapidly reaching the brim of my espresso-cupful of football understanding.

This enables other men to draw all sorts of inferences about my overall masculinity. This isn’t hard,  as I am also about the size of a Cadbury’s mini-roll. (You may wonder, if this is the case, how I can use a keyboard – it’s simple. I use an Iphone. It’s tiny keys are apparently designed for people like me, children and goblins.)

Sometimes I meet other guys who tell me they don’t know much about football, and for a brief but wonderful moment I don’t feel quite so much like the weirdo in the supermarket who smells all the cheeses (and then buys only toilet paper). For a short time, I think it might be possible to be a normal man and not get football.

But this is always irritating false modesty, as despair inevitably strikes when a Real Man (TM) comes along and starts a football conversation with the two of us… and the person who said they didn’t really know much turns out to know that Reading are doing all right this year, Arsenal is managed by Arsene Wenger and Plymouth Argyle is a real team (not a type of jumper). Apparently, I know even less than people who don’t know much.

What are you talking about?

So what’s the point of this, I hear you ask, other than the vaguely cathartic feeling of confession? Well, it’s this – I don’t understand what Christians are saying half the time either.

It’s not through lack of knowledge. I am no expert, but I grew up in a church setting, and I have a degree in Theology. So I would hope that I’d be broadly familiar with the cast of the Bible and all the best scenes.

It’s because we have an unchecked relationship with metaphor and jargon. We’re addicted to them. We can’t help ourselves. We don’t even know we have a problem. We think we’re in control of our relationship with metaphors, but by the end of a Sunday morning we’ve knocked out seventeen of them and didn’t even realise we were doing it.

“What?” you say, indignantly. “I don’t have a problem! I can give up metaphors and jargon any time I like!”

Oh, really? When was the last time you tried to explain Jesus to a non-Christian? How many times did you use phrases like ‘personal relationship’? When was the last time you tried to help another Christian going through a difficult patch? How many times did you use phrases like ‘walking in the Spirit’?”

Exactly. You are a dirty addict just like the rest of us, chugging phrases like ‘outpouring of the Spirit’ in dimly-lit rooms on a Friday night. You use the word ‘just’ forty-three times in a prayer at the start of a cell-group (“Lord we just want to thank you and just lift this evening up and just listen and just…”). Goodness, you might even be a long-time addict who uses words like ‘redemption’, ‘missional’ and ‘justification’ on the bus.

There’s a parallel phenomenon as well, which is that we tend to ape Biblical sentence construction. So rather than say, “let me tell you about Jesus and what he stands for,” we’ll say, “let me tell of the glory of God’s Kingdom!” as if we’re a medieval prince in Game of Thrones. And we think we’re being authentic when we do this, we feel ‘closer’ to God when we speak like a Victorian gentleman giving a speech at the Royal Society about their mermaid-hunting expedition.

But the truth is, it’s nonsense – the Bible is written the way it is because the translators are trying to convert an ancient language and culture into a modern one without losing any meaning. Which is really difficult, so you end up with some awkward-sounding, old-school sentences. The original Greek for the New Testament is ‘Koine’ Greek… which is street-language. Normal, everyday speak.

Is this really a thing? I mean, really?

Yes, it is. And it’s a thing for two groups of people. First of all, it’s a thing for non-Christians and people who’ve recently become Christians. When we use jargon, and metaphors that haven’t been explained, people who don’t know what these things mean feel alienated. We’re creating an in-group of superspecialChristians and an out-group of everybody else. We’re making it harder for people to learn about God and making them feel unwelcome.

It’s also a thing for Christians. Are you completely sure when you urge me to ‘do it in God’s strength’ that I have any idea what you’re talking about? Because I’ll tell you now – I don’t. What do you actually mean? I can’t do something ‘in God’s strength’ unless it involves physical heavy-lifting and some sort of supernatural ability to heave a truck takes over my negligible muscles. What is the practical meaning of that phrase? Do you mean, “pray about it and don’t worry, because God’s got it under control and makes everything work for your benefit?” Well say that, then. Don’t just quote the Bible – explain what it means.

Everybody’s doing it

There is a time and a place for metaphor. When we’re talking about the Divine we need to use it sometimes. The Bible uses it loads. But we need to pick our metaphors, and pick our times.

In the age of the informationmegasuperuberduperhighway, everybody’s going jargon-tastic. There’s jargon everywhere. I’ve noticed people rather depressingly referring to pictures, stories, poetry and prose as ‘content’. I was watching 4 On Demand the other day and was told that ‘my content would appear in 30 seconds’ – a message intended as helpful I’m sure but one that only made me think my breakfast was about to re-surface.

But as Christians we need to stop. Because it’s hard enough following an invisible God in a world that opposes Him, and hard enough for people to find out about Jesus, without inventing new barriers like jargon and over-used metaphor. Let’s, er, leave some of the metaphors at the… door…