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Culture's New Vocabulary

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2013 Mar 04

The latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has been released. Among the top 25 words and definitions added to the latest edition? 

“F-bomb” and “sexting.”

I’ve long felt that changes in language are one of the more telling signs of culture. 

[I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the latest additions.]

For example, how you describe something can shape an entire cultural debate.

“Gun control” is not popular, but “gun violence prevention” is – as is “gun rights.”

“Estate tax” was neutral; “death tax” was not.

“Oil drilling” isn’t as appealing as “energy exploration.”

“Progressive” is more appealing than “liberal.”

But sometimes what is most telling is not a new word, but when we give a new definition to an old one. In fact, sometimes it is the redefinition of a word or phrase that is at the heart of our most important cultural transformations – and challenges.

Three examples:

1. “Freedom of Religion”

There was a time when the phrase “freedom of religion” was a simple reminder that in our country, there was the freedom to pursue and practice whatever religion you desired.  No outside entity, and specifically no governmental force, could prevent you from worshiping freely.

Now, “freedom of religion” is increasingly being wielded as “freedom from religion.” It’s an important distinction. Freedom “from” religion is the idea that we must sanitize any and all aspects of religion from public life. 

This is, of course, a new and profound break with the understanding of religious freedom throughout history. While I would argue strongly in support of the separation of church and state, the idea of such separation was meant to keep the state out of religion, never to keep religion from being a cultural force that influenced the state.

2. “Welcome” 

A second redefinition is the idea of what it means to “welcome” someone. For example, it is increasingly common to speak of churches that do, or do not, “welcome” gays. On the surface, one might assume this is about whether that church is friendly, accepting of gays as fellow human beings who matter to God, and genuinely glad they are present and exploring what Christ can mean for their life.

But that would be the old meaning. Now, it is code for something altogether different. Now, to be “welcoming” of someone is to be “affirming” of them. To welcome gays as a church means to affirm their lifestyle as not only acceptable, but moral. If you do not affirm them, then you are not welcoming of them.

This is a very important shift in meaning as it makes any church that stands for historic orthodoxy in areas of lifestyle – whatever that lifestyle may be – “unwelcoming.” As if such churches disdain them as people, have no charity or warmth in their hearts, are mean-spirited and condemnatory, and do not want to share their presence. 

3. “Tolerant”

A third word that has gone through significant redefinition is the word “tolerant.” To be tolerant of someone used to mean longsuffering, or putting up with some aspect of their behavior that was difficult or distinct. When applied to someone’s worldview, it meant that you would recognize and respect differing beliefs despite not sharing them.

In other words, tolerance was social in its dynamic.

Now, tolerance is less social than it is intellectual. To be tolerant is to hold another person’s beliefs as equal to your own. It is the idea that there is no objective truth, just individual truth, so you cannot say that anything is more right or less wrong than anything else. 

This is critical: social tolerance is saying “I accept you as a person.” Legal tolerance is saying “You have the right to believe whatever you want.” Both of these understandings have been in the vanguard of the historic meaning of the word.

Intellectual tolerance, however, is saying that we must believe that whatever someone else believes is valid. It now must be granted equal footing with any and all other beliefs. We cannot say that anything is wrong, inferior, or deficient in any way. If we do, then we are being “intolerant.”

Which, of course, is intellectual nonsense.

But that is its new meaning. So for a Christian to be tolerant of a Muslim is to affirm the legitimacy of Islam, as opposed to relational tolerance of a Muslim or legal tolerance of the local Mosque.

These three redefinitions are, of course, just samples. But the more I reflect on the impact of these new meanings to old words, the more adding new ones like “F-bomb” seems trivial.

James Emery White



“F-bomb makes it into mainstream dictionary,” Associated Press as published in the News Tribune, Thursday, August 30, 2012, read online.

“F-bomb, sexting among 100 dictionary newcomers,” Associated Press as published by Yahoo! News, Monday, August 13, 2012, read online.

“Loaded Words: How Language Shapes The Gun Debate,” Ari Shapiro, NPR, February 26, 2013, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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