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An overused adjective

An overused adjective

Good Christian mugs rejoice?

Word people, a dreaded sub-class of the human race, enjoy pouncing upon unsuspecting mortals to denounce their syntax or misconstructions. Topping out my own list of pet peeves are nouns masquerading as verbs ("to keyboard"), certain clumsy hybrids (like "actualize"), and downright misuses ("momentarily" used to mean "in a moment" rather than "for a moment"). These are persnickety complaints, for language is always in flux, but sometimes sloppy constructions can lead to sloppy thinking. Consider a very common one: the use of "Christian" as an adjective.

The word originated as a noun designating a person, a lost sinner regenerated by the Spirit of God into a disciple of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). It is unclear how long "Christian" retained the splendor and solidity of nounhood, but by the 17th century the adjective use was well established in such constructions as Christian virtues, Christian people, and Christian sovereigns. In our own time the usage has accelerated at roughly the same rate as society has declined.

Older baby boomers may recall when there was no such thing as "Christian contemporary music." Tennessee Ernie Ford, for one, showed up regularly on the secular charts with songs of "That Old Time Religion," never requiring a Christian book and music distributor. Society as a whole reflected a vaguely biblical moral character that smiled its sleepy approval of religious expression. The '60s cultural revolution overturned all that, and after an initial retreat in panic, believers rallied and drew their battle lines: The defenders of the biblical standard squared off against the neo-pagans, anarchists, and pleasure-seekers of popular culture. Their banner unfurled like a declaration of war, and once the sutlers discovered that there was gold in that camp, they raced to the scene, wagons rattling with all kinds of merchandise labeled "Christian."

This commercialization has two regrettable effects. First, any designation stretched too thin is bound to be weakened. The adjective "Christian," in certain contexts, has come to mean "sanitized version of." Christian fiction imitates almost every literary genre, but with the "bad stuff" left out; Christian rock is a driving beat minus offensive lyrics; Christian greeting cards are Hallmark with a message. Some sort of message is obligatory, whether it's John 3:16 on a pencil sharpener or "Footprints" on a coffee mug. The apt, the true, and the banal rise together on a flood of mediocrity until "Christian" (to some) becomes identified with the large-eyed, pastel-colored niceness of Precious Moments.

Second, the proliferation of items, attitudes, and cultural phenomena labeled "Christian" tends to create a ghetto mentality among those who apply that label to themselves. Though they are not to be of the world, believers in Christ are still in the world, still made of worldly stuff and struggling with worldly temptations. God calls his own out of every tribe, social class, affliction, and vice: "for such were some of you" (1 Corinthians 7:11). Christians saved by grace still have a lot to say to the world, but many of us are tempted to build a world of our own furnished with "Christian" wares. Eventually the adjective becomes worse than the kiss of death-it's the kiss of irrelevance.

The slide from the sturdy Christian men and women of previous centuries to Christian mugs and T-shirts in ours may seem a sad commentary on these trivial times, but it was inevitable. An adjective by definition pays court to a noun and designates a shift, subtle or not, from substance to appearance. A "Christian man," for example, may or may not be born again, but he behaves in a manner generally consistent with biblical principles. A "Christian nation" is not made up entirely of believers, but it enforces obedience to basic biblical morality. Anybody, with sufficient motivation, can make a "Christian statement" or perform what appears to be an act of "Christian charity." But only God can create a Christian. The complex, profound, and miraculous character of that divine act can't help but be diluted when "Christian" is applied thoughtlessly.

The word is so convenient that it is hard to replace. Sometimes we are reduced to putting quotation marks around it in contexts that seem questionable. But at least we might be more careful about what we say, and remember that an adjective designates qualities, not entities. As my husband says, "Jesus never died for a radio station."