As a lifelong reader and writer, I’ve always been attuned to language, perhaps the same way a painter is attuned to light and color, or a chef to texture and flavor. The words we use, their resonances and layers of meaning, deeply affect me, making something like reading a poem exhilarating, while sometimes making life in our combative, hot-take media culture something near torture.
As a person of faith, I find this to be doubly true. As a follower of the Word made flesh, I mourn a frayed and fragmented culture in which words are weapons rather than vehicles of transcendence and love. And yet, sometimes I see this in myself as well: an unreflective acceptance of communication as a form of warfare, of language as a blunt instrument for making my point and winning the day.
So, how can I, as both a Christian and a creative person take a different tack? What might it look like for me to use language in a countercultural way?
Even that question gives me pause. Because the counter within countercultural carries within itself a connotation of warfare. To be counter is to be opposed or against. And the posture I want to take as a follower of Jesus is one that is for the culture. I want to employ both my faith and my words for the common good.
And so, I see that when I begin to think about language and the way it shapes culture, I must be alert to intrinsic meanings and the often-hidden word pictures that form my conceptual perspectives. In English, the word countercultural makes me think of someone embattled, not someone who is free to be a blessing. And yet, at times, I’ve used the word uncritically.
Influenced by Cultural Metaphors
My thinking on this was recently spurred by a book I came across on my daughter’s college bookshelf. Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, is an academic work of philosophy and linguistics, an analysis of the way deeply embedded cultural metaphors shape our understanding and perspectives, usually without us even realizing it.
In an early chapter, for example, the authors consider the word argument. In English, that word is steeped in pugilistic and militaristic metaphor. When we argue, we take up a position against an opponent, whom we seek to shoot down or wipe out. In a volley of words, we parry and punch, and at the end of it all, we either win or lose.
Although Metaphors We Live By was originally published in 1980, it’s analysis of the imagery we mentally associate with the word argument struck me as particularly relevant for today. Nowadays, in a culture as fractured as ours, an argument looks less like a friendly game of Stratego and more like the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy. It seems everything these days is zero-sum, and the battle lines run right through our kitchen tables and social media timelines.
Walk As Jesus Walked
So how might I, as both a Christian and a creative-minded person, be more reflective? The Apostle Paul urges believers in Christ to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, and the Apostle John tells us to walk as Jesus walked. To follow Jesus is to embrace a fresh—and, I believe, refreshing—way of looking at everything in our world, including language.
Jesus engaged his culture with imagination, with the beauty of parable and paradox, and in so doing, he reversed countless underlying assumptions about God, life, and people. When I think about being countercultural, I may remember the time Jesus flipped some tables in the temple, but shouldn’t I be thinking more about the way he creatively flipped people’s perspectives?
The fact is, even when Jesus engaged his greatest opponents, the religious leaders of his day, he refused to be baited. His answers were often enigmatic and riddle-like, an invitation to deeper thinking. But sometimes, it seems, we forget that Jesus gave us a beautiful story to tell, not just an argument to win, or a point to be made.
Beyond Us versus Them
As our cultural discourse continues to coarsen, I feel a tug to reject a battle mentality, an “us versus them” perspective, that renders me incapable of truly loving my neighbors and winsomely sharing my faith as good news. So, in recent years, I’ve begun to check myself: In a mainstream society that prizes the winner, the fighter, the action hero, and the media personality with the brutal tongue, am I, as a Christian, a follower of the Prince of Peace, shamefully doing the same? Am I more assimilated than I’ve previously considered? More in thrall to the ‘god’ of my culture than I’ve wanted to believe?
There’s a tension here, I know. There’s undoubtedly a certain battle mentality required in our faith. But, as Paul says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” and our fellow man is never to be a casualty. Our “armor” includes shoes shod with the Gospel of Peace, and our sword is the Sword of the Spirit. When the Apostles James and John wanted to use that spiritual sword to call down fire on an unrepentant city, Jesus rebuked them and told them they “knew not the Spirit they were of.”
These days, when I catch a video online or light up social media and see people talking past one another with no effort at empathy or understanding, I think of the broken heart of God. At Babel he confounded our language to quell our hubris, but at Pentecost, he revealed his heart’s desire to unite our language again—this time in worship and love. The fire that fell was for the blessing of the nations.
Someday, all the nations will share the same metaphors, the same glorious paradoxes: the lion as a lamb, the last as first, the weak as strong, the master as servant, the living God as a once-crucified man. In the meantime, our calling as believers is to embody these word pictures and creatively share them with the world. For me, as a writer, that means finding words and language that communicate grace and truth, beauty and love. And for me as a reader, it means more poetry and fewer websites promoting hyper-polarization.
An Invitation to Dance
In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson highlight the fact that our cultural metaphors are so deeply intrinsic to our thinking we may find it difficult to imagine certain things any other way. It may be hard mental work, for example, for us to think of the word argument in terms of something other than struggle and war. But, at one point, the authors ask the reader to: “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance… (where) the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.”
How truly countercultural might it be if we Christians consciously untangled ourselves from the embedded metaphor of “argument” as war? Instead, like dancers, we could adopt postures of humble beauty and allow the loveliness of our movements to draw onlookers onto the dance floor. There, we might teach the steps of our faith through example and gentle leading, bringing truth to bear in the world with grace and dexterity, as Jesus did.
A dancer is a picture of reserved strength and imaginative movement executed thoughtfully for the purpose of delight. And that kind of delight—that kind of beauty—beckons to hearts and minds.
Lately, I’ve been inspired by Christians engaging the culture in this way. What might it look like for more of us to join them in offering redemptive beauty rather than belligerence to a battle-weary culture? Perhaps it might look like Jesus. Perhaps it might look like love. And that, I’m certain, is always truly countercultural.