What do repurposed words mean?
Last week I spoke at the Truth for a New Generation Conference, hosted by Alex McFarland and North Greenville University. I talked about “Perilous Parallels,” looking at the parallel dots in the experience of liberal mainline Christianity in America and the culture at large. I connected a few of those dots in order to help those present be better equipped to identify, connect and respond to the the current context into which we are called to bear witness for Jesus Christ.
“Repurposing words and Images” formed the discussion of my first “dot.” Here is a part of what I had to say:
In both the church and the culture words and images have been repurposed. This matters because language matters – and language matters because communication matters if a people are going to be a people in any meaningful way.
Consider for a moment the importance of a common language – a shared understanding of the meaning attached to words.
How we communicate either strengthens or weakens the ties that bind us together as a people – in our culture and in the Church.
…Many words have either lost all connection to their original meaning, or they have been re-appropriated or re-purposed to advance particular social or political agendas.
Think for a moment about the words “life,” “choice,” “gay” and “gender.” These words have certainly had meaning attached to them – much like the rainbow. Their use in socio-political debates and their adoption by certain groups as labels or even brands have affected the way we hear and use those words today.
There are an endless number of news stories to pull from in order to illustrate the “repurposing of words” so prevalent in our culture today, but one from the 2012 box of clippings stands out prominently.
Nadine Schweigert of Fargo, N.D., married herself. Yes, you heard me correctly. She married … herself.
If you read the story (via Huffington Post), you can see that this is not a publicity stunt or a juvenile desire for attention. These days folks seek instant fame by doing just about anything: eating live worms, streaking across a football field in the buff, etc.
But Miss (or Mrs.?) Schweigert “married herself” not for marketing and infamy (although the act is undeniably somewhat narcissistic), but because it was part of her therapy after a nasty divorce. While waiting for others to make her happy, a friend told her she should be more pro-active and simply choose to make herself happy. This is not gospel-grounded advice, but neither is it radical by today’s standards.
Many issues related to discernment and wisdom could here be explored: .
- What is the difference between “happiness” and “joy, contentedness, or blessedness?”
- With whom do you surround yourself and to whose counsel will you listen?
- What does God have to say about the circumstances you are facing and what does God have to say about the advice you are receiving from others? (Think here about Job: what he “knew” in his heart of hearts, what others assumed about his circumstances and what his so-called friends had to say.)
Schweigert received and followed the counsel of the world. She decided that “being happy” could best be found through marriage; failing to see the fact that the end of a marriage delivered her into her current state of unhappiness. So, Schweigert came up with a simple strategy — self-marriage — seizing the promised joy of marriage without risking real relationship.
“Six years ago I would’ve handled a problem by going out and drinking,” she said. “I smoked, I was 50 pounds overweight … this is just celebrating how far I’ve come in my life.” The Fargo-based yoga teacher also takes herself on dates to treat herself and “to invest in this relationship.”
Mockery of this individual is not my aim. However, this story provides an opportunity to critique the foundation of the reasoning and action she has taken. Her “repurposing of words” — in this case the word “marriage” — cannot hold up to the scrutiny of closer reflection.
If a person can marry himself/herself, then what exactly does the verb “marry” or the noun “marriage” even mean?
Private definitions of words cannot overrule public definitions — or else definitions mean nothing at all.
The Power Grab of Repurposed Words
If you have not done so recently, it’s time to read Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass is Carroll’s 1871 sequel to Alice in Wonderland. The theological undercurrents and the insight we get into progressive language arts today is significant.
Consider Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty. Yes, that Humpty Dumpty. He sat on a wall, but in Carroll’s tale he sat in judgment over the more traditional Alice, and he redefined words in ways that lead to nonsensical confusion. Ultimately, Humpty Dumpty experienced a great fall, but not before he wreaked havoc on language.
Humpty Dumpty uses words that are familiar to Alice, but his use of those words is not. Some would call Humpty Dumpty’s use of language artful, creative and free. But his mastery of language through nonsensical redefinition is to the goal of power over others, not communication with them.
When Alice confesses her confusion, the following conversation ensues:
“Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you.’ …’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”
His goal is not effective communication with Alice but his mastery over her by the manipulation of language. He perceives Alice to be beneath him – although his self-elevated perch and his life of gluttony will eventually lead to a downfall from which he will not recover.
Humpty Dumpty didn’t want to communicate with Alice, he wanted to use language to belittle, confuse and control her. And that is precisely what is going on today among those who re-appropriate and re-purpose words for the advancement of their own agendas.
Progressive efforts in both the Church and culture seek to redefine and repurpose words based on re-imaginings that are impossible to align with the original meaning. The result is that people “think” they’re communicating when, in fact, they are being manipulated and mastered.
So, what do repurposed words mean? Nothing … and everything.