Christianese analysis of Christianity Today magazine, January/February 2018 issue

The January/February 2018 issue of Christianity Today hit newsstands this week, so let’s see what interesting Christian jargon and Christianese slang can be found in its pages.

Overall there wasn’t a ton of Christianese in this issue, though I did locate a few examples of it, mainly in two of the feature articles. The first article is “The Rise of Reformed Charismatics” by Brett McCracken (Twitter, Website).

“apostolic spheres”

On page 53 McCracken mentioned “apostolic spheres,” which he helpfully enclosed in quotation marks in his article since he knew it wouldn’t be a familiar term to many of his readers. McCracken wrote:

Newfrontiers, a network of global “apostolic spheres,” has planted hundreds of churches over the last 30 years, many of which fit the Reformed charismatic mold.

I hadn’t ever heard of apostolic spheres before, so coming across this phrase in McCracken’s story prompted me to do some research to find out how prevalent this term is. A few minutes of searching on Google and on Google Books showed me that the term began appearing sporadically in books published in the 1980s and 1990s as a term for the geographical area in which Paul the Apostle exercised his apostolic authority. The concept of apostolic spheres says that apostles aren’t supposed to operate “at large,” so to speak, with carte blanche authority anywhere they travel. Instead apostles are appointed by God to exercise their influence and authority only in a specific area, such as in a limited geographical region. So the apostolic sphere means the territory in which an apostle has been divinely appointed and empowered to carry out his or her apostolic work.

Peter Wagner, a missiology expert with long experience both on the mission field and in the classroom, discusses the idea of apostolic spheres in his book Apostles and Prophets: The Foundation of the Church (Regal Books: 2000). On page 38 of this book Wagner quotes 1 Corinthians 9:2 (“If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you”) and explains the meaning of the verse like this: “What is Paul affirming here? He is saying, apparently, that he is not an apostle over the whole Church everywhere. And this was the case. Paul was not an apostle of Jerusalem or Rome or Alexandria. These regions were not his assigned apostolic spheres. But Corinth certainly was, as was Philippi and Ephesus and Lystra and Crete and other places.”

Other authors who have used the term “apostolic spheres” in books more recently often refer back to Peter Wagner, and the continued close association of this term with Wagner suggests to me that this term is not used very widely. It seems to be a niche term that is used only in a very limited community of charismatics and so-called spirit-filled Christians who tend to read and study many of the same books and articles, such as Wagner’s.

Perhaps someday the phrase apostolic spheres will break into the mainstream and not need quotation marks as a signal to readers, but we’re not there yet! For the time being, the term should still go in quotation marks, and if possible the writer should offer a brief explanation of what the phrase means to assist readers.

“Ecclesiastes moment”

On page 56 of the same article, McCracken mentioned another interesting Christianese term—Ecclesiastes moment—when talking about pastor Josh Kouri. McCracken wrote:

Kouri believes the church is in an “Ecclesiastes moment” in history, an existential crisis wherein the promises of materialism and technology and postmodernity—that we can buy or think or self-actualize our way to spiritual happiness—have not led to the good life.

In this case, McCracken not only employed quotation marks as a signal to the reader that it is an unusual term, he also immediately supplied an explanation of the term’s meaning for any readers who are unfamiliar with this bit of Christianese. This is an excellent example of how to make Christianese manageable so that readers can learn the meaning of the term and how to use it correctly in the future if need be.

As you may know, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes opens with the famous and somewhat disheartening words “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). Ecclesiastes contains additional bon mots such as “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18) and “I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive” (4:2) and “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). The narrator of Ecclesiastes spends most of the book’s twelve chapters poetically articulating his frustration with the great chasm between what the world has to offer and what his heart and soul are hungry for.

But as Bill and Teresa Syrios wrote in their Bible study on Ecclesiastes, Chasing After Meaning (IVP Connect: 2002): “You don’t have to go through a world-altering event or a near-death experience to have an Ecclesiastes moment” (page 7). A quick Google search pulled up several examples of people using this apt Christianese phrase. Here’s a quote from Tricia on her Chicka Blog back in 2007:

I’m having an “Ecclesiastes Moment”… You know… when you wonder what the heck this is all for? When you sit back, take stock of your life and think, “What is the meaning of this?” Or, “How can I keep up this charade?”Or, “Why do I even bother?”

Surely we’ve all walked in Tricia’s shoes at least once! But I bet most of us didn’t know there was this handy Christianese term, “Ecclesiastes moment,” that could not only help us get a grip on what we’re going through but maybe even serve as an effective reminder that, since a slang term for this condition exists, we can rest assured that we are not the first persons to have that difficult experience.

(On a side note, another Christianese word for a type of moment is “kairos moment,” which I’ve written about previously.)

“God-shaped hole/God-shaped vacuum”

Another Christianese term I found in this issue of CT was in Amy Simpson’s (Twitter, Website) article “All the Satisfaction We Can’t Find.” Simpson is not only a gifted author and speaker but a certified life coach to boot, and on top of it all I think she may be giving me a run for my money as a Christianese researcher! I say this because when she mentioned the classic Christian slang expression “God-shaped vacuum” in her article, she immediately informed her readers that the phrase was not, as many people incorrectly believe, coined by Blaise Pascal. Nice work, Amy, in helping set the record straight on that widely misunderstood phrase! Here’s what Simpson wrote on page 64 of the magazine:

Many have internalized the suggestions of a popular quotation commonly (and erroneously) attributed to Blaise Pascal: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Some further paraphrase and speak of “a God-shaped hole” in need of divine filler.

As Simpson correctly noted, Blaise Pascal didn’t coin the “God-shaped hole/vacuum” phrase, even though Christians have been giving Pascal credit for this famous phrase since the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s what Pascal actually wrote in his Pensées back in the 17th century: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” So although Pascal is definitely thinking of a concept very similar to the “God-shaped hole” phrase, clearly he doesn’t express himself using this phrase.

Augustine of Hippo, the famous theologian of the early church, is occasionally given credit for the “God-shaped hole” phrase, but like Pascal he merely discussed a similar concept and didn’t coin the phrase. In the 4th century A.D. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Again, there’s a similar idea but the Christianese cliché is absent.

Yet one more Christian author who expressed a similar idea without actually coining the phrase itself is C.S. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Great sentiment, and a powerful evangelistic and apologetic message, but it’s still not the exact figure of speech we’re seeking. So where exactly did the phrase come from?

My goal as a word researcher is to try to find the oldest possible quotation that contains the specified word or phrase. Ideally I hope to find the very first time the word or phrase was ever used in print. So in my studies I am always moving backward in time, trying to find older and still older quotations that contain the term. In the case of “God-shaped hole/vacuum,” the oldest quotation I have been able to find so far is from an evangelistic tract written in 1968 by Bill Bright for Campus Crusade for Christ. The tract mentions the quotation and incorrectly attributes it to Pascal: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. —Pascal.” This 1968 quotation is significant because even though the attribution to Pascal is incorrect, the tract still constitutes proof that Christians were using this phrase “God-shaped vacuum” as far back as the late 1960s. (If you can locate a mention of “God-shaped hole/vacuum” dated earlier than 1968, email me!)

“creation care,” “farminary”

In closing, I’ll briefly mention two more Christianese words that also appeared in this issue: creation care and farminary.

Rebecca Randall (Twitter) mentioned “creation care” during her interview with Thomas Ackerman, a geophysicist, entitled “Who Makes It Rain?” about Earth’s climate and mankind’s responsibility. I have written about the term “creation care” before, and I have seen its upward trajectory as it becomes more and more of a mainstream phrase. Nowadays it doesn’t even appear in quotation marks (as it doesn’t in Randall’s story) because many Christians have seen it before. My research shows that the term “creation care” originated in the 1970s and has steadily grown in popularity since then.

Finally, my favorite Christianese term in this month’s issue of Christianity Today is farminary, which appears in Kendall Vanderslice’s (Twitter, Website) article “Farminaries.” (The article isn’t available on CT‘s website, so if this term and its usage intrigues you, you’ll have to pick up a print copy of this issue!) I’m a pushover for blend words, also known as portmanteau words, which is when two words are merged together to create a new word. The word farminary is a blend of the words farm and seminary. A farminary is basically a farm that is closely affiliated with a seminary or that is an integral part of a seminary. Vanderslice delves into this relatively new trend of seminaries that are incorporating farming and gardening into the their curricula as a means of addressing the increasing importance of understanding people’s relationship with food and the church’s responsibility to steward food and other nutritive resources. My initial research efforts indicate that the term farminary is only a few years old, so only time will tell if it will catch on and become a normal word or whether it will fade away and become a dusty, forgotten fossil of early 21st century Christianese.