Last week Pope Francis made a decree celebrated by journalists and English teachers worldwide.
The supreme pontiff took a stand against adjectives.
In a speech to the Vatican communications team, the pope took particular aim at the word “authentic,” especially when describing “authentic Christians”:
“We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns. . . . Why say authentically Christian? It is Christian! The mere fact of the noun ‘Christian,’ ‘I am Christ’ is strong: it is an adjective noun, yes, but it is a noun.
“The communicator must make people understand the weight of the reality of nouns that reflect the reality of people. And this is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.”
As a college communication professor, I proudly stand with the pope.
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White would be proud, too. The authors of perhaps the most-trusted writing guide, The Elements of Style, emphasize that “A sentence should have no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
“A single overstatement,” they continue, “wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer’s enthusiasm.”
C. S. Lewis agrees:
“In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.”
If Strunk and White, C. S. Lewis and Pope Francis do not inspire clear and concise writing, perhaps the Bible will. “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues” (Proverbs 10:19).
“Say what you mean. Don’t sweeten your language. Use fewer words.”
Jesus tells us, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool. . . . Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34, 37).
He also warns: “On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).
“Avoid irreverent babble,” teaches Timothy, “for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16).
The Bible is not a writing guide, of course. But its lessons are similar to Strunk & White, Lewis and the pope. Say what you mean. Don’t sweeten your message. Use fewer words.
Yet many of us make a certain grammatical error so frequently it has become commonplace. We misuse “Christian” as an adjective.
“Christian” suggests something is modeled from Christ’s teachings and example. But we use it to describe groups, goods and occupations that are not necessarily or explicitly “Christian.”
When we call someone a “Christian writer,” do we mean to say that the writer is a Christian? If so, why is it important to conflate her occupation with her faith? What if we just called her a “writer”? Why sweeten her vocation by calling her a “Christian” writer?
What makes a “Christian business” Christian? Does a “Christian” business sell Christianity the way a “furniture business” sells loveseats? Does it revere Christ as a model salesman or a manager instead of the Son of God? Are the products of a “Christian” business particularly sacred? Are chicken sandwiches at a “Christian” restaurant blessed by Christ? When long-time and dedicated employees ask for a raise, does the “Christian” business owner respond like the vineyard landowner: “I choose to give to the last the same as I gave to you”?
If a “Christian” business isn’t selling “Christianity,” what would happen if we just called it a “business”?
“What makes a ‘Christian business’ Christian? If a ‘Christian’ business isn’t selling ‘Christianity,’ what would happen if we just called it a ‘business’?”
What about “Christian schools”? What makes a school distinctly “Christian”? What values are present in a “Christian” school that are not present in a non-Christian school? Do we mean to suggest that other schools are distinctly non-Christian? Is having a chapel service enough justification to call a school “Christian”? Does teaching non-Christian subjects like math undermine the mission of a “Christian” school? What if we stopped calling them “Christian schools” and just called them “schools”?
What makes a “Christian diet plan” Christian? What about a “Christian movie”? “Christian rock”?
What about a “Christian comedian”? Are his jokes washed in the Blood of the Lamb?
Or do we just call these things “Christian” to convince buyers they are honoring God by consuming these goods?
We have to be careful not to use “Christian” to “sweeten” the thing we are talking about. It’s a good adjective to describe something that explicitly relates back to the life or teaching of Christ, such as a “Christian” parable or a “Christian” belief. Otherwise, “Christian” is the kind of overstatement or a carefree superlative that Strunk and White warn against; it “diminishes the whole” and “has the power to destroy the object of our enthusiasm.”
Rather than merely calling something “Christian,” we should follow Lewis’s advice to describe “Christian” things so that the reader or hearer recognizes it as “Christian.” Tell us how it privileges service, redemption, charity, chastity and humility. Tell us how it models Christ. Let us recognize something’s “Christian-ness” based on what it does, not based on what we call it.
That’s the Christian thing to do.