Monday, March 19, 2007

Emotionally Manipulative God-Talk

David Wayne has quoted a print article by Peter Bloomfield about the prevalence of theologically-laden dialect in the place of normal language:

When the giant has an idea, he never calls it an idea, or plan, or suggestion. No, much too normal, those words." he goes to his "God-Talk" dictionary and uses much holier words and phrases, like "I have a vision", "I have a burden", "The Lord laid it on my heart", "I felt led", "I feel called of God", or the very authoritative "God told me". That man has "words of knowledge". When he describes the nitty-gritty of daily life it is never as normal as 'acting according to Biblical principles': rather it si the highly mysterious "being open to the leading of the Spirit". Though the giant still doesn't know what this means, it hopefully indicates that he "has an anointing", he has the "unction of the Spirit".

I've noticed that the Church can be a place of much emotional manipulation. It can be used to gain power over other people by usurping the authority of God:

Instead of using normal speech to say "there is something I'd like to say", the Giant resorts to 'God-Talk', saying "the Lord laid this on my heart", or "the Lord has placed this burden upon me", or "the Lord gave me this text, this vision, this calling". This is emotional blackmail. Instead of two parties sitting down on equal terms discussing their opinions, we now have class distinction. The ‘God-Talker’ has taken the high spiritual ground and is playing ‘Prophet’. The other (normal) person must sit with baited breath waiting for the pearls of inspired wisdom to drop from the lips of God’s hand picked messenger. Instead of a rational debate where both opinions can be challenged and improved or discarded, we have schism. How can I disagree with any opinion which God has sent? "I felt led" is 'God talk" for "I want to do". "The Lord gave me this text" is a pompous way of saying "a certain Bible truth really struck home to me". "I have a burden" is a pious way of saying "I have a genuine concern". So it is a fair question: can't Christians speak 'normal'? Let's finish as we started with an astute word from C. S. Lewis. "As words become exclusively emotional they cease to be words and therefore cease to perform any strictly linguistic function. They operate as growls or barks or tears . . . They die as words not because there is too much emotion in them but because there is too little - and finaly nothing at all - of anything else".

Emphasis added. As I've written before, don't claim to be a prophet unless you are. I'm thankful that building up an immunity to this kind of mind game has been an essential part of my seminary education. And again, it has been beneficial that I was an atheist into my adulthood because as much as I can understand these phrases, they are not a part of my normal vocabulary.


Anonymous said...


With tongue firmly planted in cheek.


Lorna said...

so often those caught up in jargon don't manipulate at all - because the recipient is adept at de-coding what they say.

I think it's fair to say that we all use our own methods - including body language and words on blogs! - to express our own ideas. To some the way we speak or write may be considered to be manipulative too.

whether we say "thus sayeth" or "I've had an idea" doesn't have to be manipulative provided we give the other the opportunity to 'test' what is said :) don't you think?

John said...

Yes, Lorna. Context matters. But in the example that you mention, it is incorrect for me to say "The Lord has placed it on my heart to confront you about...." unless the Lord has really placed it upon my heart. It is dishonest to claim a prophetic vision when one has not had one. It is incorrect for me to slap the label "God" across any idea that is really mine.

jim said...

John, I agree.

Though many can "decode" what we are saying with this "religious language," it reduces the power of the name of God and the works of God to slap His name on every Christian thought or experience. In fact, it may also break commandment...

jim said...

Similarly (and I may get shot for this) this is a sign of how focused we are on people developing personal relationships with Christ compared to the communal relationship that we have with Him. We cannot really have one without the other.

Mike said...

So often, this language is used for new initiatives -- specifically in new church starts. The "I have a vision" language is a means by which to "rally the troops."

The issue is that there is too much "I" talk and not enough "we" and "this general direction" language. Even if there is a single vision, the "we" must join into the vision and not be coerced.

Also at issue is the emotional stability of the pastor. If the pastor can only resort to emotionally manipulative language, then that pastor must not have the skills to lead discernment and foster group compromise.

I'd like to see pastors become more of the theological support to the laity's vision and dreams. But there is a place for the pastor to be prophetic and to use emotional language, just not in manipulation. Look at Paul for example:

"If anyone has room to boast, it is I..."