Bad Language

Bad Language

The way you talk betrays the way you think. The way you think determines the way you act. Words are therefore very important and no more so than in theological education. The problem is that we are talking about it in the wrong way – in the language of business.

The “products” of our colleges used to be the students. Now, they are the courses because these are the things we sell in the marketplace. We enjoy talking about “delivery” of our products (even home delivery) which, when you think about it, is a terrible word to use for a process of education. But each college or seminary now has a marketing director to design the company logo, print the catalogue of products, attend a company stand at exhibitions and place advertisements for our products. What is especially important is our organisation’s “niche marketing” and so our websites are designed professionally for this to come through.

There is plenty of talk nowadays of the student as consumer of higher education and consumer satisfaction (which is increasingly measured), not least because they have a choice and can take their money elsewhere, to other colleges or universities selling similar products. Quality control of the manufacturing process becomes important and careful specifications in “graduate profiles” are used to test the goods leaving the factory.

It may be that we have been so worried about the academisation of our colleges that we have allowed the commodification of our processes to slip in under the radar un-observed.

How has this happened? For five reasons;

  1. Our increasing closeness to the secular academy which is going in this direction at high speed.
  2. The number of businessmen and secular educators on our college and seminary boards – some of whom cannot make their expertise available carefully enough.
  3. A genuine desire to be accountable and professional in our financial dealings.
  4. The financial climate which causes many colleges to struggle in as many ways as possible to break even.
  5. Over provision in some areas of theological education, too many colleges with too many places to fill and too small a pool of potential students.

There is, of course, much that is good in this development. We can talk of faithfulness, contextualisation into our contemporary society, wisdom in difficult times and the preservation of colleges with long traditions and great ministries.

But there are serious problems about the way we speak and act in this area. Few can doubt that this is becoming an over-contextualisation which has crossed the line into syncretism. We should be more different from the world. There is also a careful difference between what the students want and what the students need which, in humility, teachers are there to discern. Vast amounts of money are now spent on this business/marketing side of the college, especially in the employment of marketing directors, advertisements, etc. And now we are all doing it, we are all back in the same level playing field we were in before, but all are spending much more money.

Above all else, however, this commodification of theological education endangers the very educational process of godly thoughtful student development. Potential students need to make godly decisions about where they should study, not be cleverly enticed. Students and teachers need to be able to sit before the Word of God and the ideas of theology not entirely knowing what will come out of the encounter. They need to have exciting times in the presence of God regardless of the testing process. They need to be accompanied on their development not squeezed into a set of specifications.

None of that is promoted by the language of the factory – but maybe these are the very things which will attract godly students.

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5 Comments on “Bad Language”

  1. William Ford Says:

    Thanks Graham. From someone who spent a small amount of time in the business world before returning to theology, this makes interesting reading.
    I suppose the question that this raises is ‘Given the situation is what it is: colleges moving this way/appointments already made; colleges needing to attract a certain number of students to remain viable (at least in their current setup) etc… Given this, how can the ideals in your penultimate paragraph be realised, or how should colleges move as a result?
    Happy New Year!

  2. Paul Bailie Says:

    Another very insightful and thought provoking post. It applies to mission agencies too. We need to be gentle as doves as well as being as wise as serpents. The pressure is on to be more and more like a secular company. But we need to be on our guard against losing the ethos of The Kingdom in favour of the objectives of the corporation. Business models do have something to teach us. But whilst we cannot refuse light from any quarter we also should be committed as an article of faith to the basic principle that God’s ways are not the world’s ways and He makes the wisdom of the world into foolishness.

  3. Peter Waud Says:

    I think a similar process has gone on in the local church with business models being used to design church growth and outreach. The best example of this is the ‘seeker sensitive’ concept which asks the unconverted what they want in a church and makes that outcome the be all and end all of church ministry.

  4. Jim Murdoch Says:

    Thanks Graham for another thought provoking ‘blog’. One rejoices at the opportunities in both Bible and theological colleges for students to attain university qualifications which was not always possible when I entered college in 1967. However your warnings about not forgetting our basic aim, to equip men and women for the work of ministry in God’s Kingdom is timely.

    May we use sensible ideas from other disciplines but with God’s help temper all our decision making and pracice with Holy spirit anointing.

  5. Drew Gibson Says:

    Dissappointed when I read this, not because of its content, with which I agree entirely, but because I thought you were going to give a theological rationale for the use of bad language! I’ve often thought about this and concluded that there are occasions when only robust, earthy, generally unacceptable language will do.

    To be perfectly clear, I’m not including anything blasphemous in this. There is no room at all for blasphemy. But, I do think there are times when, in order to communicate clearly, ‘bad language’ must be used. Does Paul’s use of skubala Phil.3:8 come into this category? Most contemporary commentators prefer words like ‘shit’ or ‘crap’ to the more polite ‘dung’ or ‘refuse’. It is imortant to retain the sense of the repulsiveness of his subject. Had he been speaking Greek, I assume that Tony Campolo would have used the same word in his famous sermon a few years ago. Could he have made the same point if he had said, ‘rubbish’?

    Are there times when the only way in which we can adequately communicate emotion in a short phrase will be through ‘bad language’? This is particularly true in missional contexts in which we do not have the luxury of communicating with folk who are used to reflective analysis or who may not have an extensive vocabulary. Even in circumstances where we might express things at greater length to make a point, is ‘bad language’ with its shock value, actually a better way of communicating? I think it is.The very rarity of use makes its own point.

    Is there a hierarchy of bad language? The terms above are not far off common currency, what about those terms that are still generally unacceptable in polite company? What of those terms that are pretty much universally rejected (often those with racist meanings or that are offensive in gendered contexts)? The dilemma is that the more acceptable a term becomes, the less useful it is to communicate at the extremes.

    Enough for now, got to get back to some real work.


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