The New Language of Brokenness (Part One)

I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity.  In part one, I hope to show that the language of brokenness is imprecise and that Millennials are increasing the uncritical use of this term.  In part two, I hope to show the dangers inherent in substituting brokenness language for the concept of sin and sinfulness.  Finally, I’ll offer some guesses on why these shifts have occurred.

The flexibility of words from generation to generation makes a fascinating study in American history.  We are all familiar with words whose meanings have dramatically shifted, such as:

–   Gay
–   Literally
–   Awful

The changing of words typically doesn’t reorder or reshape fundamental beliefs or practices in our lives.  The academy may publish interesting papers when it happens, but most of us simply shrug and move on with the new meanings.  However, certain theological language commands our attention when it begins to take on new contexts, new connotations, and new meaning, since these words represent realities about ourselves and about God.  Significant generational shifts in language present a danger to Christians because they hinder the ability for the old and mature to inform the young.1 Familiar words that are filled with new content lure different generations into a false sense of communication.  The Greek myth-makers at least allowed Sisyphus to roll the same boulder up the same hill.  Readers of theology that are trying to make sense of the ancient, the recent, and the new are confronting the same boulders, but always on a new hill, in a new direction, and rolling for a new purpose.

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Skipping Church: Donald Miller and Disconnecting

One of my favorite childhood books was called If Everybody Did (Jo Ann Stover).  The plot was simple:  the left side of the page featured a questionable ethical decision while the right side showed what society would look like “if everybody did” that same thing.  These offenses ranged from littering to squeezing a cat too hard.  For example:

Jo Ann Stover, 1989

I’ll admit that I still think of this book and its simple lessons in ethics whenever a prominent writer offers unorthodox visions of what Christianity should look like.  If Everybody Did provides a helpful grid to think through the logical implications of Christians acting en masse.

This week Donald Miller wrote an admittedly ill-advised piece on how he prefers to skip out on his local church.  After significant backlash from the internet world, including The Gospel Coalition, Miller attempted to clarify his statements and diffuse some of the frustration.  Best known for his 2002 book Blue Like Jazz:  non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality, Miller captured the non-committal heart of millennial Christians who liked Jesus and spirituality but either resented or ignored the traditional church experiences.   He is no stranger to controversy when it comes to church doctrine.

This particular piece focused on Miller’s dissatisfaction with local expressions of church and worship.  He confesses that he doesn’t “feel connected to God through singing” and doesn’t “learn much about God hearing a sermon.”  He adds that he’s just like “most men” in his frustrations with traditional church services.  Miller also finds fault with the way the message is given, citing his studies of psychology to demonstrate that lecturing only appeals to a small portion of the audience.  Lastly, he admits that he rarely attends church, choosing instead to connect with God most intimately and most often through his work, since “church is all around, not to be confined to a specific tribe.”

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