In Pursuit of Shared Meaning

Being in the midst of another public health lockdown has got me missing a lot of things. I miss seeing family and close friends, and sharing a meal together (I love food). I miss getting together in larger groups and I especially miss singing in a group. However, one of the things I miss the most about being part of a larger, organized group was already gone before the pandemic: the loss of shared meaning.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on

Evangelicals really are the most inadvertent masters of poetry. They say the darnedest things. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I had already come a fair way through the process deconstructing and rebuilding my faith and over the last few years I had found myself translating in real time the things people in Christian circles would say. It was like having a program running in the background at all times; my brain was constantly taking phrases laden with metaphor and spitting them back at me in simpler language of what they actually mean. These are common enough phrases. You could probably add to the list your favourite Evangelical colloquialisms, too.

Here’s a short list of a few we all may know:

  • saved by the blood of the Lamb
  • washed in the blood
  • love offering
  • made right with God
  • speak truth in love
  • in the world, not of the world
  • love the sinner, hate the sin

In the larger picture, I’m talking about the meaning we share as a culturally Christian group here in Southern Manitoba, such as rituals like communion, which are rich with metaphor, as well as social constructs like marriage. These aspects of living are as much culturally informed as they are ideologically, and many times much more so than theologically.

There was a time I was interested in taking a seminar on centering prayer and, for the more conservative or fundamentalist of my Evangelical friends, the most concerning part about what I was about to study hovered around the word meditation. Meditation, it seemed, was a gateway drug to demon possession. Around here, even though it appears often in the Bible, the word “meditation” evokes many different mental pictures, especially as from eastern mysticism. For me, both the idea that Christian practice borrows from other religions and the idea of centering prayer and meditation was nothing new and nothing concerning. Critical thinking affords us the ability to understand concepts and discern their merit.

Processing what the word “meditation” means can be thus a quick study. Christians have indeed adopted from the religions around them since after Christ’s death and the beginning of the formation of the religious structure that would become what we know as (western) Christianity. Easter, Christmas and even Sunday as the day of the week for our traditional meeting day are all based on existing festivals/feast dates the early Christians borrowed from pagan religions that pre-date Christ. Singing, prayer and meditation, storytelling and parables are all found throughout history, separate from the Christian tradition and yet similar to how Christians conduct the practices.

Not all examples of shared meaning around words, practices, rituals or social constructs can be moved through so quickly. Modern scriptural interpretation, combined with thorough Christian scholarly research and argumentation, forms sound theological basis for Christian living with openness to scientific reasoning and mental health best practices. Attitudes and approaches surrounding lifestyle and social issues informed by spirituality and (largely governed by) religious systems have changed and continue to change (as they always will). Examples of these current social issues include evolution and the understanding of creation; sexuality and gender; patriarchy, racism and systems of oppression; capitalism, socialism, and communal living; altruism, charity and solidarity; for Christians, missions and evangelism.

I was asked one time by a friend who knew that I now included same-sex couples in the definition of marriage. She asked me how my new views had influenced what I said when I was talking to my kids about potentially finding a life Partner. And I responded by saying it was surprisingly easy because kids can see right through to the simplest aspects at the basis of these concepts, including the construct of marriage. Talking about marriage is, of course about love, which is a shared meaning we can all get behind.

I wish it was all about love. In the massive societal shifts brought into the light by the COVID-19 pandemic, the human shared meaning or experience of fear has been front and centre. As a journalist, I’m incredibly excited for the new CBC documentary “Big News” on the power of the US media to polarize and dismantle the citizen. The trailer projects how it will tell the story of how the news media grew as an industry in the last 100 years, and as it grew and fought for ratings, the focus of the stories became more and more sensationalized. Opposing viewpoints, void of anything remotely equal in credibility were being given equal weight by the seemingly respectable newscasters and unbiased journalists. It’s the story of how people were no longer being told the same story, so they no longer believed the same thing about the world.

(At the time of publishing this article, I haven’t watched it yet. If someone watches it before me, let me know if it’s good. Here’s the link.)

Not everyone will agree on the position of the media, just like not everyone will agree on whether or not lockdowns work to protect public health, or vaccinations are safe, homosexuality is wrong, transgenderism is real, racial profiling does happen, and more. But it should be evident the shared meaning I’m talking about here goes farther than just talking about the jargon akin go poetry used by evangelicals. This poetic language is often justified with the “in the world, but not of the world” statement and embraced with the attitude that this is a coveted status; as in, they will know we are Christians by our indecipherable platitudes and clique-based cultural cliches. 

Often it takes mere moments to identify where two people differ theologically and culturally through one’s worldview. You can discern rather quickly when one is either simply not accustomed to, or directly offput, by an amount of discussion including liberal, feminist, or liberation theology. The lack of shared meaning extends beyond the words themselves to the breakdown of a shared set of values. This is why conversations either get uncomfortable and one party dissolves into silence, or get heated because what’s at stake is not grieving the lost exchange of familiar pleasantries but the actionability of our lives as we move through the world with less; less connection, less community, less support and less impact for good.

In many ways the communication breakdown reminds me of the story of the tower of Babel, when one people group was bent on constructing an edifice based on values conflicting with God’s wishes. God removed their ability to connect by introducing different languages, the loss of shared meaning. The group was unable to continue to build and had to change their focus.

I like contemplating the lessons of the tower of Babel story and seeing if they can be perhaps applied to what is going on in our North American evangelical culture today. What one people group has been focused on building, what the direction of evangelicalism has been for the last 70 years, cannot continue. The ability to communicate has been lost. And no, this is not the time to pull out the unity card and suggest that those evangelicals (or ex-vangelicals) who disagree with the trajectory of the western evangelical church are not supporting the vision and disrupting the unity of the group, which is sin. Of course, we all want unity.

Let’s put mutual condemnation away and instead end this article on a discussion question. 

If sameness is not the goal and unity is, what is the shared meaning of the word unity?

Does it mean that we all agree on One Right Theology or you’re out? Does it mean an everything goes attitude and everyone who does not believe more liberally or progressively is out?

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