Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Death of Words: C.S. Lewis

Just what does it mean to be a Christian? Over the years I have heard various definitions tossed about, and I have been exposed to a number of interesting ways of using the word 'Christian.' Examples include: unchristian, good Christian, fundamentalist Christian, subchristian, and who can forget, the Magic Christian (see the video embedded in my previous post). I myself have suggested that I could not apply a capital "C" to the word christian when describing myself. I am creating a nuance to the meaning of the the word. C.S. Lewis might suggest that I should be more careful with words. I was reading his short essay on the "Death of Words" the other day and the final two paragraphs stood out (emphasis added).
"It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility, who killed the word gentleman. The other day I had occasion to say that certain people were not Christians; a critic asked how I dared say so, being unable (as of course I am) to read their hearts. I had used the word to mean 'persons who profess belief in the specific doctrines of Christianity'; my critic wanted me to use it in what he would (rightly) call 'a far deeper sense'-a sense so deep that no human observer can tell to whom it applies.

And is that deeper sense not more important? It is indeed; just as it was more important to be a 'real' gentleman than to have coat-armour. But the most important sense of a word is not always the most useful. What is the good of deepening a word's connotation if you deprive the word of all practicable denotation? Words, as well as women, can be 'killed with kindness'. And when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say."

C.S. Lewis, "The Death of Words" From (C.S. Lewis On Stories, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1982, p. 107)

What then is a "Christian?", is the natural next question. I suspect many different answers would be put forth from human mouths. As Lewis points out, once you allow a word to be given more and more human meanings, the word can lose its "deeper" meaning and the word dies. For Christians, the accumulation of multiple nuances of understanding of what should be at the center of their being can lead to confusion and a weakening of that center.
"Ye are the Temple of the living God."-2 Corinthians 6:16 KJV
God's people have always striven to build and maintain a solid temple for the Lord. I hope that I have not weakened that temple project by referring to myself as a "little 'C'" christian. I just can't help but think that to recieve that capital "C" is something to hope for, the true meaning of which we might learn only when our time comes to face our Lord.


  1. When I was with Plymouth Brethren we always used the words "believers" or "brethren" to identify the faithful, regardless of denomination. Thise words were preferred because of their frequent occurence in Scripture; only at Antioch do we have the reference to believers being called "Christians." And the word Christian is now attached to much that is manifestly not Christian, particularly in doctrine.

    I think the more challenging word is saint. Paul emphatically says believers are saints, or called to be saints. That is what God has made those to whom His grace has been revealed. Living up to that designation is pretty much the drama of the life of faith.

  2. Good point. We have changed the meaning of that word. In addition to the meanings that Leslie Charteris contributed. And don't forget what the NFL has done to the name!

  3. These linguistic/semantic battles are more important than one thinks. If a word's denotation can be changed over time, eventually, the idea behind the word disappears. See, e.g. "marriage, definition of."