See Spot Run
By JIM NICHOLS
Is the word “Christian” a noun or an adjective?
For better or worse, we owe television and movies for introducing words or phrases that have become part of our popular vocabulary. Nearly thirty years ago an episode of Seinfeld focused on a soup stand dealer who demanded a strict manner of behavior to receive some of his acclaimed product. The Seinfeld characters referred to him as the Soup Nazi.
The term caught on and is now used in other positions, including calling someone highly concerned about proper word use a Grammar Nazi. I find that identification uncomfortable, but I do believe we should be careful with our word choices; words count.
My first experiences with words as words came from the books my parents read to me when I was a young child. One of my favorites was The Little Engine that Could. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
Subsequently, my first school primer readers concerned Dick and Jane (mentioned by spiritofabilene.com writer Danny Minton here last week.) With a limited reading vocabulary, we early-learners identified some basic words that were repeated multiple times.
Within a few grades, I delighted in learning which words serve as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and conjugations. Learning to read was, indeed, fun. People ridicule diagramming sentences, but I considered it a positive challenge.
However, it was not as simple as I thought at first. I soon realized that the same word could serve as a noun sometimes but a verb at other times. The list is long including: drink, bait, bowl, exit, fly, park, garden, and many more. Furthermore, sometimes a word could be either a noun or an adjective: “I teach my piano students how to play the piano.” Complicating things were some words such as “race” which can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb.
There are ways to smooth over this with sub-categories of word types and we pay little attention to it normally. For most of us, English is our native language and we have learned to weave our way through these words without problem. There is at least one situation that I believe deserves some care, however.
Despite the frequent use of the word “Christian” popularly, it seldom occurs in scripture. Perhaps the most significant is Acts 11:26 where the writer Luke notes that it was in the city of Antioch that “. . . the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” This was probably a derisive term. Later (Acts 26:28) King Agrippa uses it in disputing with Paul. In I Peter 4:16 the author uses the term to encourage the followers of Christ. Three uses of the word—that is it, and it is a noun in each case.
Contrast that to the use of the word today: Christian music, Christian movie, Christian business, Christian book, Christian school, etc. Again, since we speak English we accept these uses, but what do they mean? The newspaper recently advertised a “Christian conservative wireless provider.” What? How many unhelpful adjectives can a company use in a row?
If you call yourself a Christian, what does the word mean to you? What does it mean to me and to others? What does it mean to those who aren’t part of my faith community?
The Bible clearly identifies a Christian as a follower of Jesus, the Christ. That is a serious identification with many connected assumptions, obligations, and blessings. We are now part of God’s family and have others with whom we share responsibilities and lives.
We do the word “Christian” no favor by connecting it to any human product or organization. It spoils the word. Particularly abusive for me is the connection with some governmental section. We may be quite happy to live in a democratic society and nation; it brings opportunities and benefits that are unimaginable to citizens of other countries. However, let us not refer to it as a “Christian nation.” That corrupts an important word and misleads others who, in better circumstances, might give Jesus the Christ a hearing otherwise. Our witness as believers is harmed by connecting our Christian identification with our city, our state, or our nation.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain