Rejecting the Cult of Christianese
What Hulu’s The Path Can Teach Us About Why Our Words Matter
“Thank you for the gift of this bread, to sustain these vessels our bodies, so that we may have the energy to create a more beautiful world and break through our blocks and barriers in this life and ascend The Ladder of Enlightenment, so that someday we may be free of these earthly forms and live as Light together in The Garden. We express the deepest gratitude for this day, and every day, for the gift of this passage, and that we have found The Ladder. There is one Spirit whose name is Truth.”
So begins family dinner at the Lane household, the protagonists in Hulu’s new original series The Path. The Lanes are members of the fictional Meyerist movement, a cult-like religion started by its namesake, Dr. Steven Meyer (Keir Dullea).
When the first season of the show begins, Dr. Steven is away for an extended stay at the Meyerist retreat center in Peru and another high-ranking member of the movement, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), acts as the Guardian of the Light in his stead. In the wake of this leadership change, Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) and his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) face challenges and crises of faith.By discarding insider talk, Christians have a greater chance of being understood by and communicating with the world around them.
According to creator Jessica Goldberg, the fictional Meyerist movement bears no direct one-to-one correlation with any extant system of belief, but is borne out of her own loss of faith after her father died of cancer: “I decided to do the only thing I knew how, write about it. Write about what it feels like to suddenly wake up and doubt everything you believed in. Write about what it means to lose faith. And I didn’t want to do this within the constraints of a religion that already existed; I wanted to write my own.”
Though Goldberg strives to write her own belief system, Meyerism bears some similarities with other world religions, with rituals for membership, methods to deal with wrongdoings, and, most notably, specific terms and phrases unique to the Movement itself.
Some of the most common insider vocabulary in The Path deals with how members relate to their faith and those outside of it. The Meyerists gain enlightenment by ascending rungs of “The Ladder” (a set of teachings derived from their founder’s experience of receiving a vision about the apocalypse after touching a “white hot” ladder), and information is privileged depending on which rung a person has “climbed” in his or her faith journey. Potential converts are “Possibles.” Members who have taken their vows are “Initiates.” For outsiders, Meyerists refer to all nonbelievers as “Ignorant Systemites,” and those who have left the Movement (and are subsequently shunned or regarded as threats) as “Deniers.”
While the language of this fictional cult seems foreign to us, Christians have many parallel terms to those the Meyerists use. Instead of speaking about a divine Light guiding us to the Garden, we speak of the pearly gates or being ushered into glory. We share the term “receptive” with the Meyerists when discussing someone interested in our faith. We have classifications like “new believer” and “born again,” as the Meyerists do for the rungs of The Ladder that their followers ascend.
Multiple blog posts and YouTube videos over the years have cataloged interesting terms and phrases that Christians are known to consistently employ. The lists of terms we use are so exhaustive that an entire website is devoted to a dictionary chronicling some of Christianity’s most common clichés.
Much of the material covering Christian slang, or Christianese, takes light-hearted jabs at phrases like “seeing the fruit” or “doing life.” Others have scoffed at the “trendy” names we often use for our youth groups. These phrases, and others like them, are easy targets, and Christians should rightfully continue to examine how we use language within our community, especially since this kind of language, while often repeated with good intentions, can cause us to hide behind our words instead of being truly honest with one another. Others still have written about how our insular dialect can keep nonbelievers out of church or sound downright frightening, even for people inside our circles.
The problem in and of itself isn’t that Christians have a specific language set. All groups, when together long enough, develop a unified way of communication that may seem strange or unfamiliar to outsiders. The problem arises, then, when our use of these words takes on a life of its own and develops into a “cult of language” that perpetuates an insider vs. outsider mentality.
Creating a Cult of Language
Traditionally defined, a cult is a system of religious devotion that seems strange or sinister to outsiders. Usually, the word cult conjures images of con artists, Charles Manson, or drinking Kool-Aid. It’s easy to classify these things and others like them as cultish because we have associated these people or behaviors with strange or damaging fringe groups in the past.
However, a cult can also refer to “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing,” and the language of both Meyerism and Christianity often gains such misplaced admiration.
In their rigid system of faith, Meyerists navigate between uncertainty and enlightenment, all through the power of their words. Characters frequently “unburden” to one another, as they are taught that negative energy weighs them down. When a “transgression” is committed, the transgressor must verbally acknowledge the wrongdoing in order to be restored.
The Meyerists seem most at ease when they communicate in their native tongue. In the first episode of the series, Cal preaches that “the Future is coming: poverty, political instability, terrorism. Everything we know will collapse. I don’t want to live for this moment, I want to live forever—in the Garden that we are creating here, together.” It is comforting for the Meyerists to use language that situates themselves on the correct side the world’s impending demise. When Cal speaks of The Future, he refers to an apocalypse that the Ignorant Systemites will cause. By following The Light and seeking The Truth, Meyerists are linguistically absolved from any involvement in the world’s coming destruction.
The Meyerist “cult of language” becomes apparent during the mid-season arc of The Path. Hawk (Kyle Allen), Eddie and Sarah’s oldest son, petitions his family to allow his girlfriend and her family to come stay with them during a time of need. Hawk gains permission because of the Meyerist tenet to “help when help is required,” a practice central to their belief system’s humanitarian efforts.
There’s just one problem: Hawk’s girlfriend, Ashley Fields (Amy Forsynth), and her mother, Meg (Ali Marsh), are not members of the Movement. They’re self-described “not religious” individuals, and, by default, considered part of the Ignorant Systemites.
When the Fields family eats dinner with the Lanes on the first night of their visit, it becomes apparent how Meyerists treat individuals who are not like themselves.
Through being urged to “unburden,” Meg tells the group that she sometimes wishes her alcoholic husband “had died in a more normal way, like cancer or a heart attack” so that she could more readily ask for financial support from her community instead of feeling like she has to fend for herself.
Sarah responds, as if from a script, “That’s the problem with Systemites. They lack compassion,” while other friends remind Meg that Meyerists “support each other no matter what.”
Eddie, trying to be helpful, adds that alcoholism is a disease, to which his father-in-law comments, “A Systemite’s disease. They want us to be alcoholics,” and Sarah elaborates, “It’s the way that his Damage chose to work its way through the body.”
The audience can sense Meg and Ashley’s discomfort in the face of these unfamiliar terms and uncomfortable social frankness. While this kind of open discussion is normal for the Lane family and the Meyerists, speaking of “Damage” (or “sin,” to Christians) in such impartial terms seems to be complicating, rather than comforting the Fields in their predicament.
The conversation at the dinner table ends with Sarah inviting the Fields to an upcoming Meyerist gathering—sort of like a church service, mixed with a TED Talk and a Tony Robbins motivational speech. Meg repeats that she’s not very religious, and Sarah curtly replies, “That’s why you’re alone now.”
If You’re Not with Us, You Don’t Understand Us
Just as the Meyerists find comfort in their discourse, so Christians find comfort in our own native language. Christ is described as The Word became flesh in the book of John, so Christianity has a deep connection to words, written or spoken. Just as Meyerists situate themselves on the “right” side of their faith, Christians use specific terminology to call ourselves “sinners saved by grace.” Where the Meyerists have Ignorant Systemites and Deniers, we have “the lost” and “backsliders.”
As seen at the Lanes’ dinner table, these labels have power, and this power often creates a building up of the insiders to a particular group, while simultaneously tearing down its outsiders. Sarah is a prime example of the insider mentality we often see reflected in Christian circles. She grew up in Meyerism, and, though she now lives outside the walls of the compound, she is still very much an insider in the way that she speaks. Her terse response to Meg’s lack of faith is not as much about Meg not having any religion than it is about Meg not having her religion.
As viewers, we want to blame Sarah for being cold and unfeeling. It’s an easy impulse because, with our bird’s eye view of the entire narrative, we can clearly see that she’s in a cult. However, Sarah’s verbal posture, her cult of language, is borne from her social context.
Sarah and the Meyerists’ cult of language is caused by an in-group favoritism, a social theory popularized by William Graham Sumner of Yale University in his treatise Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906). Sumner argues that “folkways are habits of the individual and customs of the society which arise from efforts to satisfy needs . . . they become regulative for succeeding generations and take on the character of a social force.” These are the ties—anything from rituals for how to bathe to how to conduct a marriage ceremony—that bind a particular group and the behaviors that distinguish that group from those unlike themselves.
Sumner argues that these folkways naturally create an in-group favoritism where “each in-group forms its own ways, and looks with contempt and abhorrence upon the ways of any out-group,” simply because the out-group is different. As in-groups evolve, they create terminology that allows them to express their pleasure—or disgust—in individuals’ actions or behavior.
In The Path, the way Sarah speaks to Meg—and the way Meyerists speak to and about outsiders—is a folkway bound up in their cult of language. They rely on these easy labels for insiders and outsiders to comfort themselves. But the reality is, as Sumner argues, in-groups develop “stereotyped forms” of language that carry authority which resists questioning or challenge. This practice inevitably leads to these words being infused with emotional responses, for good or ill (For more on this subject, see Chapter V of Folkways, titled “Societal Selection”). For the Meyerists, all unbelievers are Ignorant Systemites, and there is no room for an individual to live intelligently and justly without contributing to the apocalyptic Future.
In the final episodes of the first season, this language begins to fail the Movement’s members. Season one’s arc centers around Eddie’s potential loss of faith in Meyerism. Subsequently, his marriage to Sarah falters and their son Hawk is conflicted between taking his vows or staying in school with Ashley.
When confronted with crises of faith, some characters opt to stare silently at whomever they are conversing with rather than responding. Sarah is approached by Cal and asked to take a larger leadership role in the Movement, but, so overcome with the uncertainty surrounding Eddie’s impending status as a Denier, she cannot respond. Similarly, when Ashley questions Hawk about whether he will formally join the Movement on his upcoming birthday, he is so conflicted that he cannot speak, so she fills in his side of the conversation for him. The scene ends without him having uttered a word.
Later, Sarah’s parents remind her that she did the right thing and that one day she will “feel good” about her decision to make Eddie leave their house and the Movement, appealing to Sarah’s devotion to The Ladder.
In a moment of clarity, Sarah breaks down. She is overcome with the prospect of her and Eddie’s children growing up without their father in the house and equally overcome by her husband’s loss of faith. She responds, “Fuck you, it’s gonna feel good. Fuck all of you.” In the face of personal crisis, Sarah no longer can express the easy platitudes of trusting “The Truth” or “living as Light”; the Meyerist words have failed her, and the predetermined classifications she uses are no longer appropriate. Her own husband, whom she still loves, is now a supposed Denier, a fate seemingly worse than death in the Meyerist community.
Just as Sarah’s Meyerisms fail her in her moment of need, so Christianity’s cult of language can fail people as well. When we’re faced with doubters or a devastating loss in our Christian circles, we often turn to clichés as a form of comfort. “God works all things together for His good” or “God called him/her/them home” are common expressions that crop up when a Christian tries to comfort someone who has experienced a personal tragedy. These phrases often come off as hollow or insensitive in the face of a person’s grief, especially if the person experiencing the loss is not a Christian.
Breaking the Language Barrier
The way that the Meyerists speak of outsiders is similar to how discussions between Christians and non-Christians develop in-person and online. As Steve Caton argues at Church Tech Today, “Communication breaks down when the speaker’s meaning isn’t accurately conveyed to or interpreted by the listener. . . [T]he burden of the communication is on us to reach the audience. We need to be aware of the kinds of language we use that make the very people we’re trying to reach feel like outsiders.”
Part of the failure of the Meyerist movement is its inability to understand its own burden of communication. Though Cal desires to grow the Movement’s membership, the language its teachings employ resists growth. When members look at Systemites with disdain and make no room for doubts, questions, or gray areas, they unwittingly reduce their ability to impact those outside the compound’s walls.
Christians often fall prey to this same insider tendency. When we take to social media or blogs to share our opinions about various world events, we expect people to understand what we mean, even though our language is often unique to our specific culture. In conversations about about various sins or social issues, we often argue that we are “speaking the truth in love” or beseeching he who has ears to hear. Perhaps worst of all, we’re “loving the sinner, but hating the sin” (which, as many have pointed out, isn’t actually a biblically based phrase).
In the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Christians flocked to social media to share their opinions, some more compassionate than others. Some bloggers stated that Christians “will show love to the people of Orlando,” while in the same breath mentioning that they “will not embrace the sin of homosexuality.” Often, these posts coupled heartfelt “love showing” with verses about “abomination” and lakes of fire. When we express sorrow over a recent tragedy, but follow up that sorrow with the harsh truth about the fate of people like that, we end up ostracizing others more than offering the condolences we intend to. If we continue to place people groups in boxes, we develop the kind of stereotyped language that Meyerism perpetuates and Sumner critiques.
While always being prepared to give an answer is important for Christians, perpetuating the us vs. them dichotomy through our language is not helpful or appropriate. Choosing our words carefully is of paramount importance. As one of my former professors would say, social media is “a public venue for private conversations.” Though one may assume that a majority (or all) of his or her online friends are Christians, it is impossible to account for which friends-of-friends-of-friends have access to our posts, especially if the information is not blocked by privacy settings. Even then, words can be copied, pasted, and shared. We cannot hide behind our keyboards or our social circles and use them as an excuse to continue speaking in a language that stereotypes others or provides quick and easy answers to complex problems. The solution is not to hide ourselves away so that we only speak to those who understand us, nor is it to claim that our language is acceptable because it is understandable to those inside our context; after all, the Apostle Paul calls us to test all things in 1 Thessalonians and Jesus compels His disciples to avoid vain repetitions in prayer. Christians should take care to use precision in their language and resist easy labels for people to ensure that our words are not misunderstood or hurtful to those outside of, or even in, our context.
When our language falls short, humility—not quick defense—should be our first response. Once we move beyond insider language, Christians have a greater chance of being understood by and communicating with the world around them. At the beginning of his treatise, Sumner argues that “in time [folkways] lose power, decline, and die, or are transformed.” Let us hope that our cult of Christianese, our folkway, is transformed by God’s grace into a fresh pattern of speech, able to be understood by all.
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I think there is a truth run amok in this article. On a superficial level, the author never engages the biblical imperatives for language with any depth, as “the Word become flesh” is shallowly skimmed over and Matthew’s mention of vain repetitions is apparently misunderstood – he condemns repeating things as a means to gain God’s favor; not all repetition is bad. The result is a meandering tour through sociology with no compass and strong cultural blinders on where the author can’t see beyond her own tradition. The tragedy, then, is that we’re encouraged to overcome the insider/outsider dichotomy by a writer that doesn’t seem to realize a Christianity larger than her evangelical subgroup. If you can’t see the rest of us who follow Christ along side you, how do you hope to better notice and engage those who do not follow Him?
As for language, culture and folkways, these are very important issues. But we need to see that language is often a culture creator and vehicle. You can’t escape it. If a movement or idea is to spread, it will need its own language to carry it and keep it from being assimilated into the rest of society in a way that renders it instinct. Every group or movement is bound and shaped by their language and in Christianity, where the Word did indeed become flesh, God has interrupted history with His own Word and birthed a movement that spread rabidly across the known world riding on a full theology of language and ritual that did not evolve so much as become birthed in the singular event of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. There are and always have been Christian folkways that have blessed our faith and allowed it to have a transformational impact on culture. The issues highlighted in this article are real, but they are largely the ills of evangelicalism’s warped relationship with tradition. Instead of a tradition inherited from a saintly lineage going back to the apostles and authoritatively engaged by the church to shepherd us in a godly manner, evangelicalism often naively acts as though it can escape tradition (no culture can) and ends up being vexed by thoughtless, unhelpful traditions that rise, not from church history or intentional leadership, but from a sort of chaotic democracy of the masses and consumerism. In so doing, evangelicalism today tends to stand along side the rest of post-modernity with an existential angst at the rootlessness they find in their hollowed out sense of identity. As the article rightly illustrates, a faith tradition this shallow has little to offer in the face of grieving and complexity. The wider Church has often flourished in these very circumstances but, sadly, evangelicalism today merely raises a plastic plate full of childish platitudes and cliches. The world around us is not turning away from us because our language is foreign but because it is empty.
If the Church is for the Church (the believers), which shouldn’t speak Biblically and theologically to one another? My life has been powerfully impacted and changed by genuine believers who challenged me to think Biblically in my culture, even “church culture.” No, the average person wouldn’t understand their language, but they don’t understand Christ nor his cross either. We can adapt our conversations in the world–or we can at least explain terms (propitiation, sin, redemption, righteousness) with co-workers, etc. Wearing away at our distinctiveness is not the answer. Every religion has their terminology to make it what it is. Ours is rooted in Holy Scripture. We are to exhort one another daily, lest we be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
I agree with Tim that the world is not turning from us because our language or lives are foreign, but because they are empty and ineffective.
*Typo to the above, sorry. That should read:
“If the Church is for the Church (the believers), why shouldn’t we speak Biblically and theologically to one another?
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