Monday, March 25, 2013

Classroom Exercise: Stomping on the Name of Jesus

It appears that words actually do mean something, and postmodernism hasn't had the death grip on all of our young people that we fear when eating crumbling crackers in front of a nervous ticking clock.  A student has been suspended from his class for disobeying a professor's demands that the student write the name "Jesus" in big letters on a piece of paper, place the paper on the floor, stomp on it.  The exercise comes from the textbook “Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition,” and asks students to reflect upon the reason why they might hesitate to do so.

You can read about the story on other websites, so I won't repeat it here.  Click here to read the story on  The student, a Mormon, says that the word "Jesus" has meaning and that if one stomps on a word, it shows disrespect towards it, revealing that it has no meaning.  He's right.

We can decry the liberal secularism and anti-Christian attitudes in our universities, and of course, this disdain is real and not apparent.  Nevertheless, I'm going to step out on a limb and say I appreciate this exercise.  This is not because I'm a left-wing, bleeding heart evangelical who wants to "make good" with my secular counterparts who have had enough of right-wing, religious conservatism and fundamentalist preachers who scream doom and gloom with uneducated rhetoric from the pulpit.  No no, and μὴ γένοιτο (Romans 6:2).  

Why is this apparently blasphemous exercise good?  I think it's good because it makes people realize how empty relativism is.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I think the professor should have let the students in on what was going on before the pogrom against the name of Jesus took place in the classroom.  Or better, the professor could have used a different word and built up to the word "Jesus," asking the students to imagine rather than actualize the project, staring with words like "apple," "enemy," "friend," and "father."  Culminate that with "Buddha," "Mohammed" and "Jesus," and you are ripe for a good, classroom discussion.  This would have been good enough to get the students thinking about the meaning of words, symbols and the like.  I bet a very good discussion could have ensued about linguistics and the ultimate meaning of words, objectivity, subjectivity, univocal, analogical and equivocal uses of words, and the arena of virtue and emotions in one's understanding of the meaning of language and religious symbols.

Another reason why this exercise is good is that it is actually a great exercise in showing young people that relativism is empty and false.  Words do have meaning, and we have an important lesson in hermeneutics, which is the the art and science of interpretation.  Such a lesson would cause students to wonder, "Why did I feel emotions about the idea of stomping on the word "Jesus"?  That's good to think about.  Where do emotions come from, and why am I this way?  If all I am is a product of biological evolution absent of God, then why do I emote?

It was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951 who is known for his work in the meaning of words and linguistic theory that ultimately, words are part of a "language game" where there is no common usage of language among people, because people see the world differently.  In short, Wittgenstein says that language is not really able to describe reality, because everybody has a different understanding of what that reality is.  For example, a "one and the same picture could be a picture of a man holding a guitar, or of how to hold a guitar, or of what a guitar looks like, or of what Bill Jones's fingers look like, and so on.  Similarly, what a sentence means is determined by the use to which it is put within a given context or 'language-game'" (Philosophy: The Power of Ideas, Moore and Bruder, 461).  Wittgenstein taught that because sentences and words are determined by these different contexts or "language games" which each, particular person brings to a word or sentence, that there is no ultimate meaning to the word or sentence that everyone can or should agree upon.  This leads to linguistic relativism: words ultimately have no meaning, other than what the person writing the word gives to it.

Doubtless the professor in the class would use this exercise to show the students that after they had stomped on the name of Jesus, if they had emotions about it, they did so only because they were thinking of Jesus of Nazareth, the main character in the gospels and the New Testament.  Pity the poor students, however, because the name "Jesus" could very well be the name of a man from a Latin-American background!  You see, it's all in the interpretation, and language is relative to the person who uses it, as there is no idealized or preconceived notion of what a word's essence might be.  In other words, there cannot be a unifying principle that gives words meaning.  Why would Wittgenstein come to a conclusion like this?

Well, if there is no God, or if God hasn't revealed himself to man with his Word, then there really is no unifying principle to give us meaning in life, either in words, or morals and ethics, or truth or anything.  Without a unifying principle, or a "unifier," the languages that humans use to describe the world have only relative meaning.  That is, words and sentences cannot really "grasp" or "describe" the essence of the way things are in the world "out there."  Language gets reduced, in Wittgensteinian language games, to a radical individualism, where each, particular person decides for herself what a word means.

And when a professor tells her to stomp on a piece of paper with the word Jesus on it, it means nothing.

How many of our Christian students growing up in churches get a lesson on the meaning of language and how language is not relative?  It's a sad say, because in many Bible studies, relative interpretations are reinforced by evangelical churches who often ask, "What does this mean to you?" without exercising the proper methods of biblical interpretation, making use of cultural, historical, and grammatical data, to guide us in interpreting the Scripture.  I wonder, with many people, how many "Christians" were in this classroom and had no problem stomping on the name of Jesus because they deemed it an exercise in relativism?  "Makes no difference to me.  This could just be some guy's name."

In all truth--it could.  But would the same thing occur if the name Mohammed were used?  Or Krishna?  Or Buddha?  And did the professor pronounce the name Jesus in English or in Spanish?  After all, they are spelled the same but pronounced differently.  It's true the the name "Jesus" could mean something other than the name associated with Jesus of Nazareth or with Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Paul the Apostle, however, tells us that at the name of "Jesus" every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10).  So, the name "Jesus" is primarily equated with Christianity, and not merely the name of "some guy."

Words do mean something, as the Mormon student reminds us (where were the Christian students in the class?)  Words aren't just symbols on paper where the meaning is fed into by one's subjectivity and emotions.  "In the beginning was the Word," John says.  "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away," Jesus says (Matthew 24:35; Luke 21:33; Mark 13:31).

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