Why the Word “Christian” Makes a Better Noun Than Adjective

Time for some grammar.

I want to suggest that the word Christian is used far too often as an adjective. I want to suggest more specifically that when the word Christian is being used to describe an object of artistic expression that something both misleading and even potentially unChristian may be taking place. To give a brief list of way in which the word Christian is used as an adjective: there are Christian bookstores, Christian music, Christian novels, Christian movies, and Christian throw-pillows and any number of trinkets, novelties, and products marketed to churches and individual believers.

Now when I say that the word Christian is used far too often as an adjective, I realize that when we actually have conversations in churches, with fellow believers, about the Christian life and so forth that we will use the word in that way. So I don’t mean to make too much of my point in a literal sense. In some respects, it’s important that we use it as an adjective. For instance, Christian theology and Islamic theology are not the same thing.

But what I have a problem with is the degree to which it represents a particular and problematic approach to and relationship with our surrounding culture. I think that it’s an approach based in part on fear and suspicion. And I think as a result it can isolate us from our neighbours, the very people to whom we’re supposed to witness.

First, our use of the word Christian as an adjective reflects how we have a Christian version of almost everything available in the secular world, especially in the entertainment world. Not that this should surprise us. If we consider music, for example, someone who performs hip-hop, speed metal, or pop music will, if they are or become a follower of Jesus, will probably express their faith through their song-writing. What creates the problem is when we create a category of Christian hip-hop as an alternative so that we don’t have to engage with the music of our popular culture. It’s safer for our kids and puts parents’ minds at ease.

Now I should say as a parent that a part of me understands this instinct. There are movies and television shows, because of their gratuitous content, I will not allow my children to see. And there is even material that needs to wait for an appropriate age. I wouldn’t let even my oldest watch The Lord of the Rings. I might let her watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I wouldn’t think of letting her see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is a much darker, more frighteningly violent movie.

However, what I don’t want is a Christian version of Indiana Jones. I already have an Indiana Jones. I don’t need a sanitized version rhyming off Bible verses and teaching biblical principles. Not that there can’t be a great adventure movie made by Christians, but it hasn’t happened yet. And that Christians haven’t made a great adventure movie yet is perhaps illustrative. Not only does it bother me that some believers feel the need for Christian versions of things, insult is added to injury when the Christian versions tend to be the poor-man’s version.

Of course, Christians haven’t been making contemporary pop and rock music and films for nearly as long as the rest of culture. There’s a learning curve, not to mention the fact that most Christians making movies have shoestring budgets, certainly compared to the movies coming out of Hollywood. There are a lot of great (and here I go using it) Christian song-writers, bands, and artists. Unfortunately, while they are getting better, Christian filmmakers haven’t fared nearly as well.

Another reason using the word Christian as an adjective is problematic concerns the purpose of art, of music, film, and other products of the human imagination. Why write songs? Why paint? Why tell a story for the big screen (TV or movie)? By attaching the adjective Christian before the words song, film, book, or poem, we give the impression in our culture that the sole purpose for the piece of art in question is to witness to the gospel of Jesus. Art becomes a means to an end. And that end is exclusively evangelistic. So in a Christian film, there has to be a scene where someone does a gospel presentation to one of the characters. Makers of these films haven’t quite reached the point where they are free to trust the characters and the narrative; instead, they become more overtly didactic, or “preachy.”

And if we think of an artist who produces music for the sake of evangelism, they will potentially lean in the direction of producing music that artistically represents the lowest common denominator. Like top 40 radio, the bulk of the content will be designed to reach as many people as possible even if the product ends up much more derivative and bland. Music that is more idiosyncratic or unusual or that attempts to be more experimental is much less common.

There was a time in the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) industry when the joke was that you had to have so many JPMs (Jesus per minute). Songs not only had to be written by a Christian but had to be about Christian stuff. While this was often done in order to make sure that the music was bearing witness to the Christian faith, the result was a ghetto of Christian music in which the artists were by and large singing to the choir. Who outside the confined and confining circle of CCM would actually hear this music?

And it begs the question: Who qualifies as a Christian artist? What kind of content can a Christian artist produce before they are no longer regarded as a Christian artist? Is it their record label? What percentage of songs have to be explicitly about their faith? And do the songs have to be obvious? What if a musician is a Christian but you wouldn’t necessarily glean this from their music?

Take U2 for example. Are they a Christian band? Depends. Depends on who you ask, that is. Some are adamant that these guys are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Others are vehement that U2 rank just below the 12 apostles. No doubt, as it often is, the answer is somewhere in between. Like it or not, they’ve written and recorded numerous songs in which they are explicit about their faith, and songs on subjects seen through eyes of faith. What would qualify them as a Christian band to their detractors?

I also think of Christian band Jars of Clay, whose music isn’t always obviously Christian. It’s not unChristian; but their songs don’t always make their faith explicit. Speaking about the CCM industry and their own attempt to reach beyond its boundaries, lead singer and lyricist for the band, Dan Haseltine, wrote this on a blog post in the lead up to the release of their most recent album, Inland:

“Our particular style of writing and the perspective that we have written from has not been an easy fit into an artistic community that has such a massive agenda and only a single idea of how that agenda gets accomplished. I don’t fit there. I may have at one point. I did grow up as a youth group kid wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it. I did drive a car with a “Christian” bumper sticker on it.”

In a later post discussing the relationship between faith and art, Haseltine says this:

“Jars of Clay has been called a “Christian” band for a long time.  It has been truer in some years than others to what people believe that label actually is.  We have chosen the title and despised it in equal measure. I honestly have never encountered a more vague and misinterpreted label so subjective in its usage to be deemed utterly useless in the public forum as the label, ‘Christian.’”

Using Christian as an adjective is, lastly, also significant with respect to how we self-identify as people of faith and identify other people of faith. Is it because of their character? Is it their life of prayer and how they pay attention to Jesus’ admonitions to love the least of these? Is it because they always carry a Bible or is it because they actually study the Bible and then apply it? Or is it because of all their Christian accessories? Because that’s what this is about. Faith as accessory. Jesus as a slogan. Christianity as a product. Advertised and bought and sold. The Jesus’ fish serves the same purpose as the Nike swish.

Holiness, love, grace, reconciliation are the marks of Christian identity. If only those of us who are Christian were more robustly so, using the word Christian as an adjective would be unnecessary. It would be enough to use it as a noun. This is also the case for objects of artistic expression. Whether or not a given song, for example, is Christian would not depend solely on the lyrics to the song but on the character of the song-writer. As I said, the better and stronger the noun, the less useful and necessary the adjective. Especially when it comes to the word Christian.  

Tempus Fugit

Man, oh man, I cannot believe my vacation—much less the summer—is over. Next week our daughter begins grade 4 and our twin sons start preschool. Just a week ago my wife and I celebrated our 11th anniversary. And if I really want to think of how far life has come and gone, I need only recall that I’ve been out of high school for 23 years. Finished my undergrad 18 years ago. Received my Master’s degree 15 years ago. I mean, c’mon, this year I turn 41. Forgive the cliché, but it’s true (cue impressive Latin phrase!): tempus fugit. Or as we usually say it, “Time flies.” And, believe me, it does so even when you’re not having fun.

If most of you are like me, then most days you live as though your death is an eternity away. Continuing with the “time” image, we act as though we have “all the time in the world.” Whether the thought of our own death bothers us or not, dwelling on what the final date inscribed on our tombstone will be is likely not a regular routine. Moments occasionally come along when I realize that there is still much of the young boy and college student in me. I think more years  still lie ahead of me than behind. But as my wife likes to remind me, I am now middle-aged! In the U2 song from their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “City of Blinding Lights,” Bono sings reflectively, “Time won’t leave me as I am/ Time won’t take the boy out of this man.” It’s funny how both things can be true, isn’t it?

Psalm 90 seems to have been written by someone perhaps reflecting on the realities of age and of mortality. Sounding a great deal like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, the psalmist writes: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” There is a definite realism and honesty in the biblical text about the temporal limitations we all face.

But we don’t like to face these limitations in our culture. Surely the big business of cosmetic surgery attests loudly to this. Other signs of our desire to avoid age and our own eventual demise abound. Think of the woman who says, “I turn 35 again this year.” Or the man who dyes his graying temples. Or parents who try to live vicariously through their children. In our society, youth is god-like, a sign of strength and success. And of course our culture is not alone in wanting to prolong life. Think of the legend of the Fountain of Youth, a spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years. According to an apocryphal combination of New World and Eurasian elements, Juan Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida in 1513. Imagine the money people would pay if such a fountain were ever found. Walmart would set up shop by the fountain overnight. Apple would design an app to use it.

Obviously, searching for some legendary fountain is not the way of dealing with our finitude. Thankfully, God in his wisdom offers us truth about how to think about this reality. Aware of his own unavoidable death, the writer of Psalm 90 brings this awareness to God in prayer: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” I see at least two things to note here. First, God needs to give us a better grasp of our own mortality. Teach us, the Psalmist asks. More than that, the psalmist asks because he wants to live wisely. Knowing, therefore, that we only have so much time is understood as a prompt to wiser living.

Think of people who make so-called “bucket-lists.” Often those who make such lists are people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or who have in some other way been confronted by their own mortality. Having had the realization that they will really not live forever, such a list-maker thinks, “I better make a list of things that I want to do and should do before I die. This is my last chance.” Becoming more intimately aware that their days on this earth are numbered, such a person decides to use the time he or she has doing things they’ve put off. Being able to number our days rightly potentially rids each of us of the procrastinator within.

One other thing about what the psalmist is saying. He’s saying it all to God. This is prayer. Underlying his desire to have a more honest grasp of the length of his life is what the Bible calls a fear of the Lord. The Bible makes clear elsewhere that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). While meaning more, having a fear of the Lord at the very least means knowing that one’s life is ultimately in God’s hands. And not just this brief earthly sojourn. What happens to our life after we die is also in God’s hands. Wanting to live wisely, therefore, means wanting to live life—all of life, as much of it as we have—in relation to God. It means finding in God our very reason for living. “Lord,” the psalmist is saying, “help me to live for you in the time that you have given to me.”

Much of our culture tells us to do whatever we can to extend our stay on this blue-green planet in order to have more time to enjoy what we like, to do what we want to do, to live how we want to live. But the current of biblical wisdom runs in a considerably different direction. And Jesus, thankfully, describes it to us: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Being able to count our days wisely in order to live wisely means knowing that we can never save our lives—much less add days or weeks or years to our calendar. Tempus fugit. Since this is so, we should make the prayer of Psalm 90 our own before it’s too late.