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Adventures in Post-Modern Ministry: That Word Does Not Mean What You Think it Means

On Saturday, I went to a lecture on Jacques Lacan and the use of metaphor and narrative in counselling situations.  Because I thought it would be fun!

And, also, given the number of times I preface conversations with, “But then again, I’m postmodern, so….”, I thought brushing up on actual postmodernists would be wise.

The day started out auspiciously–there was coffee!  Good coffee, readily available!  The day could commence!  (Sometimes, these things are dicey.)  In the process of acquiring said coffee (Sacrament #8), a woman came up to me, and without preamble, announced, “Your nametag is upside down.  That could be interpreted.”  She walked away, and I decided this lecture had just become the best lecture ever.  (For the record, it got caught on my hair.  I wasn’t trying to make a statement.)
In a nutshell, Jacques Lacan was a French psychologist who reexamined the teachings and writings of Freud in light of new philosophical theories of semiotics and deconstructionism.  ::crickets:::
And the fact that this previous sentence probably made little to no sense to many, many people would have made Lacan extremely excited, and proved his point.  Which was that language itself is isolating, and to be truly understood by another person was impossible.  This is also known in my small head as The Inigo Montoya Theory of Language (Or: The  “I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think That It Means” Problem.)
Basically, it goes like this:  I say something to you, using English, our common language.   You understand me well enough, being that English is our shared language, but you understand me imperfectly, because you cannot possibly understand all of the connotations, all the memories and associations and connections that are triggered for me by the words I chose, since they came from my entire lived experience, my family’s history, and everything I know of the world that is unique to me.  And, if I attempt to explain it to you, we are facing the problem of imperfect language again.  It’s a vicious cycle!  We’re all soooooo aloooone!  Sad mimes in berets!
So, then, Lacan and other French post-modernists would argue, we are continually talking past each other to some degree or another.  (Lacan, being a psychologist, would also argue that this also makes us sad, and can ultimately motivate us to have better lives, but that’s another story.)  To try to mitigate this talking-past-problem, we humans have developed the capacity for conscious metaphorical language, since our basic language isn’t conveying literal truth so well anyway.  (In fact, you could argue, and I would, that all language is metaphor; some just more conscious than other.)  Like me saying I was brushing up on post-modernism–I wasn’t literally brushing up on Lacan.  He’s dead, and that’s both disgusting and hard to do.  But it conveys something more concrete (see, another one!) to you than me saying I was re-learning Lacan.
And here’s where I think this applies to ministry.  As we’ve become more self-consciously post-modern (or, rather, many of us have, especially those among us who are youngish), I’ve noticed our metaphors becoming more self-conscious as well, and more elaborate, almost like we’re trying to construct an entire other language with more circumscribed meanings, to lessen the innate misunderstanding.  We actually want to communicate better, have that implicit understanding, and we have a growing awareness that people are different from us, and this understanding is actually not guaranteed.  So we try to manufacture ways around that.
My brother and I went for months on end, in high school and college, where we would mainly speak to each other in quotations from ‘The West Wing.’  Aside from the fact that we clearly have extremely good taste, I think it was an attempt to find a shared language, somewhere, given that at the time, we had almost nothing else in common, no common experiences to solidify our common language.  But the world of the West Wing was static enough that if we quoted that to each other, we knew what it meant.  But outside that static world?  Nope, we were ships passing in the night.
For preaching, this is huge.  For anyone in the church at all, this is huge.   If language is freighted with extra baggage, and we can’t assume any common meanings any more, then preachers have to be extra-special, super-duper careful.  And I mean it.  Anything said is liable to misinterpretation and confusion, and not just by the one guy in the fourth row who didn’t like you in the first place.
Tape the Prayer of Humble Access to your foreheads, people, and memorize it.
 In fact, maybe we need a new one for the 21st century:
“WE DO NOT PRESUME… that those words that meant one thing when we were kids still mean that same thing.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that the Bible verse that has been comforting to me is comforting to everyone.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that because I repeat a phrase over and over again, everyone knows what it means.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…that we can continue to use the same words and phrases with abandon and everyone will understand what we mean.”
The work of preaching is now as much about constructing a common language as it is about sharing the gospel.  We have to redefine ‘salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘love’ , even ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’, because we cannot assume a common, static understanding.
We have to reconstruct one for ourselves.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

One response »

  1. Epifania Bazner

    You definitely put a new twist on a topic that’s been written about for years. Incredible stuff, just great! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think, thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner too.


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