Semantic Mysticism

It was a huge national event, televised across the nation. The main speaker stood at the podium and urged the audience to develop their "God-given abilities." He spoke of our "equality in the eyes of the Lord." He quoted an Old Testament verse; then he quoted a New Testament verse. He talked again and again about a New Covenant, lifting the phrase right from Jesus's words at the Last Supper. Who was this, a televangelist? And what was the occasion, a revival meeting? Surprise. It was a political gathering: the Democratic national convention. And the speaker was, of course, presidential candidate Bill Clinton. And Clinton wasn't the only speaker that night to use religious imagery. The Reverend Jesse Jackson spun out a story of Mary and Joseph in his speech. Political pundits were taken aback by all the religious symbolism. Historically, liberals have leaned away from public affirmations of religion. The media seemed uncomfortable with the whole thing, too, and downplayed the religious references in their reports. The only people who seemed to be happy were liberal theologians like Harvey Cox, who said it was about time liberalism got around to reclaiming religious discourse for its own purposes. But there's a difference between reclaiming religious discourse and exploiting it. What were heard that night was exploitation: biblical concepts twisted away from their original meaning. Listen to the way the Reverend Jesse Jackson talked about Mary and Joseph. He said the Holy Family was a homeless family. Well, that might make them sound real relevant, but it's just not true. Mary and Joseph had homes. They were simply unable to find accommodations their first night in Bethlehem. Then Jackson described Mary as a single mother. Wrong again. Mary's pregnancy was miraculous, to be sure. But in the eyes of the Jewish law, her engagement to Joseph was tantamount to marriage. Then Jackson really tried to be hip, and find a modern counterpart to King Herod--you know, the King Herod who ordered the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem. Jackson found a modern parallel in Vice President Dan Quayle. That's right--he hung the label on a man who has stood strong against the killing of unborn babies. Obviously, all the biblical images trotted out for convention night bore little relation to their original meaning. Biblical language was stripped from its context, and used merely to create a warm, fuzzy feeling--to evoke images of family and church and heartland. That's politics. It's also a good example of what Francis Schaeffer called "semantic mysticism": where words aren't used for their content but their connotations. Now, I'm not telling anyone who to vote for in November. That's not my job. The issue I am raising is the twisting of religious language for political purposes--and it's something we hear from both ends of the political spectrum. Christians ought to be wary when we hear a speaker using religious language and religious symbols. We need to look closely to find out what the speaker really means. Whether he's a preacher, a televangelist, or a politician.


Chuck Colson



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