Christian suggestion

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Nov 8 04:19:19 UTC 1999

[responding to, among others, ron butters and beth simon on
the sociolinguistics of "christian"...]

this would indeed be a fascinating - and very ambitious -
study, as some of the comments on this topic have already
suggested.  the meaning of "christian" varies enormously
from one social context to another.

in contrast to some of the extremely narrow baptist usages
reported on already (where "christian" seems to take in a
domain very close to the speaker's own beliefs and practices),
there are other contexts where it is used extremly broadly.

in lgb discussion groups on the net - where christianity is
a somewhat problematic identity, and where there are large
numbers of jews and nonbelievers in the conversation - there
is a strong inclination for self-identified christians to
take jesus's teachings of love as the defining characteristic
of christianity.  this makes large numbers of people christians,
or as near as makes no difference; many of these folks object
strenuously to this reclassification.

i have yet to find a context in which people *actually* use
belief in the resurrection of jesus (what i would take to be the
one non-negotiable central tenet of christianity) as the
characteristic distinguishing christians from all the rest.
[by "actually", i mean as a folk definition, not as a technical
definition.]  but perhaps my experience is just not as wide
as it might be.

interestingly, in another of my worlds, that of shapenote
singing (in the Sacred Harp tradition, Denson revision
specifically, for those who know about these subtleties -
note the [non-accidental] parallels to the world of baptist
groups), the issue of who is or is not a christian is deliberately
backgrounded, despite the fact that the tradition has been
intimately associated with primitive baptist and primitive
methodist churches in the rural south for over 150 years.
the texts could not be more explicitly christian - actually,
resurrection and the life hereafter are dominant themes -
and an alternative tradition even uses a book called Christian
Harmony (as opposed to Sacred Harp), and more, but singers
do not question one another on matters of doctrine, or apply
any tests to those who would join in singing; all who would
sing are welcome to join the community.  this means that
nonsouthern groups tend to have lots of nonbelievers, jews,
mormons, unitarian-universalists, roman catholics, etc., and
all these singers are welcome when they go south for singing

this extremely generous "christian" tradition coexists with
[to my mind] almost unimaginably narrow definitions of who
counts as "christian" for church-going purposes; the world
of southern shapenote singers shatters into dozens, probably
hundreds, of doctrinally incompatible congregations of
believers.  and on occasion, one of these groups is reluctant
to apply the descriptor "christian" to certain of the others.

arnold  (zwicky at

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