Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Trouble With Words

It's not often a sermon makes front page news. But as I glanced at the newspaper section in Tesco this morning, I read of a "firebrand evangelical" in Belfast who labelled Islam "the spawn of the devil." Any publicity is good publicity, right?

I find it hard to know how to respond to this kind of story. I usually like to distance myself from crazy evangelicals and console myself with the reminder that they don't represent "true Christianity." Christianity, after all, is a religion of love and tolerance and acceptance.

Then comes more tired liberal-multicultural speak, the kind that George Bush would have given before the U.S. invaded an Islamic country and killed its men, women, and children: Islam is a religion of peace. It is fundamentalists who give it a bad name. They have co-opted it for political-ideological purposes.

In sum, I am tempted to distance myself from Christian fundamentalists, and to distance Islam from Islamic fundamentalists. All of this tends to be based on the vague notion of "tolerance." The same strategy can be employed by any reasonable secular liberal: Christianity with any "public" or "political" interest is dangerous, but "true Christianity," which is a private matter practised by a collection of pious individuals, is a perfectly acceptable phenomenon with which we can peacefully co-exist.

I think one of the reasons I find it difficult to respond has to do with the nature of language. This is one reason why the media is not a neutral observer reporting the news. The media shapes the way words like "Christian," "evangelical," "Muslim," "political," "religion" and "fundamentalist" are understood. These words carry an enormous amount of rhetoric and emotion, but very little concrete meaning. Much is assumed when one uses these words, but many of these assumptions don't stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, they sometimes distract from what is really going on.

There is a word that appears four or five times in the extract from the sermon that appears in the paper. It is a word that Christians would do well to scrutinise. That word is "Britain." If there is a fundamentalism on display here, it is this word that might give us a clue to its true source.


  1. Once again, I think you are spot-on. The Telegraph excerpted some lines from the "speech" and I tracked them down to find that the preacher in question did indeed allude to the "rivers of blood" speech that Enoch Powell delivered in 1968. In other words, the problem with Muslims isn't that they are Islamic, but they are foreigners.

  2. As I was thinking about this I was reminded of a piece you wrote a while back: "what Ireland needs is more fundamentalist sectarians" or something like that. That such a claim would be almost unintelligible to the media makes me think it's almost certainly true.