Friday, March 8, 2013

Combat boots vs. sandals (late-night ramblings on language and perception)

from here
If you’ve ever tuned into 702 ABC radio between 11-12pm on a weekday, you’ve probably heard Richard Fidler’s Conversations program, of which I’m a devotee. Fidler interviews a person a day (usually; sometimes two or three), and even if the introduction makes me wonder if I’ll be interested in what’s to follow, I generally arrive at my destination wishing the drive had been longer so I could continue listening (alas, Moses is always uninterested in sitting and waiting for the hour to end, no matter how articulate the guest or how interesting the topic). Recently I caught the last 15 minutes of Fidler’s conversation with Stephen Poole, and was entertained enough to download the podcast and listen to the whole interview last night. Poole is the author of a book called You Aren’t What You Eat, and he makes for an entertaining interviewee; you should listen to the podcast if you have a spare 50-or-so minutes and are at all interested in thinking about our culture’s obsession with food. However, none of this is what I actually set out to write about, so, moving on:

During the conversation Poole mentions how language changes a person’s perception of what they’re eating. He gives the example of an experiment that was done with a crab ice cream made by Heston Blumenthal: one group of people were told they’d be trying an ice cream, and the other group was told they’d be trying a savoury mousse; the first group hated it, the second thought it was a hit. This section jumped out at me because earlier in the day I’d heard an interview with Nicholas Broadbent, who was expanding on what he’d written in an opinion piece about the police. He argued that as he sees it (and, as he pointed out in his article and in the radio interview, he’s not unbiased), one problem with the police is a clash of perceptions: the people perceive them as a presence who mean safety for them and their loved ones, whereas the police perceive themselves as a powerful force, which is not helped, according to Broadbent, by the fact that they’re uniformed in combat boots and cargos and various weaponry (military gear, essentially). Broadbent reckons that changing the name from “police force” to “police service” will make a significant difference in changing the polices view of themselves so that there are fewer violent incidents like the one we’ve heard about (or if you’re braver than I am seen) since the Mardi Gras last weekend.

This idea of language changing perception fascinates me, and leads my thoughts directly to conversations I’ve been having with my husband and pastor about headship and women in ministry. Like many Christians, I don’t fully understand headship, but I take what Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-29* as something of an explanation: it looks like husbands loving their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25), and loving their wives in the same way they love and care for their own bodies (verse 28). The issue arises when people read “head” and jump straight to “leader,” which immediately introduces a bunch of problematic perceptions related to who’s in power and what that power means. Even if you stress that “leadership” equals “servant leadership,” the use of a hierarchical term like “leader” – in today’s culture, with today’s understanding of this language – automatically puts ideas in people’s minds about what is expected of a husband, and, unfortunately, too many of those ideas contrast with Jesus’ (and Paul’s) expectations.

It’s unsurprising that key people in the early church – including Paul and Timothy – were called “servants” (deacons), “slaves,” “overseers” and “shepherds,”  or that Peter places himself as an equal among the older men of the churches to which he’s writing by referring to himself a “fellow elder” (in 1 Peter 5:1): Jesus was fairly clear about what he wanted from his disciples, and it didn’t look like anything we’d expect from a “leader” today. Instead, it involved washing feet, being humble like children, serving others even at great personal cost. I’m not going to delve deeper into Jesus’ teaching about authority and hierarchy because earlier this week I read a wonderful series by Kristen Rosser on this very topic here**; I’m simply saying that I think it’s telling that Jesus spelled out his expectations for his disciples using “servant” language rather than “leader” language, and that his disciples embraced this teaching as they planted and pastored churches after Jesus’ ascension: they thought this language was important, even all those years ago.

When talking to my (complementarian) pastor recently, he explained his understanding of headship by saying that a Christian “head” lives out his headship by giving up power in order to bring everyone else up to his level; I told him that I agreed with him, but that this sounded awfully egalitarian. If this is what complementarians mean when they talk about “leadership,” then I have less of a problem with their theology than I thought; my problem ends up being primarily a language one. Why hang on to unhelpful terms like “leader” if, practically speaking, you end up with no hierarchy? 

As for those who cling desperately to hierarchy, who continue to label husbands and pastors “leaders” and talk about “authority” (applying it exclusively to males), it doesn’t matter how often they add the word “servant” or explain what they mean by “giving yourself up;” those who believe this or repeatedly hear it taught will have a skewed perception of their roles/the roles of others, and it too often leads to a focus on how to live out the “leader” part rather than the “servant” one. If anyone could claim the name and nature of a leader (as we interpret the word today) in their time on earth, surely God could (in fact, many people expected the Messiah to take on exactly this role), and yet Christ came in sandals rather than combat boots, and humbled himself in order to lift others up, and he encouraged his disciples to follow his example.

This was supposed to be an extremely short Friday-night post with at least one mention of the fact that it was still half-baked because my brain is mush and I have an assignment due next week and I’m tired and feeling very pregnant (and I’m not even very pregnant, I’m only halfway-there pregnant, and that’s even more discouraging). SORRY ABOUT THAT. Alls I’m saying is, language shapes perception and perception shapes action, and therefore the language we use is IMPORTANT.

Jesus knew it, and he was a pretty wise dude. We should totally listen to him.


* For a good analysis of this passage, I recommend Kristen Rosser’s, which was put up as a guest post here.

** For those who notice, I know it seems a little fangirly*** to point you to two Kristen Rosser links on separate issues BUT I promise I hadn’t realised the first was written by her when I first went looking for it again after writing this post. We cool? 

*** Although I guess this is to be expected as I’ve just recently discovered her blog and have become a massive fan. Who is also a girl...


  1. Yes.

    This reminded me of the road signs that used to say "Slow vehicles use left lane."
    Apparently, this sign was generally ignored because people didn't want to admit that *they* were slow.
    When the sign was changed to say "Keep left unless overtaking" people happily obeyed and the directive was a success.

    PS I can think of other examples too. ;)

    1. I'll have to ask you about your other examples - this stuff makes me remember why I chose Linguistics. It's FASCINATING.

  2. Good thoughts-- and thanks for the boost to my blog! Congrats on the pregnancy!