Christianity in a World of "Newspeak"
In his book 1984, George Orwell introduced the fictional language he called “Newspeak.” The totalitarian party that ruled Oceania created Newspeak in order to limit and control the thought and language of the people and to keep them in line with the party’s ideology.
One of the most recognizable quotes from 1984 is the series of slogans printed in huge letters on a government building:
War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.
These statements are a prime example of Newspeak. They illustrate the idea of stating and claiming to believe inherently contradictory ideas. By controlling and redefining the words its citizens use, the party in Orwell’s dystopia is able to control thought itself. Those raised on Newspeak lose the very ability to think outside of the categories of the party because the words required to do so no longer exist.
It is instructive to consider Newspeak because it can shed light on some of the difficulties Christians face when attempting to speak or write on important issues in today’s often Orwellian world. Those in power and those seeking power in various cultural realms often hijack language and redefine words and concepts in an attempt to control what they deem acceptable thought and speech.
This takes different forms, depending on who the hijackers are, their ideology, and the nation in which they live, but the phenomenon itself has been widespread, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century. Christians need to be aware of what is going on and the way language is being used and abused in ways that undermine the very ability to think.
If Christians remain unaware that the contemporary purveyors of Newspeak are changing the meaning of the words and concepts we use, it is very easy to go along with those new definitions without realizing it. If we go along with the Newspeak, however, we are in serious trouble.
Christians must become more conscious of the ways in which the culture is re-defining words and concepts and the way it is using these re-defined words and concepts to enforce “goodthink” – or in contemporary terms, political correctness. If we do not become more aware of these things, all we are going to do is contribute to the current chaos and confusion. We will not be able to clearly communicate the Gospel with the lost, and we will cause confusion when we attempt to communicate with other believers.
Because so many Christians are unaware of how the culture is redefining everything, we have become thoroughly confused about when, whether, and how to answer some of the questions our neighbors are asking us today. The equivocation, contradiction, and confusion inherent in Newspeak makes Christian discourse in a culture infected with it extraordinarily difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.
In order to give true and biblical answers in our conceptually and linguistically confused culture, we need to step back and take a deep breath. The world isn't going to let this be easy. But there are a few things I think we can consider.
First, whenever we are dealing with difficulties, let us start with an examination of our own hearts. What is going on in the world around us can easily make us frustrated and angry, and when we become frustrated and angry, we can easily slip into a self-righteous Pharisaism. We have to stop, look in the mirror, and by God's grace discern our own sins and repent of them before we can even begin to consider those in the world around us.
Second, and closely related to the first, we need to be slower to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ. The chaos caused by the purveyors of contemporary Newspeak makes it very easy to misunderstand and to be misunderstood. Let us make every effort to listen to our brothers and sisters with a judgement of charity, rather than publicly jumping to conclusions about what they “must” mean by this or that comment. What we say online to and about other Christians is visible to the entire world.
Third, as much as we disagree with the various anti-Christian ideologies that exist in the world today, their advocates are human beings made in the image of God. They are lost and in slavery to the kingdom of darkness and to a powerful and evil deceiver. We've been tasked to bring the Gospel to them, not to create amusing memes about them. We must always remember that we too were enemies of God who were dead in sin. God had compassion on us. We must not forget that we are saved by grace. The Gospel is to be proclaimed to all – even the author of that aggravating Facebook post that your Aunt Gertrude shared with you.
An outstanding summary of these basic ideas may be found in John Newton’s Letter on Controversy. I highly recommend reading it if you are involved in discussions of controversial topics at any level.
Finally, how can we proclaim and defend the faith in a world where language itself has lost any solid foundation? One basic approach to the “how” question involves finding out the beliefs of the person to whom you are speaking and starting there. If the person, for example, believes the Old and New Testament are both the Word of God and authoritative, we can start there. If the person believes the Old Testament is authoritative, we can start in the way Paul did when he went to the synagogues. If the person claims to believe in the existence of a transcendent deity, we can start there. And so on.
But what if the person has adopted some or all of the beliefs Newspeak and has adopted a completely relativistic view of truth, goodness, beauty, and language itself? Do we even have a starting point if language itself is in question? Are we reduced to screaming and hand waving and believing that whoever screams the loudest and longest wins?
While that may be the strategy that certain segments of the culture have adopted, I think we do have a better and more reasonable starting point even in this case because although many people claim to have a completely relativistic view of truth, goodness, and language, they don’t actually believe it, and their words and actions make that clear.
As an example, I can say the words “square circle” as often and as much as I’d like. I can even say I believe in square circles. But I can’t think one, draw one, or make one. And neither can anyone else. Those words are merely sounds coming out of my mouth. They are nothing more than gibberish because they express a self-contradiction.
So, how might we find a starting point in a world where people claim they believe that circles are squares? We're going to have to remind people of "oldspeak." We're going to have to dust off the metaphysical concepts and the words that have been effectively censored or redefined by the thought police. We are going to have to help people see that they don't really believe the contradictions coming out of their mouths.
For example, one starting point we can consider is ethical in nature.
What I mean by this is that we can start with the moral outrage many of the proponents of Newspeak express – vocally, online, and in print. They often vocally argue that they are angry about certain events and actions, saying that they are wrong. Often these acts are wrong. However, and this is what we will need to gently show them, at the same time they are talking or writing about how “wrong” this or that thing is, they have adopted a framework of thought about ethics that rules out the very possibility that any act could ever be objectively wrong or unjust.
This common worldview tells us repeatedly and assuredly that all ethical judgments of right and wrong are merely individual preferences. In other words, the things you call “right” are merely those things you happen to prefer. The things you call “wrong” are those you don’t prefer. There is nothing objective here because other people have different preferences. Whether an action is right or wrong is basically reduced to individual personal tastes, in much the same way that food preferences are a matter of individual tastes.
But if this view of ethical judgment, of right and wrong, is really what you believe, why would you ever get morally outraged about anything? No one gets outraged that other people have different tastes in food and then act on those preferences. So why would we get outraged when other people have different tastes in right and wrong and act on those?
Those who hold to this kind of ethic claim that it applies to every human act, in which case they should never experience moral outrage. But the fact that they do get morally outraged at some acts indicates that they don’t truly believe that the rightness or wrongness of every human act is a matter of individual taste. It is being selectively and arbitrarily applied.
The fact that professed relativists get morally outraged can be one possible starting point for discussion because it indicates that, for some reason, they hold some actions to be worthy of moral outrage. The discussion can hone in on the question: Why? Their outrage indicates that, whether they admit it or not, they are acting as if there is some kind of ethical standard that transcends individual human preferences or tastes. It is pointing to the existence of their conscience and to their awareness of the transcendent law of God.
Big Brother can try as he might to be the absolute Lord and determiner of all reality. He’s been trying and failing since the Garden. Those who are lost may also think they can defy reality and create it in their own image. Reality, however, always wins in the end because God Himself is the ultimate uncreated reality, and all of created reality is what it is because He created it so.
Those who follow Sauron, Jadis the White Witch, or Voldemort, all want to conform external reality to their own minds because they want to be like god and create reality in their image. God, however, has already created reality and it conforms to His mind. Our minds must be conformed to this reality, to the objectively true, good, and beautiful.
The good, the true, and the beautiful are intimately linked. Fight one and you lose them all. Fight the One, and you lose everything.