My little Sally thinks quite a bit of herself. “I’m the smartest person ever,” she’ll tell me. And she’ll tell others, too. I tell you this as a prelude to a conversation I had with one of my teenage sisters.
Me: “There’s one thing I haven’t figured out how to teach Sally yet, and that’s modesty.”
Her: “I know, earlier she was sitting on that bench over there, and her legs were all sprawled out!”
Me: “Um . . . no. Actually, I meant modesty as in not being full of yourself.”
I’ve been out of that world long enough that the language no longer feels 100% natural to me. I mean obviously, I should have known where that was going, but then, I think I’ve finally managed to reclaim the word modesty. To me, modesty no longer means wearing clothes that cover the female body or keeping your legs together when you sit. To me, modesty means not flaunting your abilities in a way that causes others to feel lesser. And I think until that exchange I hadn’t realized just how fully I had made this transition.
But what this really made me think about is words—and more specifically, the way fundamentalists and evangelicals often define and use specific words differently from other individuals.
A few days ago I mentioned in the comments section that I grew up hearing that freedom meant following Jesus. In contrast, the people who spent their lives drinking and smoking and having sex and hanging out in bars—those people were living in slavery—as slaves to their lusts and desires—even though they didn’t realize it. True freedom was giving up the “lusts of the flesh,” denying yourself, and following the Bible. This is yet another example of how the way fundamentalists and evangelicals use words—freedom and slavery, in this case—differ from the way those outside of these groups use these words.
Samantha of Defeating the Dragons is doing a series on words that deals with just this. She has asked readers to write about words they have learned or reclaimed since leaving fundamentalism.
It seems like a foundational, simple concept that everyone should understand, but I know from experience that’s not true. In the environment I grew up in, I was deliberately forbidden access to all kinds of words and the concepts they represented. There are important words that everyone needs to have access to– and being denied access to those words is deliberate. Many of the leaders in conservative Christianity, and fundamentalism in particular, will never use many of the words that could help us name what’s wrong with our theological and mental frameworks.
What about you? What words have you seen used in a distinct way by evangelicals and fundamentalists? If you are a former evangelical or fundamentalist, what words have changed meaning for you?