How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon? June 5, 2013

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

The thing with Christianity is it’s tough for us to understand that whether you’re Mother Teresa or the Boston bombers, God loves us all the same.

We all fall short of his perfection and that’s the reason the gospel happened and Jesus had to come down and save us.

That last sentence’s middle clause — “that’s the reason the gospel happened” — will certainly have many non-Christians wondering what exactly Streelman means. His speaking in evangelistic shorthand, in an attempt to slip in a “gospel message” into the article, will leave many readers more confused than inspired. Oh, by the way, when used in this manner the “G” in “Gospel” is uppercase, because the Associated Press Stylebook says so.

The second example of Christianese comes from Paul Tesori, the caddy for Webb Simpson:

“If my daughter was watching me, I’d try to think what she would think of me at that time or if Christ was sitting with me there, would he be OK with the way I was acting. Very quickly after that I was fired from a job. I’d never been fired before.

“But in December 2010, the Lord brought me Webb Simpson and since then my walk has got 10 folds better.”

Anyone fluent in Christian religious jargon will recognize that the “walk” Tesori is talking about is a metaphorical walking in faith with Jesus. But when the speaker is someone whose job literally involves walking for a living, the lack of context could be confusing and even lead some to think that perhaps he was physically healed of some ailment.

Zach Johnson, who is also given plenty of space to talk about his faith, only slips into Christanese near the end of his section:

“If I have a bad day, it’s irrelevant; if I have a good day frankly it’s irrelevant. My scorecard is irrelevant. The best part is when I get here and I can see my family.

“I think a lot of us Christians out here like to utilize our platform and witness what is important in our faith. If anything I would like to witness when I have a bad day, that’s really what it boils down to.”

Why would anyone want to witness when they have a bad day? And what does that mean exactly? Obviously, in this context, Johnson is using “witness” as a synonym for evangelistic activity. But again, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

In each of these examples I don’t fault the reporters for the confusion. Clarifying these points could be considered by many readers to be pedantic and condescending. A stylistic Catch 22.

So what is a reporter to do? Do journalists have an obligation to clarify religious jargon for readers? Is the responsibility for understanding the language of faith traditions on the reader? I’m curious to hear how GetReligion readers think such quotes should best be handled.

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4 responses to “How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?”

  1. Not to mention that “ten folds” is clearly the reporter’s (or the proofreader’s garbling of “tenfold”.
    I guess the press doesn’t get English either.

  2. wlinden,
    The quote may an accurate rendering rather than journalistic ignorance.

    I’d rather deal with quotes in Christianese than with reporters who use Christianese to describe the actions of other faith traditions (a la reporters for the Oklahoman). Attempts to clarify the quotes could lead to further misunderstanding. Those proficient in the lingo will get it, and those who are not probably won’t care.

  3. Perhaps the reporters could ask their interviewees for a definition, clarification, or a rephrasing that they could quote instead? That way the subjects can clarify their own terms, rather than the reporter adding on. Even if the second quote isn’t as good, it gives them something genuine to paraphrase.

    I’m picturing something like this:
    “But in December 2010, the Lord brought me Webb Simpson and since then my walk [with Christ] has got 10 folds better.”

    • Your post makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, it presupposes a knowledgeable and top-notch reporter. But that’s the ideal.

      And allowing the interviewee to expand on the potentially confusing term is also a good idea.

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