Language and Love


I am a linguist. My PhD dissertation is in the field of computational linguistics, which is involves using linguistic theory to understand computability issues. As far back as I can remember, I have been bilingual, so doing translation professionally came natural My entire career is about translating one language (English) into another (machine language) without losing the meaning. I got paid very well to do that because I did it well. More than a third of that time my focus was on making the computer translate the Bible from Greek (and eventually Hebrew) into languages that don't have it yet. The software works (read about it here) but it requires some labor-intensive preparation of the Biblical text before it can become useful, and I am neither the person to do it, nor do I have the managerial skills to assemble and motivate a team to do it. But that's another story.

Today I'm thinking about some insights that my linguistic training and experience gives me into the form of the gospel message as preached in America today. The technical linguistic word is "register" which is probably derived from the musical term, or maybe from the social term. It refers to different levels in a language, as affected by different classes of people in the population. It is most pronounced when comparing street talk in American or British slums with what is used in broadcast media like the news anchors on TV, although street talk might more accurately be called a "dialect", which is almost a different language, not always and completely understood by speakers of related dialects. Some language groups have different registers for men and women. They understand each other, but do not speak the other register. That is only slightly true in American English, but the difference offers ample opportunities for confusion where the gospel is preached.

"Love" is one of the words that has a different meaning in English depending on whether the speaker is male or female. When a woman says "I love you," she means that the object of her affecdtion is expected to devote his total attention to her. When a man says that same phrase, he means that he is devoting his total attention to the object of his affection. Whenever the word is used, it means the man gives up his rights for the benefit of the woman, regardless of who is said to love whom. Most other transitive verbs, the subject acts on the object. If a man hits a woman, a different person experiences pain that when the woman hits a man. If a woman swees a man, the image forms on a different retina than when the man sees a woman, but when a man loves a woman, the same person gives up his personal identity as when the woman loves a man.

So what does it mean when the preacher says "God loves you"? The women understand that to mean that God gives up His rights for the benefit of the woman, and the man understands it to mean he (the guy hearing it) is expected to give up his rights and identity. He knows that's what it means when his mother or wife or daughter or girl friend says the same thing. Guys don't say it to each other (except in movies written by women or female wannabes).

Movies are without a doubt the best presentation of the real language spoken by the people. Women in the movies are quick to say "I love you" because it costs them nothing. The guys never say that up front, because they are not yet ready to give anything up. Or maybe they are saying it because they want something and a lie is a way to get it. Everybody watching the movie knows it's a lie. Otherwise, the story arc of the movie moves the guy to the place where he is willing to do that at the end. When it's over (in real life, not in the movies) who is it that says "I don't love you any more"? The guy. She still "loves" him -- that is, she still wants him to give up being a guy for her benefit -- but he's tired of the one-way street and wants out.

"Love" in the Bible is not this lopsided affair. The Greek verb 'agape' means that the person doing the loving is giving up rights for the benefit of the person receiving that love. God gave His Son to save sinners, but He didn't give up much else. Jesus said that "the Father will love you," but only "if you keep my commandments." It's not unconditional like the way the preachers preach it. On the other hand,the First Great Commandment certainly is expected to be unconditional. You must "love" God with all your whole self, whether or not you get anything in return. You will get access to Heaven, but there will be times when you see no benefit at all. God wants you to love Him the way women want guys to love them, but don't expect that in return. God is God, you are not. You bow and grovel, God does not. God gets to remain Who He is, but you must give up everything you thought you were, no matter who does the loving.

Did you ever notice there are more women in the churches than men? That's because when the preacher says "God loves you" -- and they all say it -- the women hear that they are getting benefits at no cost (which is absolutely not taught in the Bible), and the men hear that they must give up everything (which the Bible does say). Which one would an unbeliever prefer to hear? If the preachers want men to come to their churches, they need to stop saying "God loves you," and start preaching a gospel closer to the way it is preached in the Bible: "God created everything, so He has a right to your obedience. You screwed up, but God fixed that on the Cross, and proved it by the Resurrection, so get with the program." Guys want to hear that kind of message. And if the guys come, their women will come. I know a church near here, where the senior pastor preaches a message something like that, and he draws in the guys. One of them actually told me that, he and several guys he knows, they started going to that church, and their wives followed. There were more men than women on the Sunday I visited, a few years back. Unfortunately, the pastor does not understand what he is doing, or at least he's not training his lieutenants in why he's different from what they learned in seminary, because they all have Clue Deficit Disorder.

Tom Pittman
2016 February 4