Theological Linguistics

Or, why I make so many movie and video game references

So, I have a Master of Divinity degree. I spent three years studying God, religion, and Christianity specifically at the graduate level. I understand biblical Greek, I can discuss doctrinal heresies (and have a favorite), and I am confident in my exegesis. (I’m good at the study and interpretation of Scripture).

And my favorite way to talk about God is using movie and video game references.

I’m not alone, among my friends or otherwise. Matt Rawle, also a UMC pastor, has made his name by publishing several Bible studies tying theology to popular culture. But I see the real-or-imagined eye rolls when I post yet another Frozen II blog post or use it as a sermon illustration. I’ve spent many of my spiritual direction sessions recently waxing philosophical about how the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts III or Persona 5 relate to how we understand and experience God. I find myself wanting to apologize, wondering if I’m totally off-base.

But here’s the reality. That M.Div. I mentioned up there? I loved every moment of study, every course I took to earn it. It’s a valuable and necessary credential for ordination. And it does nothing to help me reach people who won’t step foot in a church or aren’t interested in the distinction between homoousios and homoiousios. If I can’t translate those advanced concepts and principles into language that reaches people where they are, then I’ve missed the point.

The Bible is a collection of ancient texts that Christians hold as sacred. It speaks to the specificity of the Jewish and Christian experiences, as the sacred texts of other faiths name the specificity of their principles and traditions. Yet the Bible, like other sacred texts, also points to the universality of the human experience.

Humanity is on a shared journey, though our vehicles and our way points and our intended destinations may vary. The stories that make up our shared journey are not restricted to canonical texts; they appear everywhere, in music and film and video games. And if I can illuminate the ancient texts using pop culture, then that is the language I will speak. Maybe then, a young person or a person who has been harmed by others’ explanations of “God” can realize that God is working in the world for them as well.

We don’t consciously connect theology to linguistics, but part of our interpretive responsibility is to speak the language of those who aren’t tuned in to the strange ways that God engages with humanity. Pop culture offers a fluid, adaptive, and accessible way to translate God for humanity, and we should strive to speak the language–lest our faith traditions be rightly written off as insular and archaic.

So, when you start to wonder why your pastor always has a Disney reference or a song lyric at the ready (especially if your pastor is me), consider it a theological travel guide. Take the time to flex your own theological muscles by watching for God the next time you watch a movie or play a game. You might be surprised at how theologically bilingual you already are.