Champagne theology bores

My son is the only 5-year-old I know who specifically requests to watch Mary Berry cooking programmes. He gladly sits and watches back-to-back episodes totally engrossed. I’ve got absolutely nothing against Mary Berry – I find her more likeable than a lot of TV cooks – but, at the same time, I’ve never been that fussed by cookery as a process. I’m all for eating nice food, but cooking programmes don’t do anything for me. Nevertheless, my son, who both loves food, cooking and learning about processes is all over it.

I once made the mistake of thinking, because I enjoy drinking real ale (it’s not craft beer, no matter how much Americans and hipsters say otherwise), that it might be fun going on a brewery tour. As we were on holiday, my wife kindly indulged the whim. Let’s just say, enjoying a drink of beer does not make the process of beer production remotely interesting. It was one of the most tedious things I have ever done and it lives on as shorthand in our house for anything ostensibly exciting but ultimately excruciatingly dull.

Anyway, the reason the incident at the brewery entered my mind is because, in one episode of the cooking programme, Mary Berry found herself at a vintner’s (teach the lad young, I say). Though I was doing other stuff, bits of dialogue always break through whatever you are doing. And that’s when I heard it. The inevitable question, ‘is this properly called champagne?’ to which the vintner proudly affirmed (as we all knew he would), ‘No. It’s actually sparkling wine because it hasn’t come from the Champagne-region of France.’ ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

People parrot out that little titbit as though it’s clever or vaguely interesting. Everybody knows! But the worst thing about it is the way it’s said with such smug satisfaction. I know something you don’t know and I’m going to say it, publicly, to make out like I’m clever (or you’re stupid). It’s often trotted out with a dismissive laugh as if to say, ‘look at this philistine’ when, in reality, it is common knowledge and its hand as something erudite or high-brow has been well overplayed.

Let’s be honest, most people are just using what is modern shorthand. It is easier to say ‘champagne’, even though it’s technically not correct, because everyone will know exactly what you mean. But it is very much a technicality to point it out rather than correcting somebody who has obviously dropped a clanger. Everybody knows exactly what they mean by champagne and it is boring, pretentious, condescending and, frankly, unkind to make out like it matters when you know precisely what is meant.

If you have made it this far, you have probably guessed this is not a post about being gauche and condescending at dinner parties (champagne and nibbles, naturally, being a staple event round our parts going down brilliantly with Muslims and working-classes alike!) No, I was set to thinking about how often we end up acting like champagne bores in the church.

There are times in the church where people make statements that are not technically correct (and I do emphasise technically) but everybody knows are not what somebody means. Now, there are obviously times to frankly and directly correct error. I’m not talking about that here. I don’t mean people who are openly denying the resurrection or so badly articulating stuff about the trinity that cannot be credibly deemed in any way Christian. I am talking about stuff that is not technically correct but everyone knows what is meant, even if it is not articulated perfectly.

Let me give you a few examples. For one, you might hear somebody use the terminology of ‘giving your heart to Jesus.’ That often opens up the door to conversations about whether you can give your heart to Christ. But, of course, the person saying it isn’t necessarily a fully paid up Arminian desperate to undermine your theology. What is more, even on Calvinistic doctrine, whilst your salvation is monergistic, there can be no denying that – at some point – you do, indeed, decide that your heart will belong to Jesus, even if the Lord was the one who gave you that desire to start. It is a fine, technical point when everybody knows what the person meant.

Or what about ‘just going to pray.’ People get very het up about that word ‘just’ as though it defines how much you value prayer. The statement, ‘I’m going to pray’ is fine, ‘I’m just going to pray’ is apparently proof positive you think prayer is a non-event that can be done as casually as you like. But for millennials like me, ‘just’ is a filler word. And, rather than necessarily conveying a casual attitude toward prayer, it is usually the way British people are trying to soften any intrusion they might be making in asking you to do anything. But everybody knows what the person saying it means, even if ‘just praying’ is technically not ideal.

The problem with this is that it has a tendency to discourage. The person who girded up the the courage to pray in the prayer meeting gets slammed publicly by the bore who decides everyone needs to know the term ‘just’ is an egregious affront to the Lord himself and thus decides to think twice about praying next time. The person picked up for talking about ‘giving my heart to Christ’ suddenly finds themselves in a right muddle any time they are trying to evangelise because – as if that isn’t hard enough already – they now begin worrying about the technical accuracy of the phraseology that now won’t come to mind.

When we think about it, what are we hoping to achieve by our desire to correct this way? Are we really being motivated by a desire to help people know and love the Christ revealed in the scriptures better by showing them understand what he is really like? Let’s be honest, if we are genuinely motivated by this, how often is the fruit of what you’re doing leading to that? I’m going to suggest probably not often. If we’re honest, isn’t the temptation more frequently because it allows us to show everyone that we know the score, even if the person speaking doesn’t? Or maybe it’s an opportunity to take somebody down a peg or two? Or maybe it’s a character flaw in us that just can’t bear to let trifling inaccuracies that aren’t that significant go unchallenged?

Let me make two simple suggestions that may help. First, be charitable when you hear minor technical inaccuracies. Rather than assume somebody is going off the rails or doesn’t understand what they’re saying, be charitable. I’m not saying where there are major errors that need to be dealt with carefully and pastorally, I mean turns of phrase that don’t necessarily belie deeper underlying errors. Assume that people do know what they’re saying, that some phrases are just cultural and others – despite how excellent they are – are just part of the wider Christian ether in which we were brought up and will be landed upon from time to time. Assume good intent and don’t feel the need to haul people over the coals for every technical (but evidently unintended) inaccuracy you perceive.

But second, if you still feel it vital to tackle, perhaps do it apart from a room full of other people. If you are concerned somebody holds views that are problematic, maybe meet with them privately and have a chat about them. It may well be the case that you’ve misunderstood what they meant and you might have made yourself look a bit foolish in a main meeting by accusing them of things they never meant. It may be that they recognise the term they used isn’t the best but it just came to mind in the moment, but it doesn’t speak to anything else at all. If the person knows you love them (and you would only have these conversations in the context of a prior relationship, right?) our relationship will far more easily take these conversations in private than if we decide to show them their error in front of everyone (dare I say, against the process scripture suggests should happen even in circumstances in which your suspicions are entirely justified).

Let’s not trouble ourselves with minor technical inaccuracies. And if you find yourself at a party being served sparkling wine, resist the urge to speak!