The Language of Conversion

Note to the reader: if strong language offends you, don’t bother with this post.

I quite liked this post (HT) for the way in which John Shore is able to explain his conversion to Christianity. For me, this is the money quote as Shore takes stock of his life:

“And what happened, rather all at once, was that I saw what a complete¬†asshole I was. Isn’t that awful? All at once, the truth was before me that instead of being a good guy who’s basically always trying to do the right thing, I was a selfish, emotional weakling who was always doing and saying whatever best served my own needs at the time.”

I really recommend the whole post for the not-insignificant reason that Shore is using this kind of language – and by “this kind of language” I mean merely something that is not loaded with Christianized code-words. I mean, I think inside the church calling oneself a sinner is generally understood, but while the definition of the word is more-or-less understood in the wider world, “sinner” has come to have the folk definition of “I did something that annoyed God” or at least words to that effect. Of course if the hearer of such a word does not believe in God or in the possibility that God cares about human actions, then the category of “sinner” is rather useless. Outside of a religious connotation the word is easily dismissed as something that a religious person has done or thinks someone one else has done to annoy their particular deity.

“Asshole” though is another matter, everyone – even the Christians who might not approve of using such a word – knows what that means. More precisely, we know the visceral feel of the word “asshole” in the English language. It is a word that we use for a multitude of transgressions, but one that has a sort of human scale, it does not sound right to say “Hitler was history’s greatest asshole” or that “Torquemada behaved like a real asshole towards the Jews of Spain.” We can say on the other hand that Tiger Woods is more of asshole than we realized or that the someone at your work who took credit for some idea of yours is an asshole.

“Asshole” is a word that does well to encompass those sorts of base-level acts of selfish, cynical behaviour that, more often than not go unpunished. (And boy how we are gleeful when the assholes do get caught, “Ha ha! That asshole who cut me off is totally getting pulled over by the cops!” ) I know a lot about assholes because, well, a lot of the time I am one. This is a dangerous thing to say – not because I’m afraid you’ll figure out some kind of deep secret about me, but because it’s easy to end up saying, “yeah I’m an asshole, deal with it” which is, of course, another asshole move:

Of course, not many people in church refer to themselves as “assholes” as such language is still out of fashion in most houses of worship, but this creates another problem. In a book of Robertson Davies’ works on theatre it is mentioned that melodrama is dead everywhere in our culture except the opera. Before anyone comes to that conclusion though, they should take in some of the testimonies that Christians will give surrounding their conversions. Whatever lurid details there are are often blown up into great cosmic crimes. Maybe we need to be more mundane, because, to be honest, most of us aren’t the incarnation of evil, most of us are just assholes, and that’s word that people *get* in North American English at least.

The use of “asshole” for “sinner” may trivialize something that Christianity seems to suggest is important, but I do think that it relates to the story that most of us tell about ourselves. While in other ages it was likely that many people would regard humankind as essentially depraved, in our age it is more likely that we call ourselves basically good. In the sense that most of us are not mass-murderers or pedophiles, I suppose this is so, but who among us can say that he or she has never acted like an asshole? Who doesn’t cut people off in traffic? Who doesn’t take the occasional glee at the misfortune of others? Who doesn’t like hearing some tasty gossip? I don’t know, but try the sound of this:

“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still assholes, Christ died for us.”