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Susan Willhauck

The Urban Dictionary, Street Wisdom


and God: An Intersection of Linguistics
and Theology
Abstract: One intriguing cultural phenomenon today is changes in language.

While language has always evolved, there is an emerging linguistically based


cultural wisdom that is worthy of exploration in theology. The Urban Dictionary
contains thousands of entries; words and phrases perhaps unknown a decade or
so ago. Some of these have crept into mainstream English, while others fall into a
category that might be reckoned as street wisdom. Many new words have been
born from technology, social networking and globalization, as words and wisdom cross cultures and are highly influential in the worldviews of young people.
The Urban Dictionary website boasts that this is the dictionary you wrote and
tells people to define your world. The implicit claim is that we are no longer
bound by traditional language and meanings and that we can name reality for
ourselves.
Zusammenfassung: Die Vernderung der Sprache ist heute ein faszinierendes
kulturelles Phnomen. Obwohl sich die Sprache immer weiterentwickelt hat,
zeichnet sich eine linguistisch fundierte kulturelle Weisheit ab, die es wert ist, in
der Theologie untersucht zu werden. Das Urban Dictionary enthlt mehrere
tausend Eintrge, Wrter und Stze, die vielleicht vor etwa einem Jahrzehnt noch
unbekannt waren. Einige davon haben ihren Einzug in den allgemeinen englischen Sprachgebrauch gefunden, whrend andere in eine Kategorie fallen, die
mehr zum Alltagswissen gehrt. Viele neue Wrter haben ihren Ursprung in der
Technologie, in sozialen Netzwerken und der Globalsierung, da Wrter und
Weisheiten interkulturell sind und einen groen Einfluss auf die Weitsicht von
jungen Menschen haben. Die Internetseite des Urban Dictionary verkndet
stolz, dass es das Wrterbuch, dass Sie verfasst haben sei und sagt Menschen
definieren Sie Ihre Welt. Die implizite Behauptung ist dabei, dass wir durch die
traditionelle Sprache und ihre Bedeutung nicht mehr gebunden sind und dass wir
die Realitt selbst fr uns bestimmen knnen.

Susan Willhauck: Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology,


Atlantic School of Theology, 660 Francklyn Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 3B5, Canada,
Email: swillhauck@astheology.ns.ca

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An intriguing social and cultural phenomenon of today is the rapid revolution in


language. New words are popping up everywhere as well as new definitions for
old words. This essay contends that while language has always evolved, there is
an emerging linguistically based wisdom from street culture that is worthy of
exploration in theology. This exploration is especially evident in recent black
theology, for example.1 A curious case of todays linguistic innovation is the
online Urban Dictionary2which contains five hundred thousand entries, multiplying daily. Many of these words and phrases were unknown a decade ago,
contributing to what has been reckoned as street wisdom.3 This language and
wisdom crosses cultures and is highly influential in the construction of our worldviews. Phrases that some years ago may have been confined to one geographic
location now have become viral and global due to technology and social networking. The Urban Dictionary website boasts that this is the dictionary you wrote
and entices people to define your world. The implicit claim is that we are no
longer bound by traditional language and meanings, and that we can name
reality for ourselves. Started by Aaron Peckham in 1999 as a dormitory activity,
The Urban Dictionary encouraged Peckhams friends to track their regional slang
expressions, but has turned into an ever evolving portrait of the [English]
language.4 Peckham reports that more than two million people visit the site
every month. Users range from creatively rebellious teenagers to twenty and thirty
somethings to rents and teachers who want to know why their kids keep
referring to them as hella bootsie, to linguists and yes, theologians.
Peckham alleges that The Urban Dictionary is the irreverent calling card of a
linguistic generation. And of course, it sells t-shirts, mugs and all manner of gotto-have-it detritus. He writes: These definitions might be funny to some and
offensive to others but thats the nature of the urban beast. To those who cant
take the linguistic heat, I can only say stop off and chillax. Everyone deserves the
opportunity to understand and be understood.5
For the purposes of this article, I am asking how does this define your
world attitude and this use of language affect religious faith. I am coming to
1 See Anthony B. Pinn, Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, New York (Continuum)
2006, and Ralph Basui Watkins, Hip Hop Redemption. Finding God in the Rhythm and the
Rhyme, Grand Rapids (Baker Academic) 2011.
2 http://www.urbandictionary.com.
3 See Caitlin Cahill, Street Literacy. Urban Teenagers Strategies for Negotiating their Neighborhood, in: Journal of Youth Studies 3 (2000), 251-277. She describes street literacy as a conceptual
framework for self-construction in light of the urban experience.
4 Aaron Peckham, Urban Dictionary. Fularious Street Slang Defined, Riverside (Andrews McMeel
Publishing) 2005, vii.
5 Ibid.

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this topic as a Christian pastoral theologian, while some of the thinking can refer
to religious faith in general, it is written through a Christian lens. There may be
aspects that would not coalesce with the worldviews of other religious traditions.
This article is part of a larger project on linguistics and faith formation to deploy
discourse analysis and semiotics toward further understanding of how ways of
talking, proverbs, catchphrases and euphemisms of a particular cultural group
impact the formation of faith. I am going to proceed by recounting two personal
experiences that fueled my interest in the subject and lead into my research
question. I locate this issue in a post-modern context, discuss the activity of
committing faith and address the notion of street as a metaphor for people who
inhabit the milieu of popular culture and as context for social critique and
transformation as some authors suggest.6 I explore changes in language and
street wisdom (as exemplified by The Urban Dictionary) and their relation to
religious faith as defined by theologians Paul Tillich and Marcus Borg. I will
examine some contributions from linguistic study, and then unpack the theological significance and implications for ministry. I hope to make a case that new
ways of speaking have power in the formation of faith, that some popular street
language can and does reveal God and can be useful in doing Christian theology
and ministry.

Two Encounters
One hot afternoon I had to make a run to the ATM machine in downtown Halifax,
Nova Scotia. As I walked up the sidewalk to approach the bank, a young woman
and man who looked to be in their early twenties were hanging around. An aura
of sadness lingered with them. I noted that the woman was in the latter stage of
pregnancy. As I approached them, I could not help but hear that every other word
or so from both of them was the fword. I thought, admittedly judgmentally, that
the child about to be born would quickly learn to imitate this speech. I dropped
back my pace so as not to appear to eavesdrop, and when they realized they were
blocking my way, the couple quickly moved and the woman exclaimed, Oh my
God! Excuse our fing bad manners. Now in my sanitized, middle class suburban social location, the fword was strictly taboo - just about the worst thing
you could say. I would get my mouth washed out for much less! Now it seems
the word comes so easily off the lips of many; it works as a noun, a verb, an
adjective and for some, according to popular commentator Lewis Black, its a

6 See Gill Valentine, Social Geographies. Space and Society, New Jersey (Prentice Hall) 2001.

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comma.7 Perhaps more problematic than the use of obscenities is the repetition,
the clutter that these words create, distracting from understanding. Today the
taboos against the fword are weaker than ever. Professional athletes say it;
politicians say it; most publications print it. The Urban Dictionary contains very
many references to the word and its derivatives. I asked what, if anything, does
this everyday conversation between two young people and their way of talking
have to say to those of us who do theology and ministry? Might there be religious
impulses or common religion, as described by Grace Davie,8 just beneath the
surface of their interaction?
Now let me transport you to Norfolk, Virginia, another seaport town I visited
recently. While doing some research for another project, I met with a young
African American Baptist minister named Steve. He was working the crowd at a
sports bar where a group had gathered to watch a ball game. Steve had asked
me to meet him there to talk with me for my project. As people he knew came in,
however, he was distracted and began to greet them, How the hell you doin
and so forth. I heard him use the f-word frequently, often in the same sentence
that he was talking about his church and ministry. I was not shocked, the shock
value of the word has long since worn off, but rather curious. And when he
enthusiastically uttered Jesus, I could not tell if he was praising, cursing or
praying for help for the ball players. In much the same way, Kenda Creasy Dean
says OMG is at the same time a ubiquitous adolescent throw away line, and a
prayer, petition...or an unbidden entreaty.9 Steve told me, Its the language of
my peeps. I have to speak their language to minister to them. It gives me street
cred. If there is a perceived dichotomy between God talk/church talk and
secular or profane talk as acknowledged by theologian Gordon Kaufman,10 then
Steve bridged that in his own way. I am not suggesting that we use the f-word
to be relevant, but I want to explore how the profane language of the street
gives insight into how people receive religious meaning and come to experience
God.

7 Lewis Black is an American stand-up comedian, author, playwright, social critic and actor.
This is from his introduction to Jesse Sheidlouers The F Word, Oxford (Oxford University Press)
32009.
8 Grace Davie offers sociological evidence for the existence of a common religion that she
describes as believing without belonging. See: Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945,
Oxford (Blackwell Publishing) 1994,74-116.
9 Kenda Creasy Dean (ed.), OMG. A Youth Ministry Handbook, Nashville (Abingdon Press) 2010,
xi.
10 Gordon D. Kaufman, God the Problem, Harvard (Harvard University Press) 1972.

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A Post-Modern Context
Our way of being in the world today has been described as post-modern, itself an
evasive term with philosophical roots in Jacques Derrida and others. My task here
is not to analyze theories of post-modernism, suffice it to say that post-modernity
is accompanied by the sense that things have changed dramatically. Some of
those changes include a questioning of authority and a suspicion of institutions
and tradition. While post-modernism marks an important shift from word to
image and some suspect that this shift has paralleled the decline of religions that
are closely tied to texts, there is, however, a sense that words are still important.11
Theology is not solely a linguistic discipline, but still we are linguistic creatures.
Augustine influenced Western understanding of words as signifiers, a theory
carried forward by Saussure in linguistics, and we assume this in academic
writing in order to be understood and make our point.12 But the post-modern
attitude is that words should say what you want them to and not what someone
else says they should.13Some judge this as a hopeless relativization and eclipse of
meaning. Bad means good. Down is the new up, as a sign in an elevator reads.
Others see this polysemy as an opportunity for dialogue and ministry. But more
on this later.

Committing Faith
Since I have claimed that new ways of speaking could have power in the formation of religious faith, I should expound on what I mean by faith. I am talking
about faith in the sense of Tillichs ultimate concern.14 A universal (following
H. Richard Niebuhr), an act of committing, of being oriented toward something.
Everyone has faith in something. People in a post-modern age, however, may
attribute less reverence to their ultimate concern, and they do not put all their
eggs in one basket. Religious faith then is a commitment to how a particular
tradition (or traditions) provides meaning. This understanding of religious is
more functional than substantive. It is less about content and essential elements

11 Craig Detweiler / Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings. Finding God in Pop Culture, Grand
Rapids (Baker Academic) 2003,289.
12 See John E. Joseph, The Linguistic Sign, in: Carol Sanders (ed.), The Cambridge Companion
to Saussure Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 2004,59-75.
13 Detweiler / Taylor (n. 11), 284.
14 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, New York (Harperone) 1957,1.

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and more about religions ability to perform social, hermeneutical or transcendent functions.15
Rather than a cognitive assent to certain beliefs or truths, faith as orientation
or the act of committing is, as Marcus Borg claimed, not trust in propositions
about God, but radical trust in God, a floating in the ocean of God. Faith is
faithfulness in our relationship with God.16 Faith, he writes, is also a way of
seeing, of visio, how we see the whole of life and how we respond. If one sees life
as hostile and threatening, one might respond defensively by building walls of
various proportions that can stimulate patterns of conservative religious identity.
If one perceives the whole as indifferent, not out to get us necessarily, but
unconcerned with what happens to us, then our best bet is to grab all the toys we
can and enjoy it while it lasts. A third way of seeing what is is to view it as lifegiving, sustaining and nourishing, in other words as gracious. This does not
discount suffering and the terrible things we do to each other; life is not always
nice and our language reflects that. But this view is that how we see reality
really matters, for how we see (and I would add and talk about reality) affects how
we experience it.17
Faith, whatever the particular religious manifestation of it, may come
through socialization as people take on values and behavioral patterns of their
primary social group.18 It may develop and change over the life cycle. It can come
unexpectedly from inexplicable impulses (and vanish just as mysteriously). It can
come from the street. Some of the definitions of faith on The Urban Dictionary
convey the unsubstantiated, irrational belief idea. One whimsical offering is, the
ability to believe in something in which there is no physical evidence for, this
ability is found just below the left nipple.Another definition given is: the reason
I passed math. On The Urban Dictionary, visitors have the opportunity to vote up
or down to indicate whether they agree or disagree with a particular definition.
These definitions of faith sparked some intriguing debate on the site. In this light,
my pastoral question is how can ministers (faithful people) help with the seeing,
the way people in the cultures of the street discover ultimate concern, and with
their own language speak the whole and how can they help us all live faithfully.

15 Gordon Lynch, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, Oxford (Blackwell Publishing)
2005,27f.
16 Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, San Francisco (Harper) 2003,28,32.
17 Ibid., 34-36.
18 In contrast to Davies believing without belonging this construction of religious identity is
described by Abby Day in: Believing in Belonging. Belief and Social Identity in the Modem World,
Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2011. Perhaps the street is providing the social, hermeneutical
and transcendent function.

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Street as Metaphor
Street in this context is a metaphor for people who create and are influenced by
popular culture, broadly including those who are out and about in the streets, in
cyberspace or elsewhere encountering and changing the world. Street is not a
monolithic culture and has an underside of homelessness, gangs and crack
houses. Street may also imply classism that determines who has access to the
stuff in our commodified world. Street includes people from all generations, but
seems to be represented by twenty-somethings, a hinge generation that stays
away from church, but listens to music about God and posts millions of theological musings on blogs and social networks.19Street has its own music and language
and forms values - its own wisdom. Although some values proffered by hip hop
and rap music are problematic (misogyny, homophobia, for example), Anthony
Pinn suggests that the culture of blues, rap and hip hop has a theological function
of expressing black suffering. He writes about nitty gritty hermeneutics, as a raw
expression of reality, of telling it like it is.20 He argues that conscious rap is a
creative way of making meaning, of forging a sense of self and community in a
hostile environment.21 The Urban Dictionary reinterprets concepts often in distasteful ways, but also in surprisingly theologically insightful ways. For example,
the word Church as derived from rap artist Snoop Dog is now a term for generalized approval or agreement - like amen. Church to that! Another entry for
church is Similar to a mental hospital, but with less physical restraints.22This is
not so far removed from the idea of faith as being committed.
So the street does have dealings with God. Paul Tillich wrote of the latent
church23 and Moltmann recognized implicit theology.24 More recently Kelton
Cobb acknowledged the theological improvisation that occurs in popular culture.25 Lady Gaga talks to Jesus during her concerts. The Urban Dictionary has a

19 Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith. The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, San Francisco
(Jossey Bass) 1998, ix, xiii, 41 f.
20 Pinn (n. 1), 116-117.
21 Anthony Pinn (ed.), Noise and Spirit. The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music,
New York (New York University Press) 2003, 2. See also Tricia Rose, Black Noise. Rap Music and
Black Culture in Contemporary America, Middletown, Connecticut (Wesleyan University Press)
1994.
22 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=church.
23 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 1959,51.
24 Jrgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society. The Public Relevance of Theology, London (SCM
Press) 1999,5.
25 Kelton Cobb, The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2005,75.

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video journal of a man on the path to becoming a Jesuit priest attached to an entry
on the word spirituality. Theology has to do with popular culture, according to
Tom Beaudoin, because theology has to do with living religiously, which always
takes place within a culture.26 Popular culture is both a resource for theologians
and a potential source of new theologies.

Popular Culture and Being Relevant and Irreverent


Many theologians through the ages have wrestled with the problem of relevance
or how to make the faith relevant and communicate it in the language of the
masses. Some fall into the snare of uncritical celebration of all forms of popular
culture.27Yet it may well be that relevance is more of a modernist concept and the
post-modern context turns the question in on itself. It may be that shifting modes
of thought and conceptualization impinge upon theology and shape our understandings of God. What is relevant changes theology and faith, and so our
question is how we deal with that.
There are numerous books that point out how popular culture including
music, film, books, television, technology, advertising, fashion, etc. is filled with
theological references.28 Popular culture has been defined as a condition in
which a mass audience is created by urbanization, democratization and technology. It is a shared environment, practices, resources of everyday life.29 It both
reflects who we are as people and helps shape us as a people.30 Popular culture
is a primary instrument for forging personal identity and probing the cosmos for
meaning.31 Beaudoin speaks of it as amniotic fluid, a major meaning making
system.32 Popular culture has been called the lingua franca of the post-modern
world.33Yet overestimating pop cultures ability to influence may indeed frustrate
those generations who rightly claim to think for themselves. While many think
that popular culture is driven completely by the irreligious values of the marketplace, other influences are shown to be present. Beaudoin suggests that the

26 Beaudoin (n. 19), 29.


27 Lynch (n. 15), ix.
28 See Detweiler / Tayler (n. 11) and Cobb (n. 25). Also: Terry Mattingly, Pop Goes Religion. Faith
in Popular Culture, Nashville (Thomas Nelson Publishers) 2005.
29 Lynch (n. 15), 15.
30 Detweiler / Taylor (n. 11), 19.
31 Cobb (n. 25), 291 f.
32 Beaudoin (n. 19), xiii, xiv.
33 Detweiler / Taylor (n. 11), 21.

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spirituality of these hinge generations is characterized by irreverence and impropriety and proposes that even unfaithful forms of pop culture can and do form or
inform or transform religious meaning. He writes, Truth can emerge from those
least assumed to be in possession of it.34
Theologians study and dialogue with popular culture not just as an attempt
to be trendy, but because it has an explanatory significance helping us understand more about the nature of human life and society, the context in which we
minister. We engage with popular culture because it is largely where an increasing segment of society contrives its symbols, rituals and ethics and because of our
commitment to the formation of faith in and through cultural contexts. This view
understands with educators Henry Giroux and bell hooks that everyday street
wisdom has a critical and liberative function in raising consciousness about
oppressive structures.35 bell hooks explains in her book, Outlaw culture that if
we study popular culture because it is cool, we miss the point that it can be
socially transformative, an opposing force to the dominant elite.36
Gill Valentine writes of street as a site of potential insurgency.37 A culture
liberates itself, and the street can oppose unjust situations present within itself. I
maintain that it can be religiously transformative as well. These generations may
hold religion at arms length, but also may challenge distorted beliefs and practices. One challenge for people of faith is developing a theological aesthetics of
popular culture without hasty judgment.
The ethic of the street does not have to free fall into the faith of consumerism,
or into the nihilistic language of the pointless of existence. The character of
Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series epitomizes this ethic.38 She is a
product of the street, a kind of post-modern Robin Hood, who has no problem
hacking into computers for any reason, but has a moral sensitivity, stands for
good and possesses a strong sense of justice. Mostly we think street wisdom is in
direct conflict with the wisdom of the faith tradition, but at certain points they
converge, and the sages of the tradition may traverse with the sages of popular
culture.

34 Beaudoin (n. 19), ix, 34.


35 See Henry Giroux, Disturbing Pleasures. Learning Popular Culture, New York (Routledge)
1994.
36 bell hooks, Outlaw Culture. Resisting Representations, New York (Routledge) 1994.
37 Valentine (n. 6), 170-173.
38 Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, London (MacLehose Press) 2008.

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Contributions of Linguistics
The field of linguistics may offer some assistance toward understanding the
significance of language in faith formation and the affects of popular language.
There is a good deal of background from linguistic studies in theology, but I will
summarize just a few of the points. Linguistics teaches us both about the limits of
language in talking about the ineffable (the language gap) and of the tremendous
power of words to heal or hurt, to persuade and transform. Numerous thinkers,
such as Wittgenstein, Tillich and Milbank, have written about the limits and
strangeness of religious language, the oddities of the jargon. Still, it is human
language we use to speak of God, which is all we have - this is not a holy
language outside human existence, but becomes holy only as it participates in the
reality it addresses. Christian theologian John Milbank wrote that this word
made strange, is the incarnation. It takes the human form and way to speak of
the divine, this human jargon to describe what cannot be described.39 Often this
religious weirdness can exclude persons not versant in it. Consequently, some
Christian theologians argue for non-traditional language to speak about Christian
faith, the risk being that the substance of the faith may be lost.40 But the words
and sentences about faith are not the object of faith themselves, but the explication of faith influenced by the context of the individual.41
Linguistics is a discipline that interacts with philosophy. I acknowledge that
there is a danger in any Christian appropriation of philosophical thought where it
was not intended - an attempt to rationalize from it that may come back to haunt
us, but one clue may come from the deconstructivist hermeneutic offered by
Derrida. At the risk of oversimplification, Wittgenstein and Derrida argued that
language does not function in a nomenclaturist way to simply label objects in the
external world, but the meaning of language is shaped by the language system in
which the words are used and the lived experience of the communities that use
them.42 Deconstructivism, as a hermeneutical practice and epistemology raises
questions about boundaries, frontiers and limits of language and its meanings.
According to Barbara Johnson, to deconstruct is not to destroy but to pull apart. If
anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, she proposes, it is not the text,
but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over an-

39 John Milbank, The Word Made Strange. Theology, Language, Culture, Oxford (Blackwell
Publishers) 1997,1.
40 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, Chicago (University of Chicago Press) 1976,4.
41 Irene Lawrence, Linguistics and Theology. The Significance of Noam Chomsky for Theological Construction, in: ATLA Monograph Series 16, Metuchen (The Scarecrow Press) 1980,102.
42 Lynch (n. 15), 195.

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other.43 The theological task is simultaneously deconstruction and re-mystification to liberate our understanding from rigid singular meanings to allow the
enigmatic and word-less-ness to re-surface in a way that contributes to faith.44
One example of this activity is described by Robert Beckford who uses dub
practice integral to dancehall in African Caribbean culture in which reggae
musicians take apart key elements of a music track and re-mix sounds and words
in such a way as to enable social critique and transformation. Beckford calls dub
practice a deconstructive/reconstructive activity and claims that the dialogue
between dancehall culture and theology attempts to dub Jesus to elicit new
ways of hearing the Gospel message.45
In regards to the blurring of the lines between popular culture and so-called
profane language and religious language, while religion has tended to license the
use of certain linguistic formula and ban the use of others, that may be increasingly not be the case. Moreover, even negation of religion in the form of heresy,
profanity or obscenity might indicate the presence of religious meaning.46
To reiterate, the meaning of a term depends on its use. For example, the term
God or OMG can mean different things, but a change of meaning or lost meaning
may not signal the end of our ability to speak of God. Other transformations of the
same deep structure of the word are still possible.47 Generative understandings of
language assert that when language changes, it does not have to lose its power to
say what it once said.48 Thus, a transformational-generative linguistics may be
appropriated as a theological method. This is an important learning for pastoral
theology as popular language becomes the currency for faith formation. We
engage in a kind of colonialism if we expect people to drop their mother tongues.
Perhaps the theological and ministerial task then is to make the word stranger still (or re-mystification), or to acknowledge as Milbank affirmed, that we do
theology by performing the shock of the divine word anew. And from my perspective, the divine word still has shock value. Our linguistic expression makes God
present, brings God here and mirrors the divine creative act.49

43 Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference, Baltimore (John Hopkins University Press) 1985.
44 Ian Almond, Derrida and the Secret of the Non-Secret. On Respiritualising the Profane, in:
Literature & Theology 17/4 (2003), 464-465.
45 Robert Beckford, Jesus Dub. Theology, Music and Social Change, New York (Routledge) 2006.
46 Beaudoin (n. 19), 187.
47 Lawrence (n. 41), 103,157.
48 Ibid., 158.
49 Milbank (n. 39), 1,29.

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Conclusions
From linguistics we learn that our understanding of reality, of what is and of
God within that, revolves around our use of language in a social context. Because
language in social interaction supplies essential conceptual frameworks for understanding reality and meaning making, it is through language that is commonly
used where conversation about God will take place. Liturgy, God-talk and churchtalk will reflect that. Through this post-modern creation of inventive, playful new
expressions or even through the angst of swearing is an opportunity for God
experiences. This does not mean that one should adopt The Urban Dictionary or
the values and meanings of pop culture frivolously or trivialize the name of God.
Theologians and ministers are shaped by and can give shape to popular culture. I
call for us to embrace positive dimensions of post-modernity with its dynamics of
openness and discernment that protests capitalist consumerism rather than be
imprisoned by it. Street wisdom can be subversive exposing oppressive structures
and practices. It can be the location and source of conscientization as espoused by
Paulo Freire.50 It is the role of the church to guide and shape the desires of every
generation, to bring people into transforming religious situations and experienees. It is to connect with the spirituality and wisdom of the street as a counterforce to despair, to savor irreverence. To say popular culture and the church shall
meet at Starbucks at 4:00 pm on Tuesday is to put too fine a point on it, but it is for
us to learn from the spirituality of the street and to shock with the divine. It is to
acknowledge that OMG may indeed call upon the depth of being that cannot be
named. It is indeed to speak of God and to listen for God from the street.
Many philosophers and theologians, including Wittgenstein, Derrida, Tillich,
Milbank and others addressed the nature of language and its role in religious
faith. Following in that vein, this paper seeks to examine current ways of talking
and sources of cultural wisdom from the perspective of pastoral theology, to see
how these affect religious faith. It will explore how language and wisdom today
impinges on faith and moral development. The methodology engages the dialogue between linguistics (evolutionary and social) and theology to investigate
colloquial speech and draw conclusions about how discourse normally considered to be outside the language of the faith community influences the faith of
those communities.

50 Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, New York (Continuum) 1974. Street
wisdom might also serve to challenge and resist what Antonio Gramsci referred to as cultural
hegemony, the notion that the values of one culture (dominant ruling class) can be imposed as
the norm. See: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, New York (International
Publishers) 1971.

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