The other night, while listening to a Christian radio station in my car, a DJ was talking about Google’s Ngram viewer. Google’s Ngram viewer has digitized data from over 15 million works of literature. The DJ made an intriguing insight. He took the position that words communicate culture. His logic was that changes in culture can be seen by both the emergence and frequency of words used over various time periods. If we believe the adage that we tend to speak about those things which occupy our thoughts, wouldn’t that apply to what we write as well? Most likely, right?
Interestingly enough, research by Dr. Robert Zajonc in the late 20th century suggests that such logic may very well be sound. Findings from his research suggest that merely being exposed to something can encourage individuals to show favorability towards it. From this mere-exposure effect, we can develop affective judgments—or feelings of liking something—without the involvement of prior cognitive processes (i.e. in other words, previously thinking about it). At minimum, there should be an expected correspondence between what is valued in culture and its inclusion in written communication.
An example that the DJ provided while I was listening to the radio was the word “joy.” He mentioned that the written use of the word “joy” peaked in the early 1800s, corresponding with the Second Great Awakening. To further illustrate the visible connection between the use of the word “joy” and Christianity, below is an Ngram view showing both the word usage patterns for “joy” and “Jesus” over a two hundred year period (1800-2000AD).
As the use of the word “Jesus” diminished over the decades, so too did the use of the word “joy.” Until, that is, the 1960s, when the use of the word “Jesus” started to once again increase in written communication. The use of the word “joy,” however, did not. Instead, the use of the word “joy” continued to decrease before plateauing. What gives? If there was once an association between the Christian faith and the use of the word “joy,” why wouldn’t there be a similar increase in the use of the word “joy” that corresponds to the increased use of the word “Jesus” in the latter half of the 20th century?
Well, it just so happens that I have a few thoughts on the matter…
While there was a legitimate association between the Christian faith and joy during the Second Great Awakening, that doesn’t mean that such an association still exists—this being the most logical explanation. The meaning that culture (as a whole) places on Jesus and/or joy may be different than it was in past generations. In other words, while the bible tells Christians that our joy should be found in God (1 Chronicles 16:27; Psalm 5:11, 16:11; Romans 14:17), there is the strong possibility that many of us (who are using/writing His name) are not doing a particularly good job of following Him, or we’re not following Him at all. Should we be surprised? Probably not.
Just consider how politicalized Christianity has become in the past fifty years. For instance, the Christian Coalition began in 1989. Since then, the use of religion by all parties to make arguments for or against policy has become increasingly common place. Moreover, people too often associate Christian values with Republican values, which I strongly believe is a misappropriation of the faith. There are certain values within each of the two prominent parties that support Christian scriptural teaching, and many (if not more) that do not. American political parties are not champions for Christ. They champion themselves with the intention of securing political power. Christians—those who profess to be Christ’s followers—they are the ones who should be His actual champions.
There is also a possible conflict with how many churches are now structured, and what those organizational models communicate to their congregations. A corporate executive model for church leadership has become prevalent, and too often appears to contradict Jesus’ message of servant leadership in its application. This model generally isolates the “Senior Pastor” from the flock, and too often focuses on visible church measures of success (e.g. attendees, funds generated) rather than invisible church measures (e.g. praise and worship of God, production of spiritual fruit, souls saved, “kingdom” numbers). In such situations, to justify the church’s fiscal wealth and prosperity, these senior pastors may be encouraged to emphasize an incorrect, “prosperity” gospel teaching. Yes, Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, we may be speaking about you.
Lastly, there is likely a compartmentalization and minimization of how people view God in general. There has been recent research conducted by Dr. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that suggests that our already individualistic society has become more narcissistic. If we’re all focused primarily on ourselves, then it becomes really difficult to focus on, or serve, anyone else—even God. And with the dawn of the industrial revolution, there has been a false idol that’s increasingly received society’s trust in lieu of “God.” That false idol: Research.
“Research” is a word which alludes to the notion that many now accept the world’s wisdom to be more accurate and, dare I say, truer than God’s (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Given how enamored many of us can be of ourselves, the word usage trends shown in the below Ngram view for “Research” and “God” over the course of the last two centuries shouldn’t be particularly surprising. There has been a less dramatic, yet still present, inverse relationship between the words “science” and “faith.”
Would it be too bold to suggest that a majority of us are following the lead of doubting Thomas and becoming a society of cynics. There’s a compulsive need for visible proof (i.e. evidence) for everything—even the supernatural. This in-and-of itself isn’t necessarily concerning, but my belief as to why this compulsion is so prominent would be: there must be an opportunity to test any “facts” that may inconvenience us (i.e. research). That way, we can develop a method to refute it. Many will settle for no less than to “experience” outcomes, being unconvinced when receiving “truth” secondhand—even from reliable sources (John 20:24-29). In support of this rationale, consider the word usage relationships in the following Ngram view:
I interpret this Ngram view to reflect particular behaviors that are becoming a pervasive and unhealthy characteristic of our culture. We mask our personal, narcissistic, and worldly “wisdom” by attempting to formalize (i.e. to provide false credibility) our opinions and feelings through the selective utilization of general terms such as “research,” “experience,” and “evidence.” Through such self-serving and manipulative practices, we suppress efforts that encourage “faith,” obtain “facts,” and discern “truth.” The patterns of word usage, while not statistically supportive of my interpretation (i.e. they do not show direct or indirect correlations between these words), communicate cultural emphasis that would not refute it. In truth, my familiarity with scripture, my regular exposure to contemporary social science research, and my everyday encounters with others (i.e. living life) are what drive my societal and cultural perceptions…
…the word usage patterns from these Ngram views only lend possible support to such a narrative.
In the unfortunate event that my interpretation is sound, it is my hope that our society will repent from its narcissistic, relativistic, and pluralistic views of truth. As a culture, may we place our faith in God and not science (i.e. scientism); instead, seeing science through a proper lens, as a tool for better understanding the natural world. May we seek commonalities that encourage a cohesive and loving society—something that can only be achieved through the acceptance of a universal morality. A morality that I confidently believe can be identified through relationship with Christ, and exhibited in how we love God and others (Matthew 22:34-40).