Labels are Symbols: Denominations as an Illustration

Christians use a lot of labels for themselves, for each other, and for other people. They do so to identify themselves with particular sub-cultures and distinguish themselves from others. Denominational labels are some of the most common, and given the fact that the protestant tradition in America is highly fragmented (Christian Smith makes some good observations on this topic),  we end up with a lot of denominational labels floating around in the rhetorical atmosphere.¹

You may ask, isn’t it good to be able to clarify and distinguish between theological differences? Well, maybe. But packaged in those denominational labels is much more than theological differences. These labels function as symbols, verbal vessels carrying a lot of associations, cultural stereotypes, and divergent meanings for both the senders and receivers of communication messages. Because of this, denominational labels that we use to describe ourselves often have very different meanings for us than the meanings attributed to them by those with which we are communicating, especially if they identify with different denominational labels.

I am always on the lookout for narratives that help illustrate this phenomenon. This past week I came across a great one in Jamie Smith’s book, Thinking in Tongues (which my husband had been telling me to read for months). The following is an excerpt that provides a humorous and poignant example of how one denominational label can function as two (or more) very different symbols, based on who is using (or interpreting) it:

The oak-paneled walls of the McGill Faculty Club glistened with privilege and prestige; the room felt like it incarnated the university’s global influence and vaunted heritage. The space was abuzz with the quiet, sometimes affected, chatter and conversation of scholars and fawning graduate students, awash in dark jackets, khaki trousers, and an inordinate number of bow ties, it seemed to me. My first foray into the environs of the Canadian “Ivy League,” I felt like an early anthropological explorer making first contact with an “exotic” world. This was a long way from Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle, perched on the edge of Stratford, Ontario — five hundred miles east but a world away. My discomfort, tinged with just a hint of a thrill, was a product of that cultural distance — as if the trip from Bethel to McGill has stretched taut a rubber band now full of energy, but also prone to snap.

I found myself here due to the hospitality of the Canadian Theological Society (CTS). Each year, CTS sponsored a graduate student essay competition and the winner enjoyed travel and accommodations to present the winning paper at the annual meeting. In 1994 this had given me the opportunity to attend my first CTS meeting in Calgary, Alberta; having won the competition a second time, I now found myself at McGill. The smaller academic world in Canada yields a kind of professional life that seems more familiar and intimate, more widely suffused with friendship and collegiality, and so the annual banquet of CTS was a charming, lively, chatty affair. It was at this banquet that my award was announced, and upon returning to me seat a distinguished Canadian theologian sitting next to me graciously struck up a conversation. So where are you studying? Who is your adviser? What are you working on? Slowly these questions, in response to my answers, migrated to matters of faith and ecclesial identity. Since I was studying at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, my interlocutor naturally asked: “And so, are you from the Dutch Reformed Tradition?”

“Oh, no,” I replied. “I’m a Pentecostal.”

It’s amazing how much human emotion and communication can be crammed into a nanosecond. By the time the word had come to the end of my tongue, I knew I had said something wrong. And before I had even finished the word, a strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery flickered across the face of my conversation partner. I can’t remember if he actually coughed and choked on his dinner at that point, or whether that detail is a creation of memory, a pictorial place holder that captures the response conveyed more covertly. In any case, the good professor could not mask his surprise and bewilderment. “You mean you grew up Pentecostal?” he further inquired. This was clearly a strategy that would allay his cognitive dissonance, as if saying to himself: “A graduate student in philosophical theology, engaging Heidegger and Derrida and Moltmann, can’t possibly be a Pentecostal. He must have meant he was a Pentecostal.”

“No,” I replied. “I mean I worship in a Pentecostal church every Sunday. I even preach a little bit.”

His strategy for resolving the cognitive dissonance denied, the conversation quickly devolved into awkward pleasantries and a final “Would you excuse me?” Left at the table to process what had just happened, I felt farther away than ever from Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle. And yet, it was in that experience that the seeds for this book were planted.²

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1. Christian Smith, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

2. James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 1-3.