We have it really lucky here in the US. Everything has a sign or a label. Have you ever noticed how many different signs or labels you see in a day? There are the labels you expect to see; street signs, exit signs, restaurant names and product branding. Then there are the not as obvious labels like price tags or the letter-number combinations on the top of police cars and school buses. And finally, the least obvious labels – the ones we throw around in our head and exposed by slang, jargon, and even everyday conversation.
I started to wonder why we do this – is it a specifically American cultural trait? No. Signage goes way, way back. You know – cave drawings? Symbols were used to represent concepts as a way to understand the world. Somehow when humanity could put a complex topic, such as why we exist, into a simplified form, say some exaggerated animals drawn on a rock, we felt better. Most of the time the symbols are specific to a culture and a time period.
How drawn symbols evolved into labeling things, I don’t precisely know. I imagine that the more of something similar that you have, the more you need to create labels to distinguish them. Have two children – you are John and you are Jane. STAMP. Have five tents in your huddle. You have the red border, you the white, you the green, you the nothing. PAINT. Have twelve Ryan’s in your phone contact list. You are Farmy, you are Lawrence, you are..you get the idea. BEEP.
I am being a little facetious, but you get the idea. Picture your personal library of books without any titles, authors, or any sort of label on them at all. Yeah, that would be annoying. So labels are needed.
But some labels suck. Now you are probably thinking – really?
Really. I am talking about the sort of labels that take something complex and valuable and make it trivial. They over-simplify to the point of disembodiment. And in a complex, technology laden, busy-every-moment world we have to rely on all sorts of labels to survive. But life becomes so…cheap.
It’s like when I bake something. I always get this response – “You made this?” Yes, of course I did, and I am serving it to you. “You made this from scratch?” Is it really that hard to believe someone could take raw ingredients, mix them together, bake them, and come up with something delicious? In our contemporary world, it is.
At church I am bombarded by cheap labels. How about “non-christian,” “pre-Christian,” “post-Christian,” or “soon-to-be Christian”? Sure they are people with different and complex backgrounds and different approaches to the world, but heck, they aren’t Christian (“not-yet-Christian”) and therefore easy enough to categorize, so SLAP, there is the label. I see why it is needed, sometimes. Kind of. In a generic sense. But if I were summed up by that term, I would feel somehow less whole. Cheapened.
Okay – I have another series of them. Single, married, married with kids, empty-nester, 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, high-schooler. They make sense, right? They are ways to understand something that is very complex in a tangible, relate-able way. But they make our church…cheaper. How? Somehow they perpetuate and promote segregation…and often they perpetuate identities. Once you have found your respective label, you slap it onto yourself and want to perform within its confines. And everyone that you want to talk to and be friends with is typically within your same label. Sounds like a stereotype of high school, right?
Now why am I ranting about this? Because I think we are cheap as Christians in the United States. One of the big reasons that the culture finds us irrelevant and hypocritical is because we live by an excess of labels. We can’t seem to bend ourselves beyond these pre-defined parameters. We are like old wineskins that can’t handle the new wine. The only way to genuinely love a world (and a Body of Christ) that is very different is to be able to walk beside them, be with them, have the flexibility to take off the cheap label and get to know the complex reality.
So what do you all think? Are labels like these hurting or helping us?