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Deconstructing Wheaton Jargon: “Brokenness”

May 17, 2013

Every place, institution, club, or what-have-you, has its own jargon or special language. These words or phrases that become part-and-parcel of the group’s vocabulary are not arbitrarily decided by any one leader, but generally grow from the ground up. However, these special uses of language can give insight into the ideology and views of the group. While I don’t believe in some kind of ultra-postmodern linguistic determinism, there is a level on which the words we use both reflect and shape our thinking. In this article I would like to apply this idea to some of the jargon used at my own college, Wheaton College, and “deconstruct” it in order to find if it has some greater significance.

There are many annoying buzzwords that get thrown about at Wheaton. “Community” is one of them. “Intentional” is another. If you combine them, you get “intentional community,” a double buzzword. There’s also “reconciliation,” a favorite of the Christian Leftist types. And then there’s “brokenness.”

The word “brokenness” at Wheaton becomes one of those words that everyone throws around, but no one is really sure what it means. I’ll try to come up with some definitions based on usage from professors, students, and chapel speakers. Sometimes brokenness seems to refer to the effects of the fall, such as death, disease, natural disasters, etc. For example, “The world is filled with brokenness that we need to heal.” At other times, it seems to refer to the personal consequences of sin and a fallen world–“I was born into a family of Nickelback fans, but God healed my brokenness.” And finally, it is sometimes used as synonymous with sin itself–“Jesus came into the world to heal us of our brokenness.” This is probably the most common usage of the term.

The term at first seems little more than a mild irritant, like mosquitos or One Direction. But “brokenness” subtly communicates more than it says. There are some positive connotations to this use. For one, it recognizes the noetic effects of sin on the world, implying a direct link between sin and “natural evil.” It also ties sin together with its consequences. A person who is unreconciled with God will experience a sort of brokenness in his or her character.

However, there are also negative connotations to the use of the word “brokenness.” The word has practically replaced the word “sin” at Wheaton College. The terms “brokenness” and “sin” are not created equal. Sin implies an act of the will–“in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Sin is a verb as well as a noun, and is often associated with shame and guilt. The term “sinner” implies some sort of flaw in a person. Even in secular contexts, the word “sinner” is still associated with an act on the part of the person labeled by it.

On the other hand, “brokenness” is something that happens to you, not something you do. “Brokenness” implies a condition, not an action. This is why it is dangerous to use it as a replacement for the word “sin.” It makes the fall of man sound like the equivalent of knocking a vase off a table. The use of the word “brokenness” implies that sin is not a fallen person’s rebellion against God, but something more like a disease which people just happen to have. It robs sin of its significance, and by robbing sin of its significance, it robs the Gospel of its significance. A Gospel that is not about sin and forgiveness might be an interesting self-help plan, or a quaint excuse for a social justice project, but it is not the Gospel.

This attitude towards sin subtly communicated in the word “brokenness” tends to spread itself through Wheaton’s campus. Wheaton students tend to be very enthusiastic about social justice or “community,” or various other neo-Anabaptist hot topics, but are rather weak on sin and forgiveness. Start talking about “mortification of sin” and you’ll probably get a lot of blank stares. There are probably several factors involved here, including a reaction to pietistic fundamentalism, and there’s probably no one person “to blame” for this attitude. But the fact that it exists, and that it cripples many of the bright young minds of Christianity, cannot be denied.

I want to end this article by saying that I’m not trying to insinuate that this word usage is some kind of conspiracy, that Wheaton College is on some express mission to destroy the foundations of Christianity. I personally cannot stand that sort of alarmist thinking–it tends to focus only on facts that confirm its hypothesis and ignores ambiguities. I like Wheaton College. I try not to be one of the Wheaton College cynics (I tend to be cynical about them). But whenever you are part of a culture, it is important to try, as much as possible, to distance yourself from that culture and evaluate its features as honestly as you can, and to see which are good and which are bad.

Current Listenings: “St. James Hospital” by Dock Boggs, “Whiskey, You’re the Devil” by the Clancy Brothers. On a slightly related note, have you ever noticed that folksingers are a notoriously rhythm-challenged bunch?

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