Binary Language, God and Culture

07 Sep 2016

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I have been recently frustrated by the impact of language in our post-modern secular world where binary language seems to be discarded or redefined when it’s convenient or when it suits a specific agenda.

The most recent frontier focuses on the definition of ‘gender’ and is being challenged daily by advocates, politicians, psychologists, medical specialists and anyone who has an opinion or vested interest. We are being encouraged to view gender as ‘fluid’ and challenged that it is not ok to have a more traditional view (or simply biological view) with respect to gender. Even the nouns ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ are being called into question.

It becomes confronting and challenging to then use language that is socially acceptable or conversely language that for many of us has been ‘normative’ for the duration of our lives. There are many androgynous young people trying to get our attention. To them, male and female are fluid categories without objective meaning.

Canvassing a Christian response to issues like gender is complex. If we’re not careful we get too easily labeled for being ‘intolerant’ or worse. It’s a given that we’re called to love as Jesus loved but I don’t believe we should compromise either common sense, or our biblical worldview in navigating complex times.

While ‘gender’ is an important conversation it is not the topic of this piece. I want to center on how binary language has informed culture.

We all know that digital systems are binary and that information flows through the world-wide-web coded in binary terms. You could not read this article if it wasn’t for advanced digital technology (from computer, through wifi, through servers, into fiber-optics and back to your computer). This is all transmitted in binary language.

The dictionary defines ‘binary’ as – something having two parts; or relating two, composed of or involving two things. If I could be so bold to suggest that binary also involves two in relationship.

The Scientist Isaac Newton in a letter of 1675 wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. He was indicating that his own contributions were only as good as those who had gone before.

I wonder if we stand on the shoulders of Jesus what we might discover with respect to his primary message? Jesus uses two words (binary) in describing the gospel, namely Good News. It’s not simply good and its not simply news.  Both are inextricably linked to the cosmic powerful play (God’s Kingdom ever-present) where we are each invited to contribute a verse.

Michael Horton[1] puts it this way: “The Good News is not just a series of facts to which we yield our assent but a dramatic narrative that re-plots our identity.”  

I suspect that the biblical narrative is deliberately binary to ensure our connectedness to God is found in relationship with Jesus. Facts are sterile and push us towards information. Relationships are delightfully non-linear and push us towards transformation.

Put simply we cannot be without God. As Christians we remind one another – all of life is about God. We are merely passing through as pilgrims, seeking to offer hope to a hurting world. We are carriers of “Good News”.

As if to mess you and I somewhat further, the biblical narratives are full of binary language. Just a few to stir our spirits….

There is no earth without a universe

There is no church without a mission

There is no kingdom without a context

There is no lion without a lamb

There is no happiness without holiness

There is no life without death

There is no sight without faith

There is no blessing without suffering

There is no strength without weakness

There is no receiving without giving

And so we take the “Good News” and apply it daily into culture and context.  May you have the tenacity and strength to offer fresh hope to those you meet each day.

Dr. Andrew Ball

On route beyond the harbour


[1] Horton, M.  The Gospel-Driven Life. Baker Books © 2009.