In the film O Brother Where Art Thou?, George Clooney’s character is disappointed when a store doesn’t carry his favorite brand of hair gel. He lets fly with an expletive to emphasize his chagrin, to which the store clerk responds “Watch your language, young man!”

I wanted to say the same to a fellow quoted in an article in The Starkville Daily News (“Jackson-area church to open Starkville campus,” Saturday, February 13, 2010: 1A). He was talking about the expansion of the Pinelake Church, a Jackson, MS-area non-denominational congregation, to Starkville. Two terms he and another official used bothered me.

First, he referred to the Starkville area as a “target-rich environment to reach college students.” Excuse me, but college students are not “targets.” That dehumanizes them in the same way the comment by Goose and Maverick in Top Gun objectified women. You may remember the scene. The two go into a bar filled with unattached females. Maverick (Tom Cruise) looks around and with a big smile, observes that the place is “target rich,” as if he were in his F-14 looking for enemy vehicles and buildings to strafe and bomb.

Maybe the speaker from Pinelake believes he’s in a spiritual war, so for him such military language is appropriate. But I would urge caution, indeed, severe self-editing, when one is tempted to speak of college students or any human being as if they were merely conquests or objectives to be overcome, notches on a Bible, as it were, or numbers in a database.

The second offensive statement was another church leader’s reference to evangelical churches like his as “life-giving.” By implication, those that do not style themselves as evangelical (e.g., the old mainline churches like the PC[USA]) are life-denying or life-taking. Maybe he regards the pro-choice stance of many of those churches as life-denying. Or maybe he simply means we’re boring and dull, since he coupled “life-giving” with “dynamic.”

OK, granted our services might not qualify as exciting entertainment, but then they’re not supposed to be entertainment. But our churches are as life-giving as any evangelical congregation. Isn’t feeding the hungry “life-giving”? Or guiding a young adult in his or her vocation, finding the passion in his or her life? Or how about lifting up the spirits of someone who is discouraged and hurting? What about the sharing of Holy Communion with an elderly person in a nursing home or regularly in worship, imparting the life of Christ through bread and cup? I consider all these and more “life-giving.”

All of us need to be careful when we speak so casually and thoughtlessly as these officials from Pinelake. That’s true whether we’re being quoted in the paper or simply speaking with someone over coffee. We never know whom we might influence and how.

Watch your language, young man.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham