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Perhaps one of the great put-downs today is to be told that your church is not relevant, or that your preaching is not relevant to “the issues people are facing”. Being called irrelevant cuts a little deeper than being called intolerant; for if you’re cited for being intolerant, it merely means your teaching may have hit a nerve, whereas being called irrelevant is to be dismissed as useless, with a casual wave of the hand. We can handle having opponents to our view; being sloughed off as redundant is harder to stomach.

But as we keep listening, we soon realise that the word relevant has near-infinite flexibility in the minds of its abusers. Some mean something like “current”. Something is relevant if it represents what is novel, or contemporary. Relevance means something like what is currently being said, done, or used. Promoters of this meaning of relevance have a snobbish disdain for anything older than, say, the year of their birth. What’s new is true, what’s true is new, and therefore whatever is familiar is what is relevant.

Others, when speaking of relevance, have a vague notion of a something like importance, or value. Relevance is a measure of importance, even of urgency. Something is relevant if it has enough weight or force to merit attention, and if something is irrelevant, then it no longer carries the weight to demand our attention.

For others, relevance carries the idea of practical value. Something’s relevance is measured in terms of tangible effects and results. If it can achieve whatever end was set out for it, then it is relevant, and if not, it’s simply irrelevant. Similar to this, some think of relevance as intelligibility. If it seems too cerebral and abstract, it becomes, to them, irrelevant.

Still others think of relevance in terms of notoriety. If one has celebrity status (famous for being famous), thousands of followers, or some kind of fame, then one has consequent relevance. By implication, the anonymous and little-known must be, well, irrelevant. What is widely known is often widely loved, and so whatever is relevant must simultaneously be appealing to as many people as possible.

Smuggled into this mangled use of ‘relevant’ are a lot of assumptions. One is that the chief end of man is to appeal to his current generation’s lusts and appetites. A second is that the dead have nothing valuable to say to the living, and that the current generation represents the furthest man has come and the best he can be. A third is that if we focus mostly on means, the ends will take care of themselves, that instruments are more important than ideals. A fourth is that fame and power are forms of value that are necessary to a life of eternal significance.

These, and others, will be our delightful duty to demolish, to restore a sane and thoughtful use of the word relevance.

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  1. Avatar David

    Jay Sax

    Brings to mind my current reading (inspired in part by a brief exchange with Scott Aniol) Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. The chapter “Contemporaneity as a Value” came to me as a pleasant surprise, shedding light in unexpected places that I am deeply appreciating. That chapter strongly parallels what you’ve written.

    This strikes me as yet another example of a broader practice that has come to dominate public discussion (or, more accurately, the desire to suppress discussion) – finding an obviously condemnatory term of however little merit and using it to blackwash a person or practice. Forget meaning! Just throw bad words at them! “Politics of Personal Destruction” was a favorite some time ago; “fascist” has become a big one; “southern sympathizer” comes up sometimes; etc.

    Thank you!

    post script: I’m adopting this as today’s phrase – “delightful duty to demolish” and shall endeavor to use it at least three times.

    post post script: how about a tag for contemporaneity?

    post post post script: I note another variation between your usage and mine, one which I admire and can almost bring myself to practice – related to quotation marks and punctuation. Relying on for a succinct description: “the American style places commas and periods inside the quotation marks, even if they are not in the original material. British style (more sensibly) places unquoted periods and commas outside the quotation marks.”

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