Slogan theology

(Warning: Curmudgeon at work)

Words are important. Loving one’s neighbours includes loving them linguistically. This means that how we speak and write to them is important. Our language must be as clear and truthful as we can make it. We may certainly engage in linguistic persuasion, but we must be careful not to cross the boundary between persuasion and brow-beating, or between honest promotion and clever distortion. Unfortunately, most advertising fails to make these distinctions.

One of the ways companies seek to market themselves is by devising memorable slogans or tag lines that uniquely identify them in the minds of consumers. Think of Nike’s slogan: Just Do It; or DeBeers’: A Diamond is Forever; or L’Oréal’s: Because You’re Worth It. Though these slogans are vague (just what is it that Nike wants us to do?), or partly untrue (diamonds don’t last forever and neither do many of the relationships they are meant to celebrate), they stick in people’s minds and identify strong brands that sell millions of dollars worth of goods each year. And, because of their immense monetary value, companies jealously guard their slogans by copyright laws and lawsuits should they be used by others.

Many universities and colleges have a type of slogan (called a motto) by which they capture some essential truth about themselves. The mottos of most western universities are in Latin and so are now little understood by even an educated public that no longer has any connection to this “dead” language. (For example, I think that very few graduates of my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Alberta, know that its motto is Quecumque Vera, meaning Whatsoever things are true, taken from Philippians 4:8.) So universities and colleges are now adding memorable slogans or taglines to their mottos in modern English to characterize themselves. Here are three such taglines recently or currently used by three Christian colleges/universities with which I’m familiar.

Words matter
For a while, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the official college of the Christian Reformed Church in North America used the tagline Minds in the Making. This was a controversial choice since many asked how a reformed Christian institution of higher learning could have adopted such a reductionist, disembodied and rationalistic view of the purpose of education? What about the rest of the personhood of the students who attend Calvin? Are just their minds being made there? I note that Calvin’s website no longer features this tagline but continues to use its more holistic traditional motto: My Heart I Offer to You Lord, Promptly and Sincerely. The Minds in the Making slogan is still used as the title of Calvin’s online quarterly e-publication.

The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, an institution dear to my heart, recently used the tagline Have Faith in Your Degree. Charitable readings of this slogan might be that, if you come to King’s, instruction in the Christian faith will be part of your degree or, perhaps, that you can have faith/trust that your degree will be of high quality. However, a more simple, direct and honest reading implies that one can have faith in a degree earned from King’s. The problem with that reading is that only Jesus Christ is deserving of one’s faith. The tagline may be clever but it’s theologically careless.

Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, uses the tagline A Degree You Can Believe in. A minor quibble with this slogan is that it is grammatically incorrect in a formal sense. To be formally correct it should read: A Degree in Which You Can Believe. But a more serious objection is like the one made for King’s slogan. It is possible (and even necessary) to believe many things, (that the world is a sphere, for example; that my wife loves me, that my degree is worthwhile and so on), but as Christians our faith is rightly placed in Jesus Christ alone.

Perhaps I’m being a little too persnickety in my critique of these taglines/slogans, but I strongly believe that words do matter. I hope Christian institutions believe and practice that as well. 

  • Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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