Bearing the Mark

February 1, 2011

“The most attractive Christian examples I’ve ever met are not nice people running through fields of daisies and throwing candy to children. These are real people held together by their belief in God. They do wonderful things and they do horrible things and they’re sorry when they do them.”  -John Schneider

“Markedness” in linguistic terms is the concept that certain words are more “marked” than others. Words and the objects, actions and concepts they represent fall into categories called “lexical fields.” These lexical fields hold words that are similar in meaning, such as the field of colors which holds red, blue, green, yellow, etc. These colors are all “marked” in that we know they are all a “color.” The more narrow and specific a concept matches its word, the more marked that word is said to be. For instance, within the color “red” exists an entirely new lexical field which contains pink, burgundy, violet-red, magenta, etc. These different fields build a hierarchy of “hyponyms;” specific terms which are subordinate to their more general, less marked terms. “Red” is a hyponym of “color” and “magenta” is a hyponym of “red,” wherein “magenta” is the most marked of all these terms, because the word is the most specific to the concept it represents. The more general a word meaning is, the less marked it is, the more universal it tends to be across cultures.

Every culture has the concept of colors, but some only have a concept of two different colors, black and white. So while the term “color” is the least marked of the lexical categories we have been talking about, it is the most universally used. “Red” happens to be the third most universal concept of colors, so red is more marked than black or white, but less marked than, say, blue or green, and magenta would be even more marked than all of these terms. This happens because different cultures and people groups have different needs for their languages. It is the same idea that Eskimos have so many words for snow, while we only have a few and some cultures closer to the equator may have none. The Eskimos have a need for more specific descriptions of the various types of snow.

This concept of “markedness” can be used further than the realm of linguistics. People mark themselves consistently throughout their lives as they express themselves in various ways. We are all human beings, but can be separated into categories of male and female. We also separate ourselves into different races and cultures; depending on where we were born, the depth of color of our skin, the language we use and many other ways. Within the different cultures we categorize ourselves by social status, the type of careers we choose and the kind of lifestyles we live. People are marked by what they look like, how they choose to dress, how they speak, where they work and every action they make. The truth is we are constantly observing and being observed and making judgments about one another all the time; this is human nature. So while my blue jeans, love for rock-n-roll, weakness for fast food and impatience may mark me as an American, my tendency to judge people is a less marked human universal.

The idea of markedness in our personal lives is an interesting concept. I have found myself move in and out of so many social groups, that I used to wonder if I had some kind of identity crisis. I have had people comment on my ability to blend from one group to another without much notice, but as I grow older and settle into a more stable personality, I can look back and see how certain stops on my path stuck with me and have marked me along the way. For instance, back in high school, I discovered the joy and wonder and the destruction of drugs. I had developed a love for the Doors and took on a hippie persona. I was a pretty nice guy underneath my exterior and a few people had figured this out, but I remember developing a friendship with a girl who was of a higher social class; she dressed well and was very stylish. I felt we were getting closer and I approached her about it. She replied that she really liked me and thought I was “hot,” but she just couldn’t go out with a “grit” because of her reputation. So, even though this person had a genuine attraction to me, she refused to respond to it, because she had marked me in a different social class then hers. Of course, my pride being hurt, I spent a few years after that marking females who were well dressed and stylish as “stuck-up.”

There are times we get marked by a group we belong to, but the general stereotypes don’t always apply to us. Not long after high school I became a Christian. I have had some ups and downs in my life, but through all the challenges and doubts I have always returned back to my faith. One thing I have learned to do over the years is to not be as openly zealous about my faith as when I first submitted to God. Not because I am ashamed of it, although perhaps being ashamed of the actions of some who call themselves Christians might be a part of it; however, I have learned that when I express to people I am a Christian early in a relationship, they already have judgments and expectations against me that aren’t always the case. One thing I can’t stand is for someone to act differently around me for fear of offending me or for fear of retribution. For my part, I have my convictions on how I live life, but I don’t wish to place them on anyone if they have not made a free and open choice. I would rather people in my life to be real with me from the beginning. I don’t hide my faith, but when I am more subtle about it, I have found people can discover who I am without judgment and we can be open and honest with each other in all the good and ugly parts we possess. On a positive marking of my faith, I believe that the principles I try to live by do make me a more moral person, and people see that and question it, and that is usually how they learn that my faith is important to me, and often it becomes important to them. So I try to mark myself as a Christian by my lifestyle (which, I confess could use a lot of improvement) rather than by my words or my T-shirt, and I find that people respond to this better and are not afraid to be themselves around me.

The beauty of Jesus is that his mark is so broad it can be found on any person no matter their age, sex, race, social status, or culture. The Apostle Paul states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). However, there are many who claim to bear the mark of Christ who do little more than put on a t-shirt or listen to Contemporary Christian Music. To these people the Church is equivalent to a social club. In the Old Testament, the Lord consistently rebuked the Jews for being more concerned with outward appearances then with really changing their hearts. God made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jews, through circumcision to show that he and his descendants would serve the Lord (Genesis 17), but God would often tell his “chosen people” to “circumcise your hearts” (Deuteronomy 30:6, 10:17, Jeremiah 4:4, etc). He tells them their outward appearance or cultural background (the Jewish Law given by God) cannot save them, each person must serve God with the whole heart. There are many in the world who are wasting away because many of us who claim to be in the Church place exterior or general marks of Christianity on ourselves, but when the “hyponyms” of the faith are observed, there is little to show the ever increasing specific marks of faith. Jesus tells us that we will be known by our fruit (Matthew 7:20). In other words, the world should recognize that we are followers of Jesus by our actions. As Christians, we all bear the mark of the Holy Spirit in our spirits. Paul later teaches us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). If there is no evidence of the mark of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, it must be questioned (by both the individual and the observer) whether he truly has the mark of Christ. Of course, no one can be perfect, but if you truly serve God and follow Jesus, there should be a consistent growth in the quality of your character. Christianity has nothing to do with what you look like, what your social status is, or what your taste in music is. Jesus simply tells us that the world will know us by our love for each other (John 13:34-35). What is the mark that you bear to the world?

Peter L Richardson
December 2003 / revised January 2010

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