Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pulchritudinous Proselytizing

Sorry for the big words up there, but I had to get your attention. “Pulchritudinous proselytizing”, as I am using it, just means “beautiful spreading of the good news”. “Pulchritudinous” is simply a Latin-derived word (from pulchritudo) meaning, “beautiful”. But has anyone ever called you “pulchritudinous”? My Dad tried this on me once when I was a child, as did the English teacher Mr. Cyr last season on the NBC series Parenthood. In both cases, the recipient of the obscure compliment was not flattered, and in her lack of understanding, felt insulted. Big words can confuse people, and some people consider it great sport to do so. Consider, now, the word “proselytize”.

Proselytize, according to Merriam-Webster, means, “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith”. It is derived from the Greek language prefix προσ- (toward) and the verb ἔρχομαι (to come) in the form of προσήλυτος (a new comer). So, the origin of the word has more to do with approaching a “newcomer”, which sounds nice and welcoming. In Christianity, the original implication of “proselytizing” was positive, but somehow, its meaning has become tainted with negativity. In common American English usage, the word now means, roughly, “to obnoxiously thump one’s Bible at people who would rather be left alone”. It is a fancy word that educated people use to disparage those who speak of their faith, especially if those people are Christians.

Isn’t this the context in which we first heard the word? It is a large missile lobbed at the foot soldiers of the gospel. As a child, adults told me not to “proselytize”. I had no idea what that meant at first, but it was a scary enough word that I immediately knew that it was something I wanted to avoid, if I wanted to be taken seriously by educated, polite people. Oh, and I did. There was an understanding that of course we would go to church, but what happened there was our private business, and we certainly didn’t need to tell anyone about it, if indeed we believed it. And there were plenty of reasons to wonder if these adults actually did believe. 

Now, as a maturing Christian of a certain age, I know better. I know that had these nominal Christian adults of my youth cracked open that thick black book gathering dust on the shelf, they would have found that Romans 10 says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” 

We are unequivocally commanded to “bring the good news”. Yes, Jesus gave us the Great Commission in Matthew 28, which-surprise, hello, and good morning- is to proselytize. How can people have any idea what it means to know Jesus as your Savior unless you tell them? And even if they think that they know, do they really know? They may know what the Bible says, but do they also see how that looks in the life of a follower of Jesus?

Often, I think that I should have more non-Christian friends, because I can get too comfortable in my coterie and neglect the rest of the world.  I have a long way to go as a proselytizer, a good news bringer, a welcomer of newcomers to the faith. I need to have more beautiful feet.


  1. Great post my Motor City Friend!

  2. Interesting! Yes, I agree about what proselytize has come to mean...and it should not be a negative thing, should it?! Great post. I'm sharing! PS, my mom, of course, used that word, Haha