Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Grammar of Faith

I know this drum gets beaten all the time, but I need to give it a couple of whacks today.

As a lawyer, I receive way too many announcements, via e-mail and snail mail, of continuing education events. (You lose your license if you don't stay current through cont. ed.) Today I received one entitled "Defending Domestic Crimes." I don't know whether to laugh or fume (actually, I've done both with colleagues).

Lawyers are word people: That's how we make our living. Whether those words appear on paper or in oral form, those words are what we do. Consequently, one expects lawyers to have some sense of the local language (in this case, English, although a smattering of law French and Latin come in handy, I suppose). People of words ought not so molest thought as to misrepresent what they intend to say. And that is what the announcement did.

The announcement meant to say (and for this I rely on the blurb for the seminar)is that this is a seminar in how to be effective in representing people who have been accused of domestic crimes -- e.g., domestic violence. Instead, the seminar title announced a rather scandalous promotion of domestic crimes -- perhaps justifying them or encouraging people to do them.

A perfectly good way to say what the sponsors intended would have been "Defending against claims of domestic crimes." Oh sure, it adds three words and may not be as pithy as the original, but the difference in meaning added by those words is immense. I expect better. (And much as I am tempted to attend the seminar to see what's actually offered, I shall not; my ethics do not allow it. I don't encourage false advertising.)

Lamentably, this incident simply highlights something that most lawyers know: Lawyers are very poor wordsmiths; they are negligent in what matters most -- the way in which they get their ideas and arguments across.

Such a lament is appropriate to the Church, too. For the people of faith are often poor wordsmiths, and that failing is significant.

We Christians are people of the Word: Indeed, our Savior was God's own Word incarnate. As the contemporary Body of Christ, we share in that Wordiness. The issue is communication and the relationships that make communication possible. As a consequence, words matter -- and the way we put those words together matters. (Remember the second commandment: I think its tentacle reach into the very nature of our use of language, implicating our vocabulary and grammar in the life of faith.)

It seems that grammar is not now considered important. In schools, there is not much emphasis on it -- and the practical effects run to near incomprehensibility when students write. (It doesn't matter how it's phrased if you know what is intended -- that's what we're often told. Well, that is simply rubbish.) Preachers-to-be are not taught grammar and their errors are not corrected. Lousy sentence structure, faulty connections, subject-verb disagreement, shallow vocabularies -- these are passed off as less important than the "meaning." But there is no meaning without the rest; that's much of what the Incarnation taught us. (In fact, Marshall McLuan gave us an evangelical hermeneutical tool with his aphorism: The medium is the message.)

A current bestseller makes an impassioned plea for renewed attention to punctuation (EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES). Of at least similar import is grammar. Read the book and laugh -- or hold your head in misery. Then listen to your preacher: Correct him or her, ask him or her about the language of the sermon. And watch your own tongue.

The Word became flesh, and that makes our language a meaty thing.


Daniel S. said...

Greetings from Chicago. Your post was surprisingly short for such an interesting topic related to the church, and in my eyes, more specifically to the ELCA. God language and "updated" language are at the center of the ELCA Renewing Worship process. From my vantage point as a musician, I'm having to deal with the wholesale change (slaughter?) of old hymn texts, (or old, standard translations) that run in fear and trembling of mentioning the Kingship of God or Jesus, or reference a masculine character (again God OR even Jesus of all things). Example one is from the new church year and propers that just came out. Christ the King Sunday, is now optional and you may just call it Sunday 34 - Last Sunday of the Churh Year. (This alone could be a great topic for a post. CTK Sunday is kind of odd, but I still am inclined to appreciate it, if only for the sake of Christian unity).

Poor grammar and syntax is an epidemic problem that even I, a fairly fluent person fall prey to(I was part of the first group of kids to not have grammar education in school and often find my self second guessing all sorts of things that I write.). Your same argument that it's the "meaning," not the grammar is appropo to the great hymn text debate. The meaning I dare say is changed when it becomes: "Praise to the Lord, the almighty, the God (was "king") of Creation," or the hymn "Praise my soul the God (king) of heaven." Take again the second line of Praise to the Lord, it was: "O my soul praise him for he is thy health and salvation! Let all who hear now to his temple draw near..." It is proposed to read: "My heart is longing to offer up seet adoration. Melody make; (?) dulcimer, harp, now awake..." This is fundamental, wholesale change, let alone awkward poetry (it doesn't sing well, try it). The meaning is trivialized and no longer engages our collective memory of such traditional and well known (ecumenical)hymns. This is the tip of the iceberg, but when I saw the title of your post, I was hoping for comment on the rabid dumbing down of language in the church, let alone the rest of society.
Thoughts on some of this hoohah? How is Mount Olive dealing with this? I could rant for a while on this, giving many more examples, but I won't. I'll save that for my own blog.
Best to you and the family.
-Dan Schwandt

Daniel S. said...

I heard the following story today and thought of this blog entry. A seminarian friend of mine told me about a preaching class he was at last week, where after a young (WASP) man gave a rather awful practice sermon, the professor quipped, "So, is English your first language?" He replied confused, "uh, yes..." Thankfully someone is telling the truth to the grammatically challenged in our midst.

Dwight P. said...


It's great to have your input. I miss getting it face-to-face.

The issue of "sensitive" vs. "politically correct" language and language revision is so vast and highly charged that I daren't let go on it yet. But I agree with everything you say. In our parish (as you may recall) when we get to the liturgical response "It is right to give xxx thanks and praise," while the LBW says "him," we hear a decidedly emphatic chorus of "God" along with the printed response. That, it seems to me, is foolishness of the first order.

We have a wonderful lot of hymnody that celebrates other "images" for God. But to jettison strong, pure biblical images -- and NAMES -- for the almighty (oops; that's a no-no term, too) is to abandon the faith. "Lord" is different from "ruler" -- if only because the former is more personal, which is a significant consideration in Christianity (and Judaism, whence the title).

I hope you keep harping on this. Musicians are among the most grievous offenders (along with feel-good or political pastors).

I'll say more to you personally by e-mail.


P.S. The preaching prof's remark was hilarious -- except that it's so SAD!

Anonymous said...

I just can't help myself, Dwight. I snicker every time I see the slogan, "In times of disaster, the ELCA is there."

One of these days...

Pax et bonum, Pr. Steven Tibbetts