The Power of Words

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, which I’ve been working through slowly, tells a story the conclusion of which is worth extracting for our public rumination.

At a time of spiritual struggle in her life, she struck up a correspondence with a Benedictine monk. Though he thought he had no wisdom to share, his replies to her were rich with spiritual insight and sober sense. She was moved and deeply impacted by his words.

Later, she had an opportunity to tell him how significant in her life his words had been. He attempted to deflect her praise, being humble and uncomfortable hearing it. She was finally able to get him still long enough to listen.

“Well, this is good to know,” he said, giving me a quick, sidelong glance, and then looking off into the distance, “I mean, that my words have done some good. I’ve certainly devastated enough people with them.” Then he walked briskly away.


No More Mr. “Nice” Guy

Fresh reflection on old words is why I’m reading Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. I don’t expect to agree with everything she says, but it is good for me to step out of my tradition and examine the ideas central to my faith from a fresh pair of eyes.

Though I continue to find the book helpful, I’m dismayed that she begins one section like this:

The word “conversion” comes from the Latin for “to turn around.” Thus it denotes….

Whenever one sees such logic in writing or hears it in preaching (and it seems common in both) one’s critical radar should begin beeping wildly. The meaning of a word depends on the context in which an author uses it. It’s etymology might be interesting (“Ah…”), but it is never definitive (“Thus…”). And it at times might be misleading.

It is interesting, for example, that the word ‘nice’ comes from the Latin nescius mediated into English through French and Middle English. It is interesting that in the Latin and Middle English it meant “ignorant, incapable, foolish, stupid”. It is interesting, but you would be justifiably shocked if I punched you for calling me “nice”. And if I tried to justify my action by saying,

The word “nice” comes from the Latin for “ignorant.” Thus it denotes….

you would rightly be mystified that I had so easily misunderstood you.

When we as teachers, writers, or preachers try to prove a point using the etymology of a word, we run into muddy waters. Just because a word I use today in English comes from a word with a certain sense in Latin or Greek or Middle English does not mean that is the sense with which I use it today. My atheist friend will without a doubt say goodbye to me when we part, but I cannot assume that he’s had a sudden conversion (!) and sincerely wishes “God be with ye”.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because I spend so much of my time trying to translate ancient concepts into modern terms. It can be a dicey business to to take biblical language from 2000 years ago and accurately convey its meaning in 21st century English. Biblical interpretation is marred by the dual danger of improperly importing a word’s origins into its New Testament usage, for example, and of importing a modern meaning back into the text which would have been foreign to the original author. Both need to be avoided, and often aren’t.

The sagest advice (of course!) is found in the words of Mortimer Adler whose admonition is to ‘come to terms’ with an author. I wish I had Adler’s How to Read a Book at hand so that I could quote him directly. His point is that we must learn the way an author himself uses particular words and accept the meaning that he embraces. Only THEN will we be in a position to genuinely understand what we are reading or hearing.

Wise advice that if heeded might keep us from getting punched. Or worse.

A Vocabulary of Faith

A few months after I entered college I hooked up with a campus ministry that spoke continually about having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ. The summer after that, and often since, was spent puzzling over that terminology, wondering what it meant if I had that of which it spoke. It was not, really, a matter of faith – it was a matter of the vocabulary of faith. The words spoke of a reality in a way that caused me to question the presence of the reality in my own life. I think I know what was meant then, but as these words are not biblical words, I tend not to use them today.

Poet and essayist Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith addresses the power words posses to shape and to repel; to build up and to confuse. This is true in any arena, but in Christianity our desire is to see words open eyes and reveal Jesus. So complex can be the vocabulary that some leave the faith, and others who would understand give up in confusion.

I am reminded of how hard it is to be in a setting where no one speaks my language. To not hear the familiar rhythms and comforting resonance of one’s own language can leave us weary and longing for silence. Norris speaks of her own experience of trying to return to the church after a twenty-year absence.

When I first ventured back to Sunday worship in my small town, the services felt like a word bombardment, an hour-long barrage of heavyweight theological terminology. Often, I was so exhausted afterwards that I would need a three-hour nap.”

And though it is already difficult for someone new to learn to understand basic terms like ‘faith’ and ‘salvation’ and ‘love’ and ‘heaven’, we tend to complicate matters by creating our own internal jargon (which my friend Mike Osborne is busily battling) adding another layer to the fog. But even without that, we can give specialized meaning to words not meant to bear that.

Any language can become a code; in religious terms, this means a jargon that speaks only to the converted. But in my long apprenticeship as a poet I leaned to refuse codes, to reject all forms of jargon. [I have] a preference for the concrete and specific language of poetry….

Norris’ book is her attempt to provide some concrete ways of thinking about dozens of words from our Christian lexicon. I probably will not agree with all she will say, but I’m enthusiastic about the project. Perhaps it might help this preacher open pathways for others to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus.

Whatever that is.

The Diminishment of Life?

I began preaching this morning a series on the book of 2 Samuel. In the first chapter of that book (which could just as easily be understood as the 32nd chapter of 1 Samuel, so tied together are they) the not-yet-king David hears word that the recently-deceased king Saul and his three sons had died in the midst of Israel’s crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines. David does not celebrate this news, even though Saul had become an enemy, but mourns it, for there was much to mourn.

But he does not merely mourn. He leads those around him in an act of public lamentation that all might grasp the depth of what has happened. He is not an opportunist but a leader after God’s own heart. His grief is genuine, and his instincts are wise. To enable the public grieving, David composes a poem of lament which is preserved for us at the end of 2 Samuel 1.

Walter Brueggemann, in pondering this act, so unprecedented in modern society, reflects on our own temptation to devalue the power and significance of words to public life. There is something lost, he feels, in the temptation to silence all serious speech and to elevate calculation and technique.

I am persuaded that he is saying something important here, but its full importance seems just out of reach for me. I share his words here with an invitation for others to use the comments section to flesh out the significance, or irrelevance, of his reflections.

Interpretive words cannot catch the power, anguish, and pathos present in the poem of verses 19-27 [of 2 Samuel 1]. We may however identify three guides to its interpretation. First, words matter. Sound religion is so often a matter of finding the right words, words that will let us genuinely experience, process, and embrace the edges of our life. The cruciality of words needs to be at the center of the church’s life, for we live in a culture that grows mute by our commitment to technique. The dominant ideology of our culture wants to silence all serious speech, cover over all serious loss, and deny all real grief. Such a silencing is accomplished through the reduction of life to technique that promises satiation. But such a muteness will leave us numb, unable to hope or to care. Against such an ideological urging, speech like this poem is a bold, daring, subversive alternative. It is an assertion and enactment of the conviction that our humanness may not and must not be silenced. When there are no longer real words, but only cliches and slogans, life is that much more diminished. (Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, page 217)

Really Cool Grace

A casting call has been issued for replacement vocabulary for all the Christian hymns dependent upon ‘amazing’ for their power. We’re talking some biggies here. “And Can It Be” ponders God’s “amazing” love, as does “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. And of course, there is (or was?) “Amazing Grace”.

All of them need to be fixed.

According to the arbiters at Lake Superior State University (home of the appropriately named ‘Lakers’) “Amazing” is one of the words which should be banished from use, along with “Baby Bump”, “Occupy”, “Man Cave”, and “Ginormous”. LSSU receives nominations for its annual banished word list throughout the year, and this year the greatest number of nominations mentioned “Amazing”.

Say the judges,

Many nominators mentioned over-use on television when they sent their entries, mentioning “reality” TV, Martha Stewart and Anderson Cooper. It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the US and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland. A Facebook page – “Overuse of the Word Amazing” – threatened to change its title to “Occupy LSSU” if ‘amazing’ escaped banishment this year…

Pretty intense.

So what are we to do? Send Wesly, Watts, Newton, and Co. back to the drawing board, I guess.

Awesome grace, how sweet the sound…

Love so mind-blowing, so divine…

Stupefying love, how can it be.

Hmmm. This presents a potentially ginormous problem.


As a footnote, let me praise the folks at LSSU. I am generally in total agreement with their judgment. Last year’s list included “epic”, “fail”, “man-up”, “viral”, and my personal dis-favorite, “the American people”.

Type Crimes

As those who work with me soon find out, I have particularly strong feelings about certain aspects of the written page. To fail to use ‘smart quotes’, for example, is a particularly grievous crime in my book, and so I expect conformity. And, of course, there is the matter of where to put the comma after a quote.

I’m also bothered by the ‘two-space’ offense. I rarely correct this in others, but I have a macro which searches for places in my documents where I’ve inadvertently typed two spaces between sentences and replaces them with a more aesthetically appealing single space. I confess.

This, apparently, is not a passion held solely my me. Recently I’ve seen a few references to this as being a lively contemporary debate. Historians will note the hot topics of 2011: health care, “don’t ask/don’t tell”, the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict, and the ‘single-space’ standard.

The case for the single space is made in this recent article in Slate.

The author makes a good point. In these days of proportional fonts and computer typography, one space is all that is needed between sentences. That is why all major style manuals recommend it. There is really no need to argue further.

But apparently I’m dead wrong on that last statement. That one would write an article attacking the two-spacers and have it published in a major on-line magazine is surprising enough. That that article would in ten days time generate 2227 comments is astonishing.

Who said that post-moderns don’t argue absolutes?!


UPDATE: When researching this controversy (I’m hopeless. Let’s all face that fact and learn to live with it.) I stumbled across this from a “two-spacer”. A point of agreement between us, it seems:

If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! That we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.

Preach it, brother. Just preach it with single spaces, please.

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

– William Shakespeare, A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

A Qualified Arbiter?

I want to know WHY I find the essays of one such as Stephen Jay Gould to be more accessible, and therefore of greater power, than that of the essay A Perfect Game by David B. Hart. I know I prefer the one. The question is “Why?”

The literary world will grimace when I invite Stephen King to serve as an arbiter.

Another favorite essayist of mine, whose pen has now grown silent, is Cullen Murphy who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly (and produced, for a time, the epic Sunday comic staple “Prince Valiant“). In a humorous but perceptive essay, Murphy came to King’s defense, I think, when King was taken to task by Harold Bloom for making no contribution to humanity other than “keeping the publishing world afloat”.

King’s book On Writing is more a memoir than a handbook on style (and is therefore a book that many can read and enjoy), but he did make some comments about style that have stuck with me. In short, he, like many stylists, praised the active voice and eschewed unnecessarily complex sentences and tendentious uses of modifiers. (“The adverb is not your friend,” he says.)

I’d like to go through the essays by Hart and Gould, mark the use of adjectives and adverbs, the complex sentences, and the use of the passive voice. My guess is that Gould would have far fewer of each. This would be fun, but I despair having the time to do it.

I’m just a lowly pastor and consumer of the written word. And I may be an arrogant one at that, setting myself in judgment over one who not only thinks, he writes, and not only writes, but writes with sufficient merit to be published. But when good ideas, ideas I want to embrace, are wrapped in obscurity, that makes me sad. I’d like to see them set free.

Judging the Wrapper

I argue that David Hart, in his essay “A Perfect Game”, made a beautiful swing for the fences, but managed only to pop out to first. Others of you no doubt disagree.

Is there a way to judge between the two opinions?

To judge a steak, I compare it to a really good steak, one which I have eaten before, one on another plate before me, or an ideal I have imagined. Though my judgment is ultimately one of taste, I’m certain that a really fine food critic would make his judgment based upon factors of which I would be unaware. The critic’s judgment would either explain why I preferred the one to the other, or I, in deference to the background and expertise of the critic, would be forced to train my taste to recognize the superior quality of the one I did not choose.

Writing is not all that different. If I set Hart’s piece next to other baseball writing, how does it hold up? If I find it in comparison far less tasty than some of the best out there, the objective criteria of my literary elders would either explain why I find it superior or would force me to reassess my judgment.

This question made me think of a man whom I consider to be one of the best essayists in recent generations: Stephen Jay Gould, of both Harvard University and the American Museum of Natural History. These credentials alone suggest that he, too, like David Hart, is a fairly sharp guy.

I was first introduced to Gould through the pages of Natural History magazine in which he would write a monthly essay when I was subscriber 30 years ago. As a paleontologist Gould would often aim his sharp and piercing verbal arrows at the Biblical account of creation. His essays were challenging, sometimes disturbing, and always accessible.

Though I often disagreed with his conclusions, Gould, like a good essayist, did not (to make a paleontological allusion) bury his bones under impenetrable sediment of verbiage, but exposed them in such a way that forced me to deal with them.

Gould was as well a lover of baseball (and of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, for which I pity him). I was reminded of this recently when reading the introduction to the book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series which Gould wrote.

To sample writing in which Gould weaves his love for baseball and his contemplations about origins, perhaps this essay, The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, will serve as a ‘second steak’ to set alongside Hart’s The Perfect Game.

I’m not on a crusade do denigrate David Hart. But I am asking if there is such a thing as ‘good’ writing and ‘poor’ writing and how to judge the difference.

A+ Ideas in a D- Wrapper

Two friends, knowing my love of baseball, sent me the very same recent essay A Perfect Game by David B. Hart, in which the author finds in the game of baseball a sublime reflection of the ideal unmatched by any other sport. They knew that my heart would resonate with such a thesis.

Ever since being soundly defeated by a friend in a public debate in which the proposition was ‘baseball is a game superior to football’ I have looked for ammunition to buttress what was even then a sound, but poorly presented, argument. I looked forward to reading the essay with enjoyment.

If only I could understand what he says.

I think I’m smart enough, and though my education is spotty at best I should be able to understand and enjoy an essay on baseball, even if that essay is wed to Greek philosophical reflections. But this essay felt all wrong.

I know that if a man looks at the Mona Lisa and finds it uninteresting, the problem is not with Leonardo or with his painting, but with the looker. I’m willing to accept that the problem here may be me. But maybe, just maybe, the problem is poor writing? I wonder.

Reading reviews of John Coltrane’s magnum opus “A Love Supreme” the other day I found a guy who honestly admitted to not liking and not ‘getting’ this piece which, he said, was unlistenable. But in making his case, he exposed his flank by saying, “I have built a small but quality jazz library the last few months.”

Oops. A few months of song collecting does not make one a jazz critic.

So, similarly, I admit the problem could be me. But I have been reading for some time, and so I hesitate to say this, as an unpublished nobody, that just perhaps the author is just a deep thinker who is a poor writer. In suggesting this to one of my friends, he said that the author IS a very smart man. I said he needed a good editor.

And there the argument rests.

Is there a way of judging style? Are there credible standards by which I could justly award this man a D- without being laughed out of the academy?