Tag Archives: language

Vermont and Dipthongs…

Well, I’m in Vermont, trying to absorb all the learning and inspiration I can until next Friday morning. Thus far, the process is going quite well. I have had the opportunity to remember, however, that high humidity in summer is roughly akin to taking a steam bath in jeans and a sweater. Additionally, one of our civilizations greatest achievements is the iPod with video capability, thus making it possible for me to watch episodes of The Office almost anywhere. I love technology.

I’ll try to post more over the next couple of days (no promises) about things I’m actually learning, especially as regards the writing process. For now, I’d like to note that I’ve been in a roughly 3-hour-on-and-off-again conversation about how many syllables different words are. Fire, buoy, boy, and oil have been prime examples. Along with some internet research, we’ve concluded that “boy” and “oil” are dipthongs, and “buoy” is a tripthong — groups of two or three vowels that make one sound. One sound, of course, constituting one syllable (even, technically, in the case of buoy.) My favorite caveat from the internet (and we tried to use reputable, authoritarian sources while determining this syllable problem) is this: ‘standard’ English has no real bearing, since there is no American academy that rules on standard language…thus, a word is one syllable if you pronounce it with one syllable and two if you pronounce it with two. Great, so a word has as many syllables as I give it. Essentially, in America, we are the arbiters of language, and what we say goes.

What a great country.

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Reconstruction

Since writing is a process through which I think and develop ideas, I’m continuing to think about language as it relates to spirituality.  In my last post on the subject, I essentially deconstructed some of the language that springs out of churches.  Yet, deconstruction without reconstruction is simply destructive; it doesn’t help in the long run.  I’ve been left with pieces, and it is time to start building again.

Last night I picked up The Message, Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the Bible in contemporary English.  My copy, which I used a lot in college, is dog-eared and full of notes and it was enjoyable to look at some of the margin notes that I hadn’t seen in a few years.  I remembered that Peterson was basically doing what I was talking about; he was attempting to bring a modern understanding to the Bible.

Some of his phrases were quite helpful.  Take, for example, the following sentence from Romans 1:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…

Peterson renders it:

It’s the news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him…

For myself, Peterson’s rephrasing brings a new understanding to the text.  Words like ‘gospel’ or ‘salvation’ encounter a new meaning: the Message of God, his plan to rescue.  For myself, and my guess is for many others in a news-laden society, the idea of rescue is somewhat familiar: I have seen it helicopters hover over homes in New Orleans or Chinese soldiers digging out quake-destroyed buildings rescuing people.  God is a god who rescues; this is his Message.  I can see this and understand it in a new way.

This is the starting place for my reconstruction: seeing where others have already gone.  In the upcoming days (I’m on vacation with some college friends and Brooke this week and posts will probably be sporadic) I’ll continue these reconstructive ideas.  Also, I hope to give some of my understanding of Biblical authority, which, I believe, gives people today the authority to do this deconstruction and reconstruction.  

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Language and the Bible…

So, I’m continuing on the cliché and spirituality theme, but I would like to offer a comment: clichés in reference to how we express ourselves aren’t necessarily bad, it is simply that we generally don’t think about them.  Clichés take away our power to see and communicate.  Yet, if clichés are thought about and examined, especially in reference to spirituality, they are fine to use from a personal standpoint.  My issue is that most people — myself included — don’t think about them, and in public they also lose value unless properly defined.

What I’m writing about today, however, is what to do with phrases found in the Bible that have subsequently either lost meaning or had their meaning altered.  For example: born again.  This is found in John 3, as Jesus talks to the rabbi Nicodemus, he uses this phrase.  It has different meanings in different traditions, but roughly means being reconciled to God and made new.  Some traditions would define this primarily as baptism, some as an intense experience, some as assenting or believing in the claims of Jesus in the gospels (obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, but different traditions stress different facets of faith).  The words born again gained recognition in popular culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as the movement Jesus People used the term often.  Born again went along with intense conversion experiences, and increasingly, devout Christians.  Chuck Colson wrote a book entitled Born Again in 1976, also subtly tying the phrase with conservative politics, whether intentional or not (Colson was chief counsel for President Nixon).  

Thus, born again to the follower of Jesus means being reconciled to God, re-created by the Spirit, and living an entirely different life and identity than before.  In popular culture, however, born again means conservative, dogmatic, narrow-minded.  What are we to do?

I argue that we need new language.  If we are Jesus followers, we are living out a new covenant as outlined in the New Testament.  The two biggest figures in the New Testament — Jesus and Paul — constantly redefined and invented language.  Jesus defined being reconciled to God in myriad ways, he defined the Kingdom of Heaven through use of story after story after story.  Paul, too, used a blend of Roman and Hebrew influences as he wrote letters to young churches, constantly using words and forms in new and dynamic ways.  

We need to hold to the ideas and language of the Bible while subverting and playing with language of our own.  Born again doesn’t work?  How about re-created?  Have you heard ‘salt of the earth’ too many times?  How about color in the world?  These are fairly simply and inane examples, but the important part is that we recapture the dynamic language of the Bible and re-stress the radical and revolutionary belief in a God of the Universe who is personal and loving and sacrificial.  

The important part is that we accurately communicate to the world who we are and what we believe, and that we understand and think about who we are.  If we are thinking about this, new language will come, or old language will re-establish itself.  Paul, who wrote many letters now in the New Testament, uses different terms as he addresses different communities.  He uses many of the same terms, but also writes his letters with language that directly refers to his audience.  Why don’t we do the same?  

We have a holy writ that serves as a starting point, and we must draw from that — again and again — as we use, refine, adjust, and develop language.  We must see how writers of the Bible thought and spoke, how they defined revolutionary ideas.  We figure out how those ideas relate to us today — not adding to the ideas, but not letting our language reduce the ideas, either. Because the language in culture is constantly evolving, we must take the permission that these writers have given us, as Spirit-led people, to develop language constantly relevant and evolving, too. 

That’s how this blog got its name.

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Cliché and Spirituality

Since I am one of the biggest offenders — someone who often uses clichés as he expresses himself spiritually, a letter of critique to myself:

Gabe,

I’d like to address, today, the use of clichés within spirituality — particularly Christian Spirituality (since you are in such a community and tradition).  If clichés make us less human, what about clichés within Christian Spirituality?  How do they rob us of understanding and relationship?  And you know, Gabe, quite well how clichés fill your spiritual world and language.

When you pray, why do you ask God do just do something?  He is the God of the universe, and you want Him to “just” do something?  Why do you ask God to be with people — He is present everywhere, and the final promise of Jesus in Matthew is that God is with people.  Is that the best the God of the universe can do — just be with somebody?  

What do you mean when you want God to bless someone?  To make them happy?  To make them content?  To give them scads of money?  Why don’t you ask for that, rather than a word that you never really think about.  What does bless mean?  And really, most of your friends are quite blessed: they have cars — which 90% of the world doesn’t — and good homes and jobs and you as a friend (who could beat that?).  

How about the Lord’s will?  Can’t you argue that, in some way, everything that has ever happened is the will of God?  When you say, “your will, Lord” is that an out, an escape if things don’t happen the way you want?  Can things happen against God’s will?  

Or calling — what is a calling?  A passion lived out?  Desire?  Your passions worked out in prayer and relationship with others?  Doesn’t a calling end up being whatever you happen to be doing?  

Beyond these words are other words that, really, have become so loaded in society that it is misinforming to use them: born again (conservative, southern), the lost (people who don’t belong), saved (see appropriately titled movie), conversion (that’s the best you can do for radically re-orienting your life?), even Christian (*shudder*).  

You see, Gabe, these words don’t adequately communicate what you want to communicate.  Words like “be with us” fail to capture the actual profound God-of-the-Universe-in-relationship-with-you reality that happens during prayer (and, not during prayer).  Words like “bless” generally don’t communicate what you actually mean, and are sort of watered-down happy-feelings that you want to send to someone else.  Can’t God do a lot more than send happy feelings?  And words that are loaded simply divide and push away people who need God’s love the most, because they have rarely felt it.  Would you tell a friend he is lost?  Then why do it behind his back?

Gabe, you don’t really pray all that much (despite the fact Paul said you should pray unceasingly … but that’s another issue).  When you talk to a God bigger than you can imagine, stronger and more loving than your mind can grasp, is this the best you can do?  You drop into a certain lingo of happy feelings and temporary hopefulness?  Or, do you want God to re-orient your life and the lives’ of those around you, radically offering love in profound ways, grace in scandalous ways, and help from a Helper Spirit, not a simply a happy spirit?  By falling into clichés, you lessen your expectations of God — and thus your understanding of God — and paint yourself as a caricature, unable to express yourself uniquely to The God.

I’ll stop there.  May this be the beginning of breaking through your language, not trapping yourself or other people or your expectations of God in clichéd and trite language.  Rather, may you unblushingly approach God in prayer and lovingly re-define Christian Spirituality to those unreconciled to God and turned off by the insider language of the church.

Sincerely,

Your Soul

P.S.  C.S. Lewis wrote, in his essay Weight of Glory, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”  Sometimes your language — the way you express yourself — weakens your desires.

Tomorrow: Wait!  Isn’t some of that language in the Bible?

 

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Language and Humanity…

I have a friend who says that “cliché is the enemy of our humanity.”  At first, when I heard this I sort of wondered at it; I didn’t really understand what she meant.  I’ve continued to wonder, though, and I may still not understand it fully but I see the statement as true.  Cliché is the enemy of humanity in that it robs us of our humanity.  It robs us of being able to see uniquely for ourselves and limits our self-expression.

Let me give you an example.  A few years back I was in the Lake District in northern England; this is the area where the poet Wordsworth lived, a wild area of hills and lakes broken by stone walls that used to corral sheep.  It is a fantastic place, and if you ever go to England you must find the wilder places, away from the cultivated gardens and high teas that rightly make up much of the country.  In the Lake District, the village we stayed in was at the end of a lake; untamed hills shadowed us from the morning and evening sun.  Bats came out in the evening and flew lopsided circles at the lake’s edge.  If you climbed one of the surrounding hills and looked down at the village, you would see the dull-colored slate roofs and painted stone buildings: mostly white, with the occasional odd colors of red or yellow — painted by eccentric homeowners or advertising shopkeepers.  A stream ran down the center of the village with a dun-colored stone wall next to it, and out of the village the oblong lake literally sprung: it grew wider the further you could follow it from the village.  The whole, of course, was surrounded by verdant hills.  Green sheep fields clung along the slope, breaking into trees nearer the top.

The preceding is an effort to both see and express what I actually saw.  The clichés that I had to continually remind myself not to use: quaint and nestled.  The quaint village was nestled among the hills.  Words like “quaint” and “nestled” are clichés because they hold certain images already in our minds.  If I said that I went to the Lake District and quaint villages were nestled in the hills, I really fail to communicate both what actually was there (bats!) and fail to see in my own mind what actually was there.

When we speak in clichés we fail to see the actual thing in our mind; rather, we see the representation of the thing.  This unique village that I had the opportunity to stay in was much more than quaint — it was quirky and interesting, yet comfortable and inviting.  Part of being human means seeing things for ourselves, it means not seeing a stone house and simply seeing it as we’ve been told to see, but seeing in our own, individual way.  That is, a word as overused as “quaint” simply lets us point out what every other person sees rather than seeing the thing for ourselves.  Additionally, communicating in clichés does not allow us to express ourselves as individuals.  Even if I saw the stone house differently, if I communicate the vision in a cliché I have failed to capture it differently, I have followed the crowd.  Being human means having an awful lot in common with everyone else; we must not allow ourselves to see and express ourselves in the same way, too.

I use clichés a lot; we all do.  Yet, the goal for a writer is to see things differently, to see differences between villages and houses, between people and locales and … everything.  The same goal falls upon everyone: the need to see and express ourselves uniquely.  Failing to see and express ourselves uniquely does rob us of our humanity, cliché forces us to follow the crowd, to think and see as we are told to see.  May we be people who see for ourselves, who express specifically and individually, who bring life to our words and to ourselves.

Tomorrow: Cliché and Spirituality…

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A Story in Two…

I’m interested in story: how we tell stories that happen everyday.  This is an attempt to tell the same story twice, with dramatically different effects.  It’s my yesterday afternoon.

Part I:

Yesterday afternoon, I decided that it was time to assert my manhood over the lawn.  A good lawn, of course, is one of the truer tests of a husband’s manhood: if you can spring healthy, soft green grass from the ground it shows that you are obviously a solid provider for your family, and more importantly, a man.  The lawn-converted-from-patio behind our townhouse, roughly the size of a VW Beetle, has about 3 patches of healthly-looking grass.  The rest is either: A) sickly-looking, pale green impish grass, or B) bare patches of dirt.

I went into our back storage space and found: an electric trimmer, a spade, potting soil, a hand-rake, grass seed, and a rusty, old pair of scissors.  I add the rusty scissors because, unfortunately, I did not find a necessary EXTENSION CORD that would make the electric trimmer have any use whatsoever.  Thus, I found myself standing, rusty scissors in hand, in the backyard while debating how long a trip to Lowe’s would take.  

Lowe’s is about a 1/2 mile from our house.

After cutting a blade of grass with the scissors, though, I realized that immediate gratification was better than driving to Lowe’s.  My wife agreed with me on this, as I could tell from her laughter when she saw me squatting down, cutting clumps of grass with an old pair of scissors.  Yet, I managed to triumph over the grass due to my determination and commitment.  Also helpful was the fact that only three clumps of grass were actually over 3/4 of an inch high.  

Having successfully ‘mowed’ our backyard, I then raked the bare patches and put potting soil on them.  This seemed like such a good idea, I decided to spread potting soil over all the impish grass everywhere else.  Soil is good for plants, right?  So isn’t more soil better?  

I then started to water the soil.  Of course, it makes more sense to water AFTER you’ve put the grass seed down, but I wanted to give the grass seed a nice bed.  A water bed, if you will.

Very carefully after watering the dirt, since everything was quite muddy, I threw grass seed down.  By this point, I had somehow managed to get dirt all over my arms and somehow large amounts of grass seed in my hair.  Undeterred, however, I watered once again, this time WITH grass seed down.  

I walked back into the house covered in dirt and grass seed, blister on my finger from cutting so much grass with rusty scissors, triumphant.  As Brooke pointed out different places that had dirt or seed on them (how’d you get all that in your hair?!) I knew deep down she was thinking what a great provider I am.  Her laughter told me all I needed to know.

Part II:

Late yesterday afternoon, I walked outside into a hot, mid-May sun.  The tiny lawn behind our townhouse was sad: a few healthy clumps of grass were surrounded by limp, yellow-green grass, which was patched with bare dirt.  I looked into the back storage closet.  We had an electric trimmer, potting soil, grass seed, and a couple small gardening tools: a spade, a hand-rake the size of my fist.  

There was no extension cord for our trimmer.  

My wife Brooke was upstairs and she didn’t know where the extension cord was.  I thought of driving to the store to get one; we would need one soon enough.  Yet, we are re-doing our guestroom and have spent enough money in the past few days.  In the storage closest next to the hand-rake was an old pair of rusty scissors.  I stood on the lawn for a few moments, deliberating.  I cut a blade of grass with the scissors.  Then another.  This was the better way, I decided.  Besides, we only have a few clumps of grass that are healthy.  The rest wasn’t even high enough to cut.

Brooke came down and laughed when she saw me, stooped over and cutting, alone in the sun of the backyard.  My finger quickly blistered from the friction of the scissors, and the grass was still uneven.  I wonder why I make the decisions I do.

After cutting, I raked the bare patches and spread potting soil on them.  I spread extra soil over the pale grass as well; since I wanted to thicken the sad grass with extra grass seed, it made sense to spread a little soil there, too.  I watered it all, so that the grass seed would take better.  Then, I spread the grass seed.  I had to do it by hand and the lawn was wet.  The wind blew it into my hair and my feet grew muddy.  

I showered after my work, alone with the heat and steam, washing the lawn and dirt and seed off myself.  I hope the seed takes.

There it is, the story experiment.  Don’t worry, my attitude was along the lines of the first one; I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon.  Yet, this discipline is meant to remind myself both of the stories inherent in everyday, quotidian activities and the importance of language as we tell them.  I tried to stay away from emotion-language — actually telling emotions I felt — yet the two stories have very different emotions in them.  I’ll do more like this in the future, as it’s helpful to develop my understanding of words and word-choice.  

Tomorrow: more thoughts on language, without any boring stories…

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