Monday, August 13, 2012

Losing the Language of Faith

The language of faith and losing it is usually brought up in terms of the 'culture war'; politicized like most everything else.  And it is true believers are supposed to keep their faith talk confined to the church buildings.  It is frowned upon to bring it out to the public square.  This is why, for example, prayer doesn't happen before football games and why valedictorians must submit their speeches prior to giving them.  Those young people must be careful not to mention the name of Jesus out in the open where others might hear it.

This is troubling, but not really new.  It should upset us that some speech is more free and some less so.  But, like the lonely girl, 2012 churches make themselves as attractive and as available and as mild as possible in the hopes that someday that handsome world will call and want to know what we're all about.  Meantime, we wait by the phone.
That said there is another facet to the idea of losing our faith language that I'm going to try to illustrate.  This concept has been rattling around my head for a long time.  It might be too abstract and if you don't get what I'm trying to explain the problem is on my end and not yours.

Here is my thesis:  we are losing the language of faith because we no longer think in faithful terms.
Language changes over time.  This is not a piercing insight.  New words are added and old words are forgotten.  Dialects shift, slang become proper and the proper becomes out dated.  Language is tied to human creativity and with it we express our understandings of what we experience.  A good example is the word teenager.  Before there was such a word, talking about young people was different because people didn't think of them as teens.  Or, in the 1970s no one worried about coming across as homophobic.  The concept (label) just wasn't there.

Another key piece of information is that the original New Testament books were written in a dialect of Greek that is now frozen in time.  In other words, people no longer use that dialect of Greek and yet a substantial amount of scholarship exists giving us insight into that language and how it was structured and what specific words in that dialect meant.  Think of it like one of those paperweights with an object suspended in a cube of clear acrylic.  This is cool because it gives us a lingual image into the exact meanings of certain words and phrases.  It can be highly and reliably contextualized.
For example, believers who care to do so can look up a word like church (an assembly of people), or baptism (to dip), or Easter (Passover) and can find out what that word originally meant and can then use that meaning to guide their worship and faith.

I preach out of the King James Version of the Bible - for both accuracy and the fine line the artisan translators walked when keeping both original meaning, providing usability, and expressing the beauty or the original Bible languages.  The KJV is a wonder in itself and I urge anyone interested to look into how it came to be.
Now look, I'm not going to go war if someone reads a different translation of the Bible.  I'm not that kind of Baptist.  But a believer should find him or herself a solid translation.  And why is this important anyway?  Wasn't this supposed to be about losing our faith language?  The point of all this KJV business is that I simply want the reader to understand what version of the Bible I'm referring to when I give the following example.  An English Standard Version (also a very nice translation) might show different results, but not by much.

So, rambling aside, here is my big example.  Pay attention the next time something unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad happens in life.  Let's say you find a five dollar bill in the grocery store parking lot.  How do you explain it?
Here is a list of words I can think of that people use to describe those things that happen to them, either in their favor or not in their favor:  random, randomness, luck, lucky, unlucky, fortune, fortunate, unfortunate, misfortunate, happenstance, coincidence, coincidental, incidental, so on and so forth.  We use these words and others like them when life happens when we are content to chalk it up the inexplicable.

Both of my daughters had heart problems when they were born.  People noted how misfortunate it was.  About a month ago my youngest daughter was involved in a car wreck at 55 miles per hour with my wife's mother.  Another driver pulled out in front of them.  My girl was shaken and scared and sore the next day, but that was all.  Her grandmother didn't fare as well.  She suffered a total of 32 stitches and a bruised and battered left side from shoulder to ankle.  She also totaled her van for which the insurance company will provide its current value, yet the van's personal value to her will not be met.  All things considered their accident could have been magnitudes of tragedy worse.  A lot of people, beginning with the EMTs, the nurses, the doctors, and some family, commented on how lucky they were to have not been more seriously injured.
When we talk about luck and misfortune and the baker's dozen of other words listed above aren't we relegating life as up to the whims of some cosmic flip of the coin?  Don't we express and understand events as though there is no greater power than randomness?

The old King James Bible contains none of the words we use to commonly refer to the inexplicable events in our lives.  There is that verse about time and chance happening to all (Ecclesiastes 9:11).  Time and chance…   I could find very little else referring to what we say on a daily basis.  The events in the Bible, as originally written and later faithfully translated, relied on other words.  The vocabularies of the original writers of the Bible did not include the dozen phrases and ideas about luck that ours does.
This is not a commentary on the limitations of the Greek Language of the first century as much as it is about how our view of life has shifted away from God's involvement in our lives.  Yes, time and chance does happen to all, thank you Solomon in your wisdom.  But I'm thinking it happens far less than we think it does.

Believing in a God who knew me before I was born (Jeremiah 1:5), doesn't it make sense He would want to stay involved all the way through my three-score and ten years (Psalm 90:10)?  I find this idea more comforting than to think of my life as a single grain in a sandstorm.  A more faithful generation would think in terms of blessings and curses, of trials, tests, tribulations, troubles, and about how sometimes bad things happen to us that force us to rely on our faith; and hence reliance on God. 
For homework, read the book of Job.  Now there was a guy down on his luck.  Yet in the chapters where he and his 'friends' debate on the events of Job's trials, notice the lack of luck words and ideas.  The men involved were not stupid; misguided at times, but not stupid.  Their discussions of Job revolved around God and why God would allow such things to happen.  They did not shrug their shoulders and say, "Better luck next time."

I know God has His purposes.  I know I am not intelligent enough to figure them out.  But what I can always do is trust His Greatness in my life.  Time and chance will not withstand.  God's grace, however, is eternal.

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