Archaic language changes

That’s the heading of the document that I started reading on the plane today. However, I didn’t pay much attention to the heading as I read through the document.

The document is part of our denomination’s constitution which we are reviewing at our General  Conference this year (for more background on that, go here). There are several places where words have been crossed out and alternative words are being recommended. For example, there are several gender-specific words that are being changed–an action which is overdue.

I finished skimming and started reading again, this time looking at the document rather than the changes. And here is what you see:

A. Articles of Faith and Practice
   1. The Triune God
        a. we believe….

and I started laughing (quietly, of course, because I am on a plane.)

I realized that the whole document feels like archaic language for many people, and 98% of it isn’t being changed.

Archaic – words that have gone out of use, words that feel old-fashioned, words that seem to not fit contemporary usage. For example, “immanent and transcendent to creation” is part of how God is described in the first paragraph. That’s what we say we believe about God, and yet only the theologians among us understand what those words mean and why they matter.

Here’s my real struggle, though. I believe what I understand of those words. I give intellectual assent. And I want to give emotional and behavioral assent as well. But somehow, without abandoning the beliefs, we have to translate the ideas into human, into 2.0, into words you can use when riding on an airplane.

But who has time? Who has the time and the energy and the creativity and the desire to take the abstractions of our articles of faith and practice and explain them in a way that real people can use in talking with real people about a real relationship with a real God. And this isn’t head-thumping, rule-imposing religion, but somehting that is as real as, well as real as this:

This morning, our kids were sleeping in the living room. The upper level of our house is hot and we don’t have central air and so they were sleeping in the living room where there was a window unit. Our 20 year old was stretched on the sofa and the 16 year old curled up on the love seat. I stood looking at them sleeping, not wanting to wake them but wanting to let them know I loved them before flying out here for the week.

So I knelt down by the love seat and looked at Hope and quietly said, “Goodbye beautiful, I love you. I’ll see you Friday night.” She opened one eye, then the other, smiled and said, “Goodbye.” I did the same with Andrew, actually kissing him on the top of the head, this man who is taller than I.

Did I care that they didn’t leap up, hug me, say “Fare thee well, most beloved of fathers.” Did I care that they didn’t stand at the window watching us drive out of sight? Absolutely not. My concern for them was two-fold: I love you and I want you to know, and you are tired and I want you to sleep.

Do I want them to know that I’m their dad? Yes.
Do I want them to show respect for me? Yes, in a comfortable (rather than rigid or sarcastic or legalistic way)
Do I scold sometimes? Do I ask them to do things, and even in a certain way? (dishes, lawn, garbage) yes.
Do I delight in aggravating them or making life difficult or punishing them? No (though at times they think so).

I just love them. I want them to grow. I want them to become what God has built them for.

And so does God love. Not abstractly, but with real words and kisses and looking after us.  And not archaically, with words that aren’t part of real life, but with actual meaningful interaction.

So how can I say all that?

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18 responses to “Archaic language changes

  1. Yeah yeah yeah. Great post and all that, but this is about your birthday. Happy Birthday, friend. : )

  2. Agreed … HAPPY BIRTHDAY MATE! Have a neat one.

  3. Here’s wishing you everything you’d wish yourself! Cheers!

  4. Happy birthday Jon! Hope we get to meet in person this year, instead of just virtually through Chris Brogan! But I know that since Chris is crazy about you, you must be my kinda guy!
    Hope this year has even more dreams come true!
    Whitney Hoffman

  5. A very happy birthday!!!

  6. I think you did say all that. Great job.

  7. It’s your birthday?!?!?…then, Have a happy!!!

    Re: your post: Does the fact that I would not describe God as “immanent and transcendent to creation” to my plane seat mate mean that those words should not appear in our denominational constitution? I think the answer is no.

    Every context has its distinct vocabulary. I tell my kids this all the time in our homeschool: “This is (math/science/grammar) language. Learn what this term means so we can talk about (math/science/grammar) using the words people who understand the subject use when they’re talking about it. It’s a great deal simpler to say, ‘Find the verb of this sentence’ than to direct my student each time to, ‘Find the word that shows an action or state of being in this sentence.'” The former works as long as the instruction for understanding (by doing the latter till my student “gets it”) has preceded the assignment.

    Who is the denominational constitution for? It is not for the uninitiated. Those who are coming into the denomination–or, for that matter, those who are coming into the the arena of faith in general–will, ideally, have been come to know the meaning of those words by “living letters of introduction”–by the people who believe what is in that document living it out in plain every day life that translates those truths into something visible and discernable and understandable. I think that is the answer to your question “Who has the time and the energy and the creativity and the desire to take the abstractions of our articles of faith and practice and explain them in a way that real people can use in talking with real people about a real relationship with a real God?” I think we just do it by living out those words. There’s that quote from someone–Augustine?–that says something like, “Preach the gospel everywhere you go–use words if you must.” Certainly there comes a time when we must use words–and we do need to make sure we’re using ones that are understood. Sometimes that will result in translation of a term into words that are more commonly used and understood; that is what it means to influence and share and instruct with love, which desires what is best for the other person. But eventually, we will end up teaching new vocabulary, so that person won’t be left out of the conversation.

    There’s been lots of talk in recent years about the “dumbing down” of our culture. We don’t want to be part of the “dumbing down” of our faith family simply because we’ve not done a good job of helping one another learn how to communicate clearly and articulate well what defines that faith. I think that has two parts–learning to communicate with clarity minus what you have previously termed “jargon” and introducing the vocabulary of our faith.

  8. Happy birthday, Jon!

    May your natal celebrations be joyous, and may the Paraclete bless you with many epiphanies and theophanies in the coming year! 😉

  9. “So how can I say all that?” Ummm…you just did. As Amy said, language has context, so if you’re talking to someone who wants to know God better, you use the rich illustrative language of experience. When talking to a seasoned Christ follower, you may use the shorthand of theological terms. Both have their uses. It’s the former that has been lacking, and which more and more good writers (like you!) are crafting.

    And as Chris and Michael and Susanna said, “Happy Birthday, friend!”

  10. Happy Birthday wonderful man!!

  11. See, that is one of the reasons that we all love to read your stuff. You put it all into real language and real life.

    A birthday is a celebration of life. Have a terrific day today, knowing that we all took time to share our real feelings with you.

    Happy birthday!

  12. Best wishes for a terrific birthday!

  13. 1. Happy Birthday
    2. Your last sentence? Maye that is how you say it. Archaic language is legacy, but plain language speaks– well, plainly.

  14. FIXED!!!

  15. It’s important to educate ourselves about the big words, so that we can describe them to our seatmates. Sometimes the vocab. becomes just words, justified, sanctified, omnipotent. What does it mean? Because someday, please God, someone might need us to talk about it. Don’t assume that you and the people next to you in the pew really know what those big words you’ve heard Sunday after Sunday mean.

    And, happy birthday Jon. I’m extremely jealous that I didn’t come up with Susanna’s felicitations.

  16. o, sorry. I forgot to log in as me. But you knew that right?

  17. Thanks for sharing your birthday dinner (such as it was) with Max and me and joining in our story swaps. Your observations on the language of the constitution and the experience of listening to the debate on the conference floor over specific wording reminds me that while words in documents are important, they pale in comparisons to the right words at the right time that touch a person’s heart.