Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

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She speaks, yet she says nothing–what’s with that?

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.

Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.

A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.

This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.

On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.

Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.

The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)

A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.

Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

A Grammar Dalek gives thanks

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Grammar Dalek.

Yesterday, as conversation circled the table, and each of us spoke of one thing in our lives for which we were thankful, I gave thanks for a little book—The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. If I had great wealth, I would ensure that each high school student in the United States received a copy of this book, and I would send a free copy to every person who writes for a career or for a hobby.

The English language is fluid, capable of adapting to new information and new ways of self-expression. Some words or phrases appear, become faddish, and mercifully fade from use; others catch on and become part of our common language and culture. No one list of rules (especially one written during the last century) can encompass all that is good about communication in the English language. On the other hand, bad writing remains bad writing from generation to generation. Strunk and White excel in showcasing the mistakes that writers—including your friendly grammar dalek—sometimes make, as well as offering suggestions for improving one’s writing.

Which suggestions of Strunk and White condemn my repeated errors? Rule 15: “Put statements in positive form.” I am at times too enamored of the wordy negative rather than the concise positive sentence. Rule 16: “Use definite, specific, concrete language,” and Rule 17: “Omit needless words.” Much of my self-editing consists of finding better words and crossing out unneeded words. Rule 20: “Keep related words together.” In first drafts, my sentences are complex and wandering. When rewriting, I improve my organization and as a result become easier for others to understand.

Strunk and White mention a few misused words and expressions. They direct writers to remember the difference between “affect” and “effect,” between “less” and “fewer,” and between “like” and “as.” They also share a very helpful essay called “An Approach to Style.” Each writer has his or her own style, and one style is not better than another. Yet one’s writing style can be hindered by bad habits or by overexertion in verbiage. Following the rules and suggestions of Strunk and White would not cause all writers to sound the same, but it would cause all writers to sound better.

Slavish obedience to the rules of grammar hinders effective writing, but ignoring the rules of grammar prevents effective writing. Split infinites and prepositions at the end of sentences are almost always wrong (sorry Jim Kirk and Obi-wan Kenobi), and beginning sentences with conjunctions usually is unnecessary. When one applies the rules of grammar to one’s writing, the result generally is better than the first draft. Grammar daleks like me will always be needed to facilitate communication. We do not seek to exterminate bad writers; we seek to exterminate bad writing. J.