Signs

By the interstate highway, among all the billboards and business signs, appears one large hand-made sign that says, “Warning! Prepare to meet God!”

The first time I saw that sign, I wondered if it was put there to indicate a particularly dangerous stretch of highway. That, of course, is overthinking (something I do quite often). The location was random; the sincere intent was to get people thinking about the need to be prepared at any time to meet the Lord. After all, none of us knows what tonight or tomorrow may bring.

The last time I saw that sign, I noticed that it stands right in front of an Appleby’s restaurant. “That can’t be good for business,” I thought. I pointed out the combination to my daughter, and we began joking about posting that sign in the school cafeteria, either at the entrance or as a banner over the food line.

Context is everything, even when it comes to signs. A church with a sign that says “Jesus saves!” has a certain message in mind. A bank with a sign that says “Jesus saves!” possibly has a different message in mind.

I heard of two competing restaurants in the heart of London. One day one of the restaurants proudly posted a sign that said, “The Queen ate here!” By the end of the day, the other restaurant had posted a sign that said, “God save the Queen!”

I am thinking of a man I see some mornings on my way to work. He stands at a bus stop at a busy intersection holding a sign that says “John 3:16.” That’s all it says–not the actual content of the verse, just the reference. No suggestion to go look up the verse and read it and believe it, just the reference.

It seems to me that anyone who knows the meaning of John 3:16 does not need to see this sign. Anyone who needs to know the information contained in John 3:16 does not know what the sign means or how to find its meaning. Maybe in all the days that man has stood at that bus stop with his sign, one backsliding Christian saw “John 3:16” and began to think about the Bible and church and the love of God and salvation through Jesus Christ and had a life-changing moment. I doubt it. God can work such miracles, of course, but I fear that this man with his sign thinks he is witnessing, when he could accomplish far more with one conversation with a friend or a neighbor. J.

Soren Kierkegaard

He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.

Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.

Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.

At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.

Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.

At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.

Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.

For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.

The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.

The grammar Dalek could care less

People approach me with the oddest requests, knowing that I am a grammar Dalek. “Grammar Dalek,” they say, “could you please use your influence to set straight the English-speaking world? For example, could you please tell people to stop saying they could care less when they really mean that they could not care less?”

At questions like this I chortle—and if you have never heard a Dalek chortle, you should be thankful; it is not a pleasant sound—and when I can stop chortling I tell them, “People, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the original expression is indeed, ‘I could care less.’ Moreover, the right and wrong of this expression were debated long before you were born, and the official decision says that you are wrong.”

The Second Intergalactic Dalek War was fought over this very expression. Daleks divided into two groups, each intensely convinced that they were right, and each determined to exterminate the Daleks who disagreed with them. The larger group of Daleks, known to Dalektic historians as the Literalists, fired the first shot. “If you could care less,” they said, “then obviously you care a little. Stop saying that you could care less if you mean that you do not care at all.”

The smaller group, called the Ironists, replied, “Actually, the expression ‘I could care less’ is shorthand for a longer expression. It really means, ‘I could care less, but the difference between how much I care now and caring not at all is so small that you could not possibly notice it, let alone measure it.’ That’s too many words to say in the midst of a conversation or an argument, so the idea is shortened to the much simpler form.”

The Literalists shot back, “But your shortened expression makes no sense. It says the opposite of what it means!”

To which the Ironists answered, “Obviously you have never encountered sarcasm before.”

The battle was fought for many centuries, and many Daleks gave their lives for their respective causes. In the end, the Ironists prevailed, and now the iron-clad expression is, as you can see, “I could care less.” From now on, when you scornfully want to tell someone how you feel about their opinion, you know exactly what to say. Say it right, or say it wrong; it doesn’t matter, and really, I could care less.

J.

Grammar Dalek: Apostrophe’s

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

I would like to describe a small piece of punctuation that is called an apostrophe. If you are not familiar with that particular piece of punctuation, please look at the title of this post. That little mark near the end is an apostrophe, and it does not belong there. I put it there to be ironic.

The apostrophe has two uses. It signals that letters have been left out of an abbreviation. “I am” becomes “I’m”; “have not” becomes “haven’t”. An apostrophe also signals that someone owns or possesses something, although it is used that way with nouns and proper nouns, but not with pronouns.

People are always getting confused about pronouns and apostrophes. It’s always means it is; if you want to show that it owns something, the word you want is its. You’re always means you are; if you want to show that you—not you, the other you—owns something, the word you want is your.

When a noun or proper noun ends with an s, the apostrophe of ownership is put after the s, and then another s should not be used. The correct form is Jesus’, not Jesus’s. When speaking, the word Jesus’ should sound like Jesus, not like Jesuses. Some style books are now allowing the additional s. This makes sense only if a word ends with a silent s. To speak of something that belongs to Illinois as Illinois’s makes perfect sense, but when Texas owns something, that still should be Texas’.

Sometimes people will use an apostrophe with a plural noun, especially when that noun is not commonly used in the plural. Someone might write, “There are too many n’s in that sentence,” but they would be wrong. There are not too many ns in that sentence, and the plural of n is ns, not n’s.

The misuse of apostrophes is an epidemic that should be exterminated. When I see that a writer has used an apostrophe in the wrong place, my opinion of that writer plummets. Not that anyone really cares what I think about their writing, though. I’m just a grammar Dalek.

J.