Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why has worship been dumbed down?

I know that this video has been making the rounds -- four people sent it to me just this past week!  But as I listen to the humor (which is grand) I am struck by the painful truth behind the comedy.  The comic, John Branyan, began by saying that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of some 54,000 words and the average adult today has about 3,000 words.  Whether or not the stats were made up or the distance between the extremes narrowed by reality, his point is one which the Church must take seriously -- part of the reason for the dumbing down of worship is the trouble we are having with our mother tongue (English, or if you are from England, American).  Clearly this is an issue for liturgy, for Scripture reading, and for the language of creed and confession.



The unmistakable point of the new translation of the Roman Mass is that the nod is given to a greater vocabulary, even if it means an initial hit for clarity or comprehension.  Incarnate and consubstantial are not impossible words to know or understand but they are not typically found in the working vocabulary of the average American adult.  Rome has decided they should be -- at least for those who attend Mass.  I think that in this, Rome is right.  The nod should be given not for the shrinking of the vocabulary of liturgy, creed, and confession but expanding that vocabulary.  Language has a difficult enough time communicating the mysteries of the faith without shortchanging the task by reducing the number of words available to the task.

Honestly, I do not get the issue of vocabulary.  Everyone in American culture lives within the realm of a number of dialects each with its own jargon.  We learn fairly quickly the language of the internet, the computer, the word processor, the smart phone, texting, etc...  We learn it by using it until it becomes second nature to us.  If the language of Scripture and the liturgy are foreign to us, it is less a problem of language than it is of familiarity.  I spent a catechism class unpacking the language, symbolism, and imagery of the hymn, "Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face."  With some leadership the middle school youth learned to open up the compact vocabulary of this hymn and explore the richness of the hymn writer's verse as if it were treasure to be mined.  I expect that they will not soon forget it since we sing it often enough.

So laugh if you will at the comic, his point is well taken.  We do no service to our children or those new to the faith to reduce the vocabulary to that which the average man on the street can recognize.  I believe it was Karl Barth, the theologian and not the District President, who said something to the effect that in the world the Church proclaims the Gospel in the language of everyman but when she gathers in worship she uses the queer language of Scripture and the faith.  We would do well not to forget the distinction.  The dumbing down of education, culture, and religion is not without its consequences and for Christians, people of the Word, we should not give in to the great temptation to reduce the working tools of our trade by giving up good words simply because they are not included in the average Joe's vocabulary...  Perhaps for Christmas a religious word a day calendar is not such a bad gift idea...

13 comments:

Irenaeus said...

I certainly agree with not dumbing down when it comes to education and theology/liturgy; however, I respectfully disagree that Rome gives a "flying fig" about the same. As an archbishop-acquaintance of mine once said, "Winnie the Pooh read in Latin is STILL Winnie the Pooh!"

Anonymous said...

"The comic, John Branyan, began by saying that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of some 54,000 words and the average adult today has about 3,000 words."

I can believe it. People no longer seem to know the proper context of words either. "Lose" and "loose" are two of the most misused words in the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

Incarnate and consubstantial are not impossible words to know or understand but they are not typically found in the working vocabulary of the average American adult. Rome has decided they should be -- at least for those who attend Mass. I think that in this, Rome is right.

Agreed. The new translation of the Roman missal is much more pleasing to the ears.

Terry Maher said...

It doesn't matter in the least if Rome's new translation is more pleasing to the ears. For one thing, it manifestly is not more pleasing to all ears, but some, and for another, finding things that are pleasing to our ears is something Scripture strongly warns against.

That said -- take a deep breath -- on this issue Rome is right, and so is Pastor Peters. There is a language problem, and with our own language. Even so, as pastor points out, we readily acquire the vocabulary associated with other things, such as that associated with information technology, not to mention any subject one may study. If that is so with human subjects how much more true of something foreign to us, the Christian faith, which is the gift of God. Why should one NOT expect to acquire something new in maturing in the faith? We should not shrink from the fact that this will happen, let alone dumb things down so it appears not to happen.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter in the least if Rome's new translation is more pleasing to the ears.

Matters to me when I'm with my relatives at their Mass. The old "and also with you" used to strike me as "back atcha" but then I'm not an ex-Catholic and this stuff doesn't push my buttons as much as it seems to push Terry's.

Anonymous said...

"finding things that are pleasing to our ears is something Scripture strongly warns against."

Well now I guess I've heard it all. First Terry rants against the Catholic church for the changes that were made at Vatican II and now he complains when the Vatican goes back to using language that is more faithful to what the RC USED to use. As for whether or not all Catholics find it "pleasing" in a communal context it doesn't matter one bit anymore than it matters if some Lutherans find Willow Creek praise music more "pleasing" than traditional Lutheran hymns.

Paul said...

"If I were a wise man, I would do my part" -- so I shall begin the sermon on 12/24 by quoting John Donne:
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment.
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come.
Or to quote Aslan: "Do not dare not to dare!"
Merry Christmas.

Unknown said...

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language. “ Attributed (in alphabetical order) to Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde.

George A. Marquart

Janis Williams said...

Saddest part in all this is....wonder who his hack was? Hopefully he is his own wordsmith, but then, did he use a Thesaurus (one of those words -and items- lost on most of us with a lexicological paucity and not argot...)?

And yes, for the sake of honesty, I cheated with a Thesaurus on the word 'argot'....

Janis Williams said...

P.S. Terry,

If you have not read Peculiar Speech by William Willemon, (a -horrors- Methodist Bishop), you might enjoy it. The sequel is Preaching To the Baptized.

Terry Maher said...

Anonymous, you haven't heard it all, and certainly heard nothing of what I said. You must be Catholic.

I did not complain about Rome going back to language more faithful to what Rome used to use. I said Rome was right in bringing forth the new translation (it actually translates the document of which it is a translation, not paraphrases with the dumbing down Pastor laments). That is complaining? You must be Catholic.

You are wrong a second time over in that Rome is not going back to anything with the new translation, which is simply a better translation of the novus ordo, which is not at all what Rome used to use in either the original Latin or any translation therefrom. You must be Catholic.

Terry Maher said...

Hey Janis, my favourite book on English is The Anatomy of Swearing by Dr Ashley Montagu. He was, horrors, a Jew (born Israel Ehrenberg) and a humanist.

Anonymous said...

This Church Growth theologian mocks those who demand more than the usual mush found at the non-denominational seeker-churches:

http://www.alittleleaven.com/2009/12/youre-a-jackass-if-you-want-to-go-deeper-in-gods-word-says-perry-noble.html

Why does the LCMS want to emulate such churches?