Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The limitations of language...

I was reading some book reviews the other day and noticed how often the same phrases were repeated...  This is ____________ at his best OR This is vintage ____________ to name just a few.  It struck me that I had not read many reviews prior to this and now I think I know why.  They all began to sound the same.  New authors are always groundbreaking and old authors are vintage.  New books are fresh and offer fresh approaches to whatever and old books ground us in tradition and reiterate what is so often unheard in today's discussion.

Now, to be honest, aside from grade school and maybe high school, I have never written a book review.  I am a novice at this business.  I don't even read them with any regularity.  So I speak from a distinctly limited vantage point on this whole subject.  And I would not want to discourage you from reading book reviews or, if you have nothing better to do, writing them.  Most of the reviews that capture my attention are conversations with people who tell me what they are reading and why I should read it, too.  That is not, technically, a book review.

So I was thinking, admittedly a dangerous thing for me to do.  If we have trouble coming up with new catch phrases for book reviews, is this not also descriptive of the very limitations of language to convey new takes on old things?  Say, for example, matters of religion and faith?

Why is it that some things must be said in new ways and other things are always spoken in old ways?  Why do the songs of the Church have to be new and fresh but the Our Father always must be old and traditional?  Why is it that we want creative approaches to Sunday morning but in funerals we seek the comfort and familiarity of tradition (and the traditional wording to Psalm 23)?  Why is it that sermons must be spoken in a modern tongue but Christmas carols must be sung to the old words?

It seems that we are facing the very limitations of language to describe and invoke, to communicate and teach, and to pray and praise.  Praise is, by all accounts a very old word, yet if you counted up the number of times this old word is used in contemporary praise music, you would think it was the most modern term of all.  We could say the exact same thing about the word holy.  At some point we run out of new words to say old things and this is not due to the lack of creativity of the authors.  It is reflective of the very inherent limitations of language -- especially language which attempts to communicate and describe things that stretch our imagination or confound our understanding or beg the very boundaries of our reason.

I may be wrong (my family will tell you I usually am) but it seems to me we are in a conundrum of sorts.  We want to speak the Gospel in fresh ways, using the most current idioms of language, the newest forms of technology, and the most creative expression of its timeless truth, yet, at the same time we hunger for the familiar and its welcome home.  We have more recently taken to building churches that look like new shopping malls with gleaming surfaces, trendy colors, and techno glitter yet the unchurched culture believes that churches should look like churches (I read a Lifeway study of this from the Southern Baptists) and we go to Europe to marvel at church structures erected nearly a thousand years ago.  We tend to like modern things (watch the house and garden stations on TV) but then we clutter up the clean modern lines with our kitsch to make it look homey, warm, and lived in.

Maybe we need a new creed that sounds like the old creed but freshened up to speak in more modern terms the age old truth -- sufficiently modern so that it sounds new but old enough so that it is at the same time familiar... are you with me?  We need a translation of the Our Father which respects its heritage while sounding more like current conversation.  We need buildings that look bold and contemporary yet familiar and traditional.  Do you get it?  You are right, I don't either.

May be what we need is the traditional language spoken passionately... maybe what we need is confidence in the age old forms and formularies of creed, liturgy, hymn, and prayer...  maybe what we need is not to constantly reinvent ourselves or our Christian faith for the times but the courage to say who we are, the enthusiasm to say it proudly, and the winsome tone to welcome others to know with us who God is in Christ and what He has done for us and our salvation...  It may just be that the problem is not with the language at all or that the people outside the church are looking for something new -- it may just be that we have apologized and been embarrassed so long for the words, hymns, liturgy, and piety of Christian faith that the people around us have dismissed us.  After all who wants to believe in a Gospel that you are ashamed of or join a congregation you are embarrassed to invite them to or sing what you sing only hesitantly or confess what you are uncomfortable confessing?

Language does have its limitations.  There are only so many ways to say the same thing.  But its greatest limitation is not in the language but in the speaker, whose uncertainty, discomfort, and embarrassment speak more loudly that anything and everything he or she says.  Could this be our problem, Lutherans?


Anonymous said...

The challenge of preaching each week
is to have Christ-centered content
and passionate proclamation. The
Law/Gospel dynamic stretches the
pastor to say it in fresh language.
Otherwise the sermon becomes empty
cliches and nobody listens. The
vigor and passion of the preacher
comes through when the congregation
understands that the pastor really
believes what he is saying.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

One of the things that I think is interesting is how we often end up ignoring the "propers" - the parts of the service that change from week to week.

We do the same service here every week. It lasts roughly an hour. How much of it is the same every week? Only around 12 minutes. The rest is different, week in, week out - hymns, readings, prayers, sermon, etc. Yet, I'll hear that its the same thing week in and week out.

Of course, if one pays attention to that which is "new" - often it's just an old fad repeating itself. When it boils down to it, what's the difference between the most contemporary of worship and the New Measures from 200 years ago. To quote Jon Bon Jovi, "It's all the same - only the names have changed."

I wonder if we, as sinful human beings, even normally recognize what is truly new and what is truly old, and if some of our disconnect doesn't stem from the fact that we can't tell the difference between old and new.