Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Again, language is on my mind this week. As I thought about yesterday's post I realized how many people automatically precede the word "rhetoric" with the word "empty." We've all adopted the stance of the anti-hero Holden Caulfield in labelling everyone a phony, in assuming that the formal is dressed up because it has no substance.

Au contraire! Rhetoric is the art of language. Combined with grammar and logic, it forms the linguistic triumvirate of human discourse. The best hymns are based on the best poetry, and language has driven the development and understanding of religion throughout all time. For instance, Martin Luther's theses were written in the formal style of the time. The dialogues of Thomas Aquinas are practically transcribed conversations in an eloquent flourish of the Latin language.

Of course, the psalms are the best example we have of poetic language and music in the church. Consider the 23rd psalm. This web site provides five different translations of the famous text. The King James is poetry, the text that causes us to straighten our back and lift our chin. The Contemporary English Version, on the other hand, is a casual address to a Buddy Christ-type conception of God. I find it particularly interesting that the RSV and NRSV held on to the word "shall" in the first verse. They instinctively knew that for such a famous verse, people would demand the more formal language.

Why do I think it's important to hold on to both formal English (and even some Latin) in church? Because it's beautiful, it's memorable, and it demands our attention and intention during the service. Aren't those among the goals of worship?

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