It is possible that, taking one look at the word grammar, many people will skip reading this post, believing that I have chosen what is undoubtedly a “boring” subject. Having learned to perceive grammar as a system of mere rules, which are taught briefly (and often poorly) in Jr. High and High School, we are often unconscious of how much we rely on grammar to make meaning in communication.
In fact, most of us hardly pay attention to the choices that we make when we speak. Accustomed to our own vocabulary and speech patterns, as well as those of our family, peers, cliques, and communities, we become easily caught up in our own egocentric understanding of language. Our own dialects seem standard, while the dialects of others seem strange. It is at this intersection that having a theological approach to grammar comes in handy.
1) A Pharisaical vs. A Christ-like Approach to Grammar:
Every religion has its zealot; in academia they may include such individuals as “the grammar police,” who cannot resist the urge (or what they may see as the opportunity) to educate others on the use of proper grammar. “I think you mean centered on, not centered around.” “It’s not who did you ask, it’s whom did you ask.” To such individuals, all uses of language, whether formal or informal, can be divided into stark categories of correct and incorrect, however artificial these divisions may be.
I say artificial, because even style guides, the holy bibles of editing themselves, do not commit language to such rigidity. The preface to the 16th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say about the rules that make up its contents:
“Once again, we have looked to what has become a maxim (from the first edition of the manual in 1906): ‘Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.'”
Inherent within this statement is an acceptance of the fact that language, especially the language of American English, is a living amalgam of many influences, a mix that has changed and continues to change over time. In the process, it has morphed many a word, including nice, which originally derived from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant, and was used in Middle English to mean foolish and wanton, and now signifies that which is pleasing and agreeable,* or, possibly, in more recent times, that which is cliche and lacking a certain intensity of greatness.**
Amid this more progressive outlook on grammar, there is also a distinction between grammar that is prescriptive and grammar that is descriptive. While prescriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas should be written this way,” descriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas are said this way, without making any judgement” (Approaching English Grammar).
Thus, when discovering the differences in dialect that distinguish you from your neighbor, it might be wise to remember that language (especially from the perspective of a Christian) is not as much a matter of law as it is of grace. And while it is true that some selected principles of grammar actually do hold places of esteem in this world, they should never be honored to the detriment of Christian principles. For instance, if I speak with the grammar of men and of angels, but have not love. . .
For the purposes of education, such axioms should also be encouraged, and the teaching of language should look more like a discussion than an interchange of papers filled with marks made by red pens. I often remember a teacher of mine who used to ask, “Does that work in your dialect?” I think it is in junctures such as the classroom that the concept of discussing what is said or what works, rather than what should be said, becomes most practical.
Nevertheless, for anyone addressing the potential quagmires between the ways people speak and the conventions of a formal written language, it is important to remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, ESV). It is at this point that we discover yet another theological implication within grammar.
2) Grammar that Corrupts vs. Grammar that Builds Up:
The choices we make when using language often set the tone of a conversation or, even, a relationship. And here, I am not just talking about the content of the language. While most of us are familiar with which words are polite and kind and which words are rude and hurtful, we are often unaware of the more subtle ways in which our language can become productive or destructive. For instance, using overly formal language in a casual social setting may do more to highlight the existence of political strati than it does to achieve effective communication or connection with others.
On such issues of communication, the Bible is not silent. In Ephesians 4:29, we are warned: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV).
Thus, as Christians, we need to be aware of our context before we speak. Using good judgement, we need to consider whether the words we are about to say and the speech pattern that we are about to use are respectful or offensive, inclusive or exclusive, inviting or dismissive.
In some cases, this includes embracing a healthy tension within language. For example, a language that is convoluted with “Christianese” will often confuse and exclude those on the fringes, but a language that drops all hint of religious bias will cease to point toward God.
Thus, as grammar scholars spend time considering possible, non-sexist replacements for certain pesky pronouns, Christians would do well to begin contemplating how they might use language in a way that brings glory and not shame to the faith, and how they might gain more control over that troublesome little muscle, known as the tongue.
“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:2-10, ESV).
Thus, as has been a recurring theme of this blog, it is through our bodies that we live lives of service to Christ. Through bodies, being “lovely in limbs and eyes not ours,” and tongues, which are able to bless or curse, that we either display Christ’s image or mar his name.
*Taken from: http://www.merriam-webster.com
**Taken from: http://dictionary.reference.com