Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In the beginning was the...

Language has become a hot topic in the letters to the editor of the latest (February 2008) Lutheran Witness. A lot of people didn't like Uwe Siemon-Netto's previous article bemoaning the changes political correctness has wrought on the English language.

Some people are simply griping about the "curmudgeonly" style of Siemon-Netto's prose. Personally, I appreciate someone who writes in a direct and unique manner instead of the cookie-cutter limp-wristed touchy-feely style that has become the norm in Christian publications. I do disagree with Mr. Siemon-Netto about certain things - and quite forcefully on some, in fact. But I don't think his style of writing should be a problem to anyone. Frankly, I find his "curmudgeonly" tone refreshing. I think we could use a little more G.K. Chesterton and a lot less Joel Osteen in our Christian discourse.

One response in the Letters to the Editor section was troubling to me.

It was written by a "Mission and Ministry Facilitator" (Bruce Wurdeman) from Texas. I wonder how St. Paul and Pope St. Gregory the Great ever managed without such bureaucratic offices as they evangelized Europe. I also don't know if Mr. Wurdeman is an ordained pastor or not, since Lutheran Witness didn't use a titular form a address on his name. Some of these offices are held by the laity, others by clergy.

Wurdeman critiques Siemon-Netto's style as "the unfortunate stereotypical characterization of Lutherans as a bunch of stodgy old curmudgeons desperately trying to turn back the clock and falling ever more out of touch with the culture in which they find themselves."

Oh my! There is a certain "neocurmudgeonly peevishness" at work here - a kind of Michael Moore-snarkiness-trying-to-be-hip that strikes me as more annoying than Andy Rooney. But that's just my opinion.

In his litany of negative adjectives, one finds "old." I do think this reveals an unspoken truth in the LCMS - especially among "missional" folks - we really hate old people. I don't say it lightly. We put up with them, but we really hate them. They are "speed bumps." They resist "change." They cling to old hymns and old hymnals. Being "missional" means embracing the youth culture, using rock and hip-hop music, making use of technology and lingo that are the hallmark of young people. I find this especially true about the "emerging church." It's all about young people, the youth, the emergent generation, whatever you want to call them. It's all about rock and roll, ipods, coffee shops, and funky facial hair. It is as though in their world, people simply fall off the planet when they turn 28.

We have taken sides in an ungodly division and segregation of God's people. Instead of seeing our elders as fonts of wisdom and vessels of respect, our official position is that they are a stereotype to be avoided, best shoved off into a nursing home until they kick off so we can collect their money. It is because of them that we have to have any traditional services at all - but we can plunk them into the earliest time slot available to make church more convenient for the demographic more likely to be hung over.

I'm disturbed that this "professional church worker" would use the word "old" as an insult. This speaks volumes.

Furthermore, we Christians are indeed called upon to be counter-cultural, instead of always looking to change the Church to make it more appealing to her enemies, persecutors, and slanderers. Not long ago, it was considered offensive to use "damn" and "hell" on broadcast TV. We have now (in spite of those "stodgy old curmudgeons desperately trying to turn back the clock") gotten to the point where the following words are acceptable on network TV: sucks, ass, sh*t, a**hole, God-d*mn, and even in some cases, f*ck. Words that would have been considered in poor taste, like douchbag and fart, find their way into cartoons and on magazine covers these days. Not all linguistic change is salutary change.

Culturally, it has now become acceptable, even laudable, to promote abortion, false religion, homosexuality, and other deviances from God's created order (notwithstanding the opposition of those bad old coots who are "ever more out of touch with the culture in which they find themselves").

Like it or not, the culture at large hates us. Why? Because we believe in absolute truth. We believe in right and wrong. We believe in an exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. We believe words have meanings. We believe in a standard of behavior and language that is deemed antiquated by today's cultural elite. For those who have a chameleon approach to the faith ("let's just sneak into the antichristian culture by aping it, and then trying to execute a bait and switch"), conservatism and traditionalism are to be marked and avoided - if not mocked.

Mr. Wurdeman states correctly that "language is a fluid thing - it changes with the times and adapts to the circumstances." Yet, not all change is good and orderly. We Christians ought not automatically embrace every linguistic change. When being against abortion is no longer considered "pro-life" by the general culture, should we start calling ourselves "anti-choice"? When the "sexes" (biology) have been renamed "genders" (grammar), should we accept this? Especially considering the fact that "gender" is a matter of "choice" whereas "sex" is an ontological reality based on God's created order.

Language indeed changes - but not always for the better.

Furthermore, there is a difference between gradual evolution and a deliberate attempt to manipulate words to control thoughts. The former is a natural part of the human existence, e.g. Latin evolving into French over centuries, or the antiquated English pronouns of the 16th century falling into disuse today. What Siemon-Netto is criticizing is not a natural evolution, but a deliberate thought-control attempt by a specific political agenda (one at odds with the holy catholic and apostolic church). His example of "flight attendant" being pushed on people instead of "stewardess" is a clear example. This was a deliberate attempt to gender-neutralize - which in modern parlance is more accurately described as sex-neutralization. How can Wurdeman be so naive as to think this was simply a "natural" linguistic change, like the gradual evolution of "thou" to "you"? There is a clear-cut "gender" agenda at work. The LCMS is not immune to participation in this ungodly attempt to control thought by controlling language. Note how often you will see the word "chairperson" in official publications, or how often women are called "Ms." in surrender to feminists who refuse to submit to God's created order.

I think little lingusitic acts of rebellion are called for - even if it makes us "less popular" - apparently a terrible thing according to Wurdeman. Our ancestors who refused to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar were doing the same thing. I suppose they weren't acting within the conventional wisdom of the "missional" types, but against all odds, their defiance actually coincided with the church's most explosive growth in history. To be truly "missional" (not in the trendy but shallow "guy-man-dude" sort of way) is to be "martyral." For in being counter-cultural unto death, these non-compromising witnesses bore witness to Jesus Christ and her Bride.

I believe Mr. Wurdeman should read (hopefully reread) George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. Back in 1948, only three years after the end of the second world war, the prescient Orwell saw our era's "political correctness" coming. Of course, such control over words as a means to control thoughts had already been at work among the Communists in Eastern Europe as well as their Socialist counterparts in England for decades - which is something I would assume hardly needs saying to someone of Siemon-Netto's background as a European living in the troubled cold war times.

The English language is under a terrible attack of debasement right now: writing skills being compromised by e-mail and text messaging, being manipulated by the left-wing academy and political hacks, being assaulted by ever-decreasing standards of education, and losing integrity (and clarity) through the acceptance of non-standard and even vulgar grammar. I think Christians do well to uphold the integrity of language, and to avoid aping the world's constant drive to attack beauty and order - even if "everyone else is doing it."

Language can almost be considered sacramental, for it was through the Word that the Lord created all things, just as it was the Word made flesh that has redeemed us. It is also through his enscripturated Word that we have the Gospel. As a means to attacking the Word, Satan can, and does, attack words.

At the risk of being dismissed as a "curmudgeon" and a "stodgy old Lutheran" (guilty on all counts), I will remind Mr. Wurdeman in good crusty old traditionalist Latin: "Verbum Domini manet in aeternum!" And if he thinks that "the youth" can't understand such "passing old words," I have three grades of young Latin students who beg to differ.


Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

An excellent argument, Fr. Beane. I'm with you. We need some linguistic rebellion against the dictates of the times. We need, in short, a counter culture.

Regarding Orwell, he should indeed be studied anew today, for he is as relevant as ever. One of the geniuses of his work is that it was in many ways simultaneously prophetic, and a commentary on his own time. Even the title he settled on, Nineteen Eighty-Four, might have been a reference to the year in which the novel was written, 1948.

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...

"The one thing to remember about Political Correctness is that its purpose is to punish people for speaking the truth. It is enforced by people who hate truth and wish to dominate others."
- Dr. Clyde N. Wilson(not that I refer to him enough on comments to your posts or anything...)

In my 200 level research writing class, I am told that according to APA style guidelines, I must not use given names, so as to be gender neutral. I am also supposed to employ "last-name formality" rather than use gender-specific pronouns.

I hope that this "reaching the youth" nonsense dies out with the Baby Boomers, so that us stody YOUNG Lutherans can be left alone to admire, employ, and carry on the rich traditions that we have inherited DESPITE our boomer superiors.

Jim Roemke said...

But...what do you do with the Bronzers who refuse or despise weekly communion, the liturgy or anything else seen as "too Catholic"? I have a few of these old types and honestly they drive me crazy. Someone even told me felt banners were too catholic, for crying out loud!

Anonymous said...

I have not posted on your blog before, Fr. Beane, so first of all, greetings!

Your argument is refreshing, to say the least. I remember seeing the comments concerning Simeon-Netto's article and wondering many of the same thoughts you touched upon here.

What makes this whole debate resonate with me is the fact that I am an English major. I have been chastised by some professors for using "his" and "he" as the default. Such usage is anathema in modern paper writing! Since it is grammatically incorrect to say "their," we are supposed to use the ridiculous "his or her" so as not to offend anyone. What they seem to forget is that this usage does offend some, but we are merely brushed under the table.

The references to "1984" are certainly still relevant to our society. Indeed, they are becoming far more important to serve as a wake-up call to our falling nation, though I doubt many will listen.

Perhaps another book to consider is Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Though it does not deal with politically correct language as does "1984," the idea of extreme censorship, which is playing a role in political correctness, needs to be addressed as well.

Keep up the good work!

Past Elder said...

You know what, Benjamin? The only thing I don't like about being 57 is that when these 50-somethings who made adolescence an adult life-style finally pass on and leave district presidencies, commission on worship and other synodical posts, as well as space in the pews, in the hands of your generation I will probably be gone too.

Perhaps a merciful God will not allow me to pass my final years with a bunch of these goofs in a nursing home, after a lifetime of being around them already, but allow me Blessed Reformer Home with General Scuttlebutt still chaplain.

There should be a new classic proof for the existence of God: that the children and grandchildren of this generation seem to have found what their elders both ran from their whole lives or tried to keep hidden.

These clowns can't "reach the youth", because they can't come to terms with "youth" no longer being themselves.

As to language control as thought control, the confusion of the development of language over time in a culture with politcally mandated change by an elite, the inability to attain correspondence in case, number and gender, etc -- right on!

Oh, sorry about the expression.

Lutheran Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lutheran Man said...

"But...what do you do with the Bronzers who refuse or despise weekly communion, the liturgy or anything else seen as "too Catholic"? I have a few of these old types and honestly they drive me crazy. Someone even told me felt banners were too catholic, for crying out loud!"

Well you can start by reframing from labeling them with derogatory names. Then you can lovingly teach them with humility. Appreciate their desire to hold fast to what their pastors taught them and their instinct to resist innovation. These are traits that serve the Church well, it's not their fault if their catechesis has been lacking for the last fifty years.