Using Language

I linked my previous post “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” on my Facebook page where it seems the title caused a couple of my friends to chastise me for not using inclusive language.  There is a difference I believe when using traditional  language versus using inclusive language.

In writing this title, I thought I was quoting a famous quote.   It turns out that I blended two quotes together from traditional sources.   The first is the King James biblical text of Luke 2: 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The second is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s post civil war hymn I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which reads “Of peace on earth, good will to men.” It turns out that my title was a blending of these two quotes. These are traditional words and words written during a particular era when the language had different meanings and understandings.

It was a deliberate move on my part to allude to the traditional language.  Not because it is sexist but because the traditional language is part of our cultural milieu  and therefore is familiar to most people.  I am also writing in the South where traditional religious (specifically Christian)  language is commonly used.  To have changed the wording of the title to not allude  directly to the scripture would have been, in my view,  haughty and condescending.    But this begs the question, is it ever appropriate to change language written in an earlier age just so it appeals to modern readers?

I do not believe it is appropriate to change words from an era long gone just because the language usage is harsh to our ears.  I find that disrespectful of the author and a lack of appreciation of the era in which he or she lived.  And frankly it is arrogant for us to assume that we are the enlightened ones in word usage.   In a hundred years time, our language will have changed again and the words we have written today will appear archaic and perhaps exclusive of someone.   There will probably be papers written about our attempts to be inclusive and that we did not go far enough in that direction.  How foolish and unenlightened we were compared with the sophisticated reader of the 23rd century!

There is a joke about UU’s that can also be considered a truism.  The joke goes like this:  Why are UU’s horrible at singing hymns?  Because they are too busy reading ahead to see if they agree with the words.    We have a propensity of changing words that we do not like to sing to fit our thinking of how it should be.  It really is arrogant on our part to do so.  It shows our ignorance in appreciating the literary era in which such words were written.

And yet,  we think nothing of changing the word “wretch” for “soul” in John Newton’s Amazing Grace.   A song about his realization that being a slave trader was a dehumanizing and evil act.  The word “soul” may soothe our delicate ears but the word “wretch” is more accurate to how he felt.  It also emphasizes the grace he felt as being amazing, the word soul misses that mark.   We are being arrogant when we fail to appreciate the words originally used simply because we don’t believe anyone can be a wretch.  If we were honest with ourselves, there were probably times when we  have done some action that only a wretch would commit.  Let’s own up to our times of being a wretch so we can sing this hymn with the heart felt passion in which it was written.

Natalie Sleeth a music composer from the late 20th century wrote a song that many UU’s absolutely love.  It is called Go Now in Peace. The editors of the  Singing the Living Tradition sought to get permission to change one three-letter word in the song.   Ms. Sleeth said absolutely not.  Yet, hundreds of UU’s sing this song incorrectly every week, changing the three-letter word to a four-letter word.  What was the word that offended our sensibilities so very much?  “God.”  We felt that to sing the word “love” instead would be inclusive for our diverse theological  congregations.  Perhaps.  But that is not the word she used.  She wrote “May the love of God surround you”  and not “May the spirit of love surround you”.  For us to really appreciate her words, we need to sing the song as she wrote it. It does not mean we have to agree theologically but we can appreciate the sentiment she was seeking to convey.

It is the same with inclusive language.   Longfellow was not being exclusive when he was writing his famous poem that we sing every Christmas.  Nor was King James or rather the translators who translated the biblical text into English under his reign in the 1600’s.  They were reflections of their day and culture.  We can quote them and appreciate their writings in the context they were written.  We can quote them for the poetry of their words.  It is known as respect. It is known as honoring their integrity even as we recognize that words have changed in their meaning.

May we honor our forebears words even when the words they chose seem harsh or foreign to our ears.  May we read looking for the spirit of the words written and not the logos of the words used.  And May all our words lend themselves to a greater and more lasting peace on earth and good will toward all people.   Blessings,

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One Comment

  1. Similarly, the way UUs write additional verses to Carolyn McDade’s “Spirit of Life.” In a UU World article in the fall of 2007 about McDade, this:

    “UU members had written several additional verses to sing in their churches. McDade asked them to stop. ‘My feeling was, you need to find your own melody. Don’t lose what you want to sing, but find a way to make it yours.'”

    But if we follow that as a principle rather than as merely McDade’s position re her own work, then we have to scrap a really large portion of Singing the Living Tradition, which ‘m not quite willing to do.

    So I guess my loyalties are split. I really, really dislike the implications of contemporary copyright law for worship. I much prefer the old Roman Catholic approach that, to paraphrase, the prayers of the Church belong to the Church (not to their various original authors). Thus they can be further shaped or arranged over time as needed by the Church. Now certainly, for a huge portion of Christian stuff it’s now in the public domain so actual copyright law is irrelevant. But intellectual honesty is not irrelevant.

    So when the current Pope opens the doors to an Anglican-Rite Catholicism under the aegis of the Vatican with the Book of Common Prayer “corrected” for dogmatic and doctrinal matters, e.g., I, even though a non-Anglican non-Catholic, bristle.

    On occasion, I have myself, however, changed a few words and rearranged lines and skipped bits of poems I was reworking into a responsive reading for a service I was leading, acknowledging the source as “based on” such and such by so and so. And I didn’t feel bad about doing it because I retained the ethos of the original, so far as I apprehended it, while making it a piece that fit better liturgically in its new setting with words that the current speakers “in the pew,” to speak in the old style, could speak as their own words of worship without prevaricating.

    As for allusions, though, the very fact that one alludes to something rather than citing it per se indicates that one is appropriating a pre-existing thing created by someone else for one’s own purposes. This can be done in praise of the original, or it can be ironic/ facetious/ sarcastic/ parodic/ etc. And this is legitimate too. We speak in vocabularies that, for the most part, we do not create. Part of the vocabulary consists of a lexicon. But part of it consists in quotes, allusions, and other cultural references used idiosyncratically for one’s own purposes. Thus everything once made available beyond its author’s consciousness is potentially and realistically part of the vocabulary everyone uses to express themselves.

    Bottom line, I and most people I know are inconsistent in this argument. We want other people to keep their dirty hands off what we want untouched from the past, but we feel justified to reshape the past with our own hands when we have just cause, as determined unilaterally.

    McDade may want us to write our own damn song rather than fiddling with hers, a sentiment I fully understand and probably support 100% on most days, if only because she is still living. But most people don’t have the ability to write their own songs or poems or liturgical texts. Most humans are adaptors rather than creators of culture. And when we utter something with our own lips in worship, we have a reasonable and compelling interest in assuring that the words we speak or sing represent what we are willing to commit to in some way or other.

    Thanks for an important, thought-provoking post.


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