Stopping by the Pit Stop
by Gracia Grindal
Ms. Grindal is assistant professor of English at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 11, 1977, p. 453. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. . Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
These days one can feel twinges of guilt about insisting -- especially in church, where one’s thoughts are supposed to be on higher things than wanting to throttle the preacher -- that the use of language is important. It sounds dangerously elitist and stuffy. But the fight about language which is raging in the churches right now is a bit more complicated than old against new, Elizabethan versus Nixonian, or fancy against plain. If we fight it in those terms, we will be fighting a silly battle.
Two years ago I wrote an article for The Christian Century on the language of hymns and the new biblical translations which I freely confess was more heat than light (“Lord, Bless This Burning Pit Stop,” January 15, 1975, p. 36). Some 50 readers wrote to approve what I said. Many of them gave me the impression they felt rather guilty about their feelings that the church could get along with good language from the past if it could not find anything in the present that was not ugly. They seemed to feel that their protests against the clumsy new prose pouring out of our church presses and pulpits had gotten them lumped in with the nuts who think that fluoride is a communist plot hatched in the Vatican for the sole purpose of eating away the brain cells of the best minds in Rolla, North Dakota. Such lumping is not fair. On the whole, those who wrote me were kind, literate Christians with a sense of history which made them aware of what happens when a language loses its power to communicate thought and make distinctions.
They knew that when language loses its precision and power, the body politic is in danger. They wanted a language that is vivid and clear and moving. They knew that if we do not have such a language, we could well suffer more catastrophes like the Vietnam war -- a war for which, apparently, no one was responsible, simply because no one in Washington knew how to use an active verb. The great enemy of any community is language that is not clear; the great poverty of any community is language that cannot move. The church is having trouble finding an appropriate language for its worship. There are reasons for this, and there are things we can do to remedy the situation.
It is well to remember that the church was born in an oral culture. Its very confessions speak of that. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also. The early church was a group of people who gathered to hear the stories of salvation. The Word had to be communicated orally. To be sure, there were the technical developments of the alphabet and papyri, but the old customs and the sheer cost of a scroll assured that the church was, in the main, oral. The congregation contained in the living bodies of its members the Word of God. When they gathered, the word was shared and kept alive by repetition. In such a culture it would be impossible for some to say they would rather worship God alone in a boat on Sunday morning. Worship in an oral culture is communal; it cannot be conceived of in any other way. Because much of the energy of the oral culture is spent remembering and passing on the Word through ritual, no one in such a culture would dream of introducing new worship materials every week for the sake of variety. The language of an oral culture must be memorable -- that is to say, full of forms that are repetitive and clustered with images easy to recall. Our liturgies and sermon techniques took shape in such a culture.
We all know, thanks to Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, that Gutenberg’s invention deeply affected the mind of Europe. When the Bible was easily reprinted and available to the masses in the vernacular, people no longer had to gather together to hear God’s Word. They could read it at home. And they were able to read it in language written so that anyone, even, as Tyndale wrote, “the boy who driveth the plow,” could understand it.1 The Word became, as Ong says, silent.2 That silence has had profound influence on the way we think about religious language, but it is well to remember that when those translations into the vernacular were made, they were not written down in the language of print. They were set down in sentences and phrases drenched in oral style.
Those “oral residues,” as Ong calls them, are to be seen in the techniques of syntax and image which abound in Elizabethan prose.3 They are naturally in the King James Version of the Bible -- until this generation the language of worship throughout the English-speaking world. The KJV is a fine monument to what Ian Gordon P The Movement of English Prose calls “great public spoken prose.”4 It has worked very well over the past 350 years. Now in the electronic age we are struggling to find a new language for worship. We should understand some of the mistakes we have made in replacing an oral prose with book, prose, a public language with a private one not written, to be read aloud.
The language of print is much more concerned with meaning than with sound, as it should be. Few of us would argue that it should be any other way. But language on the page is different from language we hear. It often loses its voice and its sense of audience. In that loss it can become obscure, and its meaning can escape the most attentive reader -- to say nothing of the listener. Listeners often consider their being baffled a sign that the thought is deep and beyond their abilities to grasp, rather than a sign of the speaker’s confused thought. But in either case, the failure to communicate is not it the problem of the audience. It is always the failure of the speaker or writer. anyone who uses language which the listener or reader cannot understand is alienating the audience. Alienation is exactly the opposite of community. The church and its leaders should not by careless or uninformed rises of language cause such alienation.
The church is still very much a creature of the oral culture. But the communication skills most of us have learned have more to do with writing and reading than with speaking and hearing. Most of us have lost the ability to compose for the oral occasion. The quality of sermons steadily declines because our preachers read rather than proclaim the Word. What they say is so governed by the prose of print that most listeners cannot grasp the thought.
There are ironies here. When people are longing for community, we produce a Bible that consciously avoids resonance with the old version. We abandon liturgies that are familiar for those that are up-to-the-minute but not memorable. They are liturgies that do not reinforce the corporate nature of worship because they do not arise from the shared syntax of communal life which most Christians have deeply etched in them, waiting to be evoked each time they gather. The church has lost some of its power to hold people in that peculiar bond of fellowship which is forged by communal repetition. Those bonds are not forged by machines that make it possible to produce a new liturgy for every Sunday. Such liturgies have to be read silently and cognitively understood and thought about before they can be shared.
All of what I have just said is in no way to be taken as anti-intellectual. I am trying to unify the intellectual and emotional more than they seem to have been these past few years. As a writer and English teacher perhaps I can share some information about how we can improve upon the language we use in churches so that everyone can understand it and be moved by it. If some tinhead out there still thinks that I am an elitist who yearns to live only in the glories of Tudor prose, I will personally flail him or her with pages of hymn revisions and translations and worship materials Mother Church has forced me to do for her these past five years. The only payment I foresee is the chance to be tarred and feathered by the crazies when the new Lutheran book finally comes out. Of such is the Kingdom of heaven.
What follows are some hot tips on writing for worship, from hymns to liturgies to sermons. I will try to use current examples. The failures of the past are long buried. May they rest in peace and soon be joined by these.
Anyone trained in rhetoric -- that is to say, anyone educated in the Western world from 400 B.C. to 1750 A.D. -- learned at great pain to manipulate syntax into patterns, or “balances,” that make thought memorable: patterns of nouns and verbs or other parts of speech that are repeated. The most famous one must be I came, I saw, I conquered. The Bible and our memorized theologies are full of such formulaic statements. The world, the flesh, the devil. One of the most spectacular is, as Augustine shows us in Book IV of his Christian Doctrine, the breathless passage in II Corinthians 11:21-33. The effect of it on the reader is as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying.
Though we do not learn to use those forms consciously these days, we do use them because so many great and memorable speeches use them. Most of us remember a good part of John Kennedy’s inaugural address simply because it was composed of balanced sentences. The most famous one -- Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country -- would have escaped notice if it had been: Do not ask what your country can do for you. Try to find out whether or not the nation needs any of your skills or services and then give them.
We know, too, when those forms are violated. We feel it unconsciously, because they have been used so often that we have memorized their patterns. A simple example of such a failure to observe the form is the sign outside Decorah. Iowa, advising us that “Old people need love and yearly spinal exams.” The fact that the sponsor of the billboard is the local chiropractor is not nearly so funny to me as the violation of our expectation that the word “love” is going to be followed by some equally fine word like “care” or “concern.”
The building up of clauses, as in the powerful II Corinthians text, is an effective device for building up the interest and the emotions of an audience. Any speaker with an ear for that effect will use it liberally. Nearly illiterate evangelists pick it up quickly if they are frequent readers of the KJV. But if they read the new versions, they do not. Most of the failures in the New English Bible are failures of this kind; the NEB quite often takes the punch out of deeply moving texts long familiar to us. One of the best examples of this loss is the simple removal of the “though” at the beginning of the great I Corinthians 13 text. The change may not seem significant, but the failure to use that subordinate conjunction takes away the suspense in the build-up of those clauses. The failure results in some disconnection between thought and feeling.
It may strike readers as rather odd to be so cognitive about how one affects the emotions of people, but it is such knowledge writers spend years gaining. Good writers want to control all of their readers’ emotions. They want to know as much as possible about how that is done. One of the first things they learn is how to use verbs instead of nouns. Those who look carefully at our language have observed that we are using more nouns and noun phrases than formerly. Clearly, our language describes more than it moves. The best illustration of what happens when language is changed from verb to noun is once again to be seen in the two translations of I Corinthians 13. The strong verbs “spake,” “thought” and “understood” become nouns: “speech,” “thought” and “outlook.”
Besides using too many nouns, we are also using too many adjectives. People who aspire to the Famous Writers’ School often give themselves away as rank amateurs by their adjectives. It is not clear that “very, very good” is twice as good as “good.” The shading of meaning should be in the verb or noun, not in the prepositional phrase or adjective. There is a great difference in effect between these two ways of saying the same thing: Did not our hearts burn within us? and Did we not feel our hearts on fire? Burn is more economical and effective. It means quite the same as the second statement and sounds as modern as the second.
The greatest failures of writers these days are failures of tone. Tone is an odd word English teachers have used to describe the attitude of a writer toward his or her audience. It comes through regardless of what the words say, and it may be a divisive element in the church today. One can tell from tone much more than what a writer may intend to say. In, with, under, around and through our words, attitudes come across as clearly as does our meaning. But because it is such an elusive thing, it is one of the hardest elements for writers to control. If they do not control it, they get into all kinds of trouble.
There is a prayer in a recent hymnbook which goes something like this: Lord, bless all those who live in rural areas; help them to appreciate the goodness of nature and be open to those different from themselves. It takes very little sensitivity to guess what the writer of that prayer feels about the people who happen to live in rural areas. It sounds more like an anathema than a prayer. In fact, one might be able to explain much of the polarization of the church by looking at the tone of some of our worship materials. The church presses seem to be pouring forth prayers that curse people for being Republicans. Though the thought or sentiment behind such prayers is not a mystery to me who am no Republican. I find it somehow dismaying to use the confessional as a way to curse my relatives.
If one is sensitive to tone, reading many of the hip prayer books of the past ten years is disturbing. The prayers, while appearing to be frank and naked discussions with God, are more often frank and naked praisings of oneself for being so frank and naked with God. They are fairly clear messages to God that the suppliant is awfully keen on himself or herself as a sufferer. Writing reveals more of one’s character than one might suppose.
There is another kind of failure of tone that is amusing. It happens when speakers or writers mix up languages -- comparing, for example, the forgiveness of sins to the washing of a dirty diaper My favorite example of this failure tone crossed my desk not long ago. It is in what I call the trash-can school of theology, whose exponents endlessly remind us that Jesus was killed like a common crook on a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. They maintain that the language we use to describe that event must be as offensive as the event. But that is not how language works. Poorly written language calls attention to itself and to its author and seldom to its message. The hymn goes something like this:
Open our eyes
to visions girt
Aside from the obvious fact that the writer could not handle the form, this fervent prayer is a tonal disaster. Old-fashioned inversions like “visions girt” are in a realm of discourse centuries removed from the word “dirt.” There is no way “dirt” can follow “visions girt.” That it does is very funny. One’s grim expectation that “girt” is going to have to rhyme with something is so deliciously satisfied that we are in the world of Ogden Nash -- certainly not that of John Newton. No hymnwriter wants his or her audience to burst out laughing at the text. But this thought is so poorly expressed, the manner so dislocated from the matter, that the distance, in and of itself, is funny. The writer has lost control and calls attention not to the subject but to the poor writing.
Our pastors especially should learn the effective use of images and stories, techniques from the oral culture which can make their sermons more memorable and more compelling. When people do not have texts before them to read, they must have images to visualize while thinking about what the preacher is doing with the text for the Sunday. The best way for them to do this is to hear images, hooks to hang the meaning on. Jonathan Edwards’s success as a preacher was as much due to his brilliant use of images as it was to his brilliant thought. It takes careful thinking to come up with images that can help illuminate a text. Not every image is as effective as another. And two images ignorantly used together can create meanings not foreseen by their creator. My favorite example of mixed metaphors in church is the one in which the pastor, after a laborious explanation of what a modern interpretation of girding one’s loins might be and why, shouted that we all, needed to lift up our skirts and let Jesus go all the way.
Jesus was a master at the use of images, as all teachers in oral cultures must be. “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” When he gives the image, the audience waits to hear more about it, but with their senses they have perceived much already. The meanings of an image (and a good image always has several) must be carefully examined. It could be that an image works on one level but on another is perfectly ridiculous. The pit stop again. The image of the pit stop might easily work for church services if one could think only of the gassing up and servicing a car gets at the race track and say that the Christian needs to come every Sunday to get gassed up and serviced -- but already we are in deep trouble. It is not possible to think in the same tones about all the possible meanings those words have and be serious. The disconnection between thought and feeling once again is disturbing.
Along with images, preachers must learn how to use stories better. Jesus told parables. Liturgical churches always use the Gospel stories as the text for the Sunday sermon. Pastors must know how to exegete a text. If they would learn how to read literature better, they could read the Bible and speak of it more effectively. As a teacher, Jesus knew that people learn to think abstractly much later in life than they learn how to remember stories. Members of a congregation can more easily model their lives after the Good Samaritan than they can remember the Golden Rule. Preachers should remember that the words they say about the stories are never as important as the words that say the stories. What the preacher has to do is to make sure the congregation experiences the story as fully as possible -- by giving the context of the story. by showing where it is in the story of Jesus and how it relates to our experiences in contemporary life.
Illustrations are ways to show people the truths of the Bible in a new setting, or to show people living out the truths of the Bible in a new age. Illustrations can be as out of whack with the text as an image. Often I have wondered what on earth the illustration that has everybody spellbound has to do with the text of the day. The relationship must be obvious or it must be clearly pointed out by the pastor. All of the abstractions in the sermon must be about the text. In the same way that a poor use of the balances or tone reveals unflattering things about one’s mind and character; so does the poor use of an illustration reveal the poverties of a mind.
The best preachers, I have observed, are those who can see stories in everyday life and can tell them in sermons, carefully linking up the contemporary story with the biblical text. It is for that reason that the preacher has to have a keen sense of the text. And he or she must also have a keen sense of the congregation. He or she must know exactly what the worshipers need to hear, what they can grasp and what they cannot. The Word must be heard before it has any life. It is for that reason that an old sermon or a sermon read from a book for an entirely different occasion is a particular offense to the oral culture. The oral event occurs in time with particular people with particular needs, and any failure of the preacher to speak to that moment is in my book almost a moral failure.
Preachers need to cultivate their sense of a story. The best way to do that is to read literature -- something I suspect many of our pastors do not do. Reading literature teaches them stories they can use as it also teaches them to see stories in everyday life. The audience needs all the help it can get to understand the stories of Jesus.
There is a problem that has begun to plague us more and more in the church these days because we are not as careful about our language as we should be. As I have said, the images and illustrations preachers use should illuminate the text. All the words in the sermon should connect with each other and the text. Abstract thought is not always easy to understand, but it can be understood if it refers to concrete detail. Problems develop when fuzzy thinkers use abstractions with no reference to concrete detail. That is what is wrong with too much abstraction and particularly what Is wrong with jargon -- it never makes any reference to concrete detail.
Jargon by its very nature alienates people because not everyone can understand it. Though it is defined as the language that experts use to communicate with each other, it also tells those on the outside that they are outsiders. Such a language in a heterogeneous group such as the church hinders community. Though I have no desire to deprive experts of their pleasures and I do understand the joys of fluency in a another tongue, in terms of expediting interpersonal contactual points in time, the aspects of which appear on first examination to be of a nature so non-effective as to be thought hardly worth facilitating, hopefully, the sum of these co-optations, possibility-wise, are thought to be so negligible, that while on the surface appearing deep, in terms of clarity what I have said is not. Dead language. Too many of our church leaders are using it. If congregations seem not to understand such jargon, it is not their fault. It is always the speaker’s fault. Always. Our church leaders have to learn, again, to speak the language of the people -- as should our church presses. Some years ago I was supposed to teach an eighth-grade Bible school class what a dysfunctional group is and why it is spelled with a “y.’’ I’m not sure if it was before that explanation or after that we were supposed to make pizza together, but what we had while we were working through the etymology of “dys” was not exactly group enthusiasm. A classic example of being able to describe community without being able to create one.
Church services should be times in which one’s entire person is ministered to. It is not enough for the service to have all the right thoughts; it has to move us as well. Liturgists cannot force us to be happy simply by telling us to be happy. Somehow, through the shape of the liturgy, through the working out of its form, that can happen without anyone telling us to change mood. It happens because form works on us emotionally as well as intellectually. Nothing irritates me more than a preacher who is constantly interrupting the worship experience with comments on how significant what we are now doing is. That strongly reinforces the split between thought and feeling. Well-wrought liturgies, hymns and sermons can help us to think and feel at the same time.
In the church, worship should gather us together; the experience should be as fully corporate as possible. All the elements at our disposal should come together in the best possible way. Worship is very much like theater. In the theater, because of the unities of time, place, character and language, the theatergoer experiences a catharsis. Something happens. And it happens because of the shape of the words as well as the action. There are no great tragedies without words. Gesture is not enough; we need words to involve our heads with our hearts. Language is, as Kenneth Burke says, symbolic action.5 The church should be asking its artists to create worship experiences that work. Too often the church goes to the social scientists who can describe communities and who may be very helpful to Christians as they think about society but who, because of their analytic language, cannot create or reinforce community.
The language of the church can be contemporary. We cannot return to an oral culture, but we can understand how to use language in the oral milieu of the congregation. It is silly to be writing up all of our worship materials and Bibles and sermons in the language of print and deluding ourselves that it is up-to-the-minute stuff. This is the age of electronic communication, an age more oral than we yet realize, and we should adapt to it.
It is no argument against what I am saying to say that people have always protested change. We should he changing our 350-year-old language with more wit than that. We need to learn how to use the language we now have with greater skill. We need to learn how to move people with thoughts and feelings worth thinking and feeling. People are sitting in many of our mainline churches waiting to he moved by something. They will leave us, soon, if they are not moved. They might like to hear some good words again, words used with intellectual and emotional integrity.
Some may still object to my overemphasis on style, as though, it is nasty to think about style. The trash-can school again. But this time I’ll use it. The incarnation as an idea might be a good one, but it is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, his real agony and suffering and death and resurrection, that made us know that idea. We speak much these days of the importance of the physical elements in Jesus’ life. That is style. Any good writer knows that good writing -- style -- intensifies meaning. And if any people should be concerned about intensifying meaning, it should be the people of God.
1. The Movement of English Prose, by Ian Gordon (Indiana University Press, 1966), p. 97.
2. The Presence of the Word, by Walter Ong (Simon & Schuster. 1967), p. 288.
3. Rhetoric, Romance and Technology, by Walter Oug (Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 25
4. Gordon, p. 99.
5. Language as Symbolic Action, by Kenneth Burke (University of California Press, 1966).