A Matter of Being, and a Matter of Being Right

by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Dr. Wangerin, author of The Book of The Dun Cow and other works, lives in Evansville, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 1-8, 1987, p. 591. 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.


An elaboration on the reasons why Wangerin, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found it easier to speak of God with religionless people than with the religious. "I find myself ‘reluctant to mention God by name to religious people’ for fear I may get it wrong."

In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge (included in Letters and Papers from Prison) , theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks why he is instinctively drawn more to religionless people than to the religious -- an affinity he feels in his language, in the naming of God before these two groups of people. He does not, in the letter, answer his own question, but rather describes the differences: when he is among the religionless the name of God emerges easily in his speech, but among the religious the name tastes plastic, feels forced, and induces in him a sense of dishonesty. What Bonhoeffer describes seems sadly to persist today. It corresponds to my own experience, especially where the public forum is concerned.

I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer assumed the "why" of this linguistic! nominal difference to lie within himself or in the differences between the two societies -- the religious and the religion-less -- as each placed upon him different requirements for acceptable dialogue and communication. I think, in fact, that the cause is a combination of both, since I feel myself to be different in the contexts of different communities. But in what follows I’d like both to assess the differences as I’ve experienced them and to suggest one cause. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll restrict my thoughts about that cause to the variant expectations of the two communities.

The secular world is not, in fact, my family -- not in the most intimate sense. Nevertheless, when in formal, public speech before that world I name God, that name comes from my lips naturally, spontaneously, and full of substance. When I speak of God, God is -- because the secular world permits me to use God’s name in what may be called a signifying way, according to an apt expression from the black ghetto community. I need do no more, I can in good faith do no less, than signify.

The Christian community, on the other hand, is my family intimately and spiritually -- people whom I need. We confess one God. Yet when I name that God formally before that community, I often find myself checking the names before speaking them. I "watch my mouth," as it were. I objectify the speech itself in order first to analyze it -- so that when I speak of God it is the speech, the words, the names, which exist most prominently between us -- not God. God, rather, is discussed.

In the Christian community I sense a requirement which the religionless do not impose (because, of course, the religious care so much for the God they already know) : I must use the name of God in a qualifying way -- to explain, to define the deity. This qualifying of the deity becomes a sort of running catechetics: formal, public speaking tends to be, among us, theologizing. But (and here’s the rub) catechetics puts the catechumen under examination The focus subtly shifts from the subject of the names of God to the speaker of the names of God. A tight, self-conscious, self-defining society needs means to identify its own -- who does and who does not belong -- and thus its most consecrated language becomes species-specific (however universal it declares its truths to be) , becomes a standard for judgment. And the names of God become a kind of shibboleth, either admitting or dismissing the speaker.

Among the religionless, this is possible: that the naming of God is a matter of being.

Among the religious, this is possible: that the naming of God is a matter of being right.

Signifyin’ (also called "playin’ the dozens" and "sellin’ wolf tickets," or plain "woofin"’) is an intense, dramatic street speech, a poetry with precise purposes. The young man who uses it talks rapidly in liquid rhythms -- sometimes sweet and sometimes fiercely belligerent. He falls into rhyme so that the focus is on the talk itself and therefore on the talker himself. His language flashes with an astonishing use of imagery, with assonance and alliteration: such are the prosodic rules he adheres to, for he is creating something. His speech is a thing, das Ding an sich: it is a name.

And in order to make it his thing, his own peculiar name, he adorns it with figures, phrases and metaphors which are fresh and arresting; that is, they are his own or his group’s invention, but they are memorable, repeatable enough to be carried from his mouth out into the world. Here, then, our English finds its newness and its generation. From this street person comes the vivid language we use when we want to be most verbally effective: for example, the expressions "I’ll knock you to a dusty curve" and "I’ll slap that taste outa yo mouth." The expression "cool," meaning self-possessed, emotionally indifferent, superior, was in ghetto speech intensified to "cold"; "cold," more recently, has become "cold-gettin’-numb," which has entered public parlance (as much signifyin’ does) through the entertainment industry in the phrase "cold-gettin’ dumb"

Consider the perfectly accurate force of this chill imagery for the Olympian rooster who uses it -- awesome, admirable in his indifference to the attacks of a chancy, careless world. "I am," it says, "untouchable." Consider also that these expressions of coolness sprang from the street long before outsiders seized upon them. Then consider how high some ghetto poet rose on the wing of his own word. "I’ll put you out on front street," he says to threaten his antagonist with public embarrassment. To sing his own beauty, he declares, "I’m comm’ pretty -- three-piece and roped down." And then, to describe a deserved afternoon nap, he murmurs with insouciance: "I be cockin’ a righteous nod under a shady tree."

Initially, the substance of signifyin’ is often a series of taunts against another (as though, by means of language itself, to clear a space around the speaker) Those taunts are followed by bold boasts, breathtaking descriptions of his talents and the feats to be performed (as though, with his own being, to fill the space that he has cleared) The speaking of these feats is their performance -- that’s what signifyin’ is. The youth is battling the oppressive insignificance of the ghetto. He lives and swells in the very language of his own pretty mouth. The language is a sort of angelic praise, which more than admits his being. It exalts his being, right there on the street. He is. He is a force to be reckoned with. He is baaaaaaaad, man!

Signifyin’ -- the talk itself -- signs the speaker’s existence. It is more than a sign of his life, more than a referent or a symbol. It is more like a signature written with personal authority on a contract: it is his name, and it contains him. The etymology of the word is exactly correct.

Signifyin’ -- when it is well done -- impresses that existence upon the audience, which laughs and stomps and applauds the display, this crowing of the rooster. The audience, like a living mirror, reflects the speaker’s existence, delighting in his talk. (Incidentally, when it is poorly done, signifyin’ degenerates into "jive talk." losing its audience’s respect and jeopardizing its speaker’s existence thereby, tarnishing his name. On the other hand, lately it has been elevated to the heavens of financial reward as "rappin" -- as in rap music.)

Signifyin’ -- within the killing city -- is no less than being. The poet becomes his poetry. To speak thus -- to sign one’s self. and in this manner to name one’s self -- is to be.

The religionless, you see, attend to my speech primarily as an art form, not as theologizing or teaching (doctrina) -- and I am content with that. Art has strict rules as to form, but as to substance it is willing to honor anything.

All that the religionless require of my speech is that it be skilled, engaging, delightful, moving, that it interest and satisfy them as spoken language. This single human element -- talk -- creates community between us. And as long as it builds upon experience familiar to the religionless., it is enough. What Bonhoeffer calls "evangelizing" would be too much for them: the demand that they more than admit a communal likeness to me, that they be me. But they are very willing to allow me to be, to be what I am, and to name that being before them. And that is fully enough for me, because it invites signifyin’. What am I? Why, I am one in relationship with God. Whom do I choose to signify, then? God.

Under these conditions, when I name the names of God I do an extraordinary thing: I invoke the presence of God as well. I sign God’s existence. The names coming from my mouth are more than referents, more than symbols; they have the personal authority of a signature: the names contain my God.

Moreover, the names impress God’s existence, upon the audience, which laughs or weeps, applauds or in some manner responds. These people are not threatened by the names (nor am I threatened by how they might receive them) , because they have prepared themselves for art by making, in artistic terms, "a willing suspension of disbelief," This is a fine irony for their suspension of disbelief gives considerable room to my own beliefs, and in that theater my words become their experience and their truth. I signify: I name God’s being. God, in the naming, is.

In the context of the religionless, then, the names of God are very powerful: they are existential, a matter of being. They emerge easily and feel very satisfying, being in perfect harmony with my own being.

In fact, what I have just described does occur within the Christian community, and with twice the sweetness, double the communal strength -- for the whole community with one voice becomes the poet and is bound the more tightly together therefore. All sing one song, naming and signifying one God, who is graciously present in the naming. This communal song, when it is purely performed among us -- no single person standing separate from the others to signify, no group of people suspending disbelief to listen -- is art and more than art: It is worship. Worship is the existential (i.e., invocational) naming of God. Like any fast and sassin’ street kid, we signify -- we perform an extraordinary service when we mouth the awe-full names.

But much, much of the God-talk of our community is not worship -- and that which is not has commanded so much of our attention and energies that it pervades and compromises even that which is.

It is not wrong to be concerned -- as we are -- for doctrinal truth. Such concern does, however, exact a different use of the names of God. The names become definitional and require interpretation. They are referents, after all -- and not for the deity wholly, but for the deity’s characteristics, which must be parsed with refined accuracy. To speak the names is not to invite God’s is-ness among us, but rather to define what God is.

Note that the same names perform these different functions in different contexts. God Almighty! In the signifyin’ context -- whether worshipful or religionless, in the context of art -- that is simply a cry, explosive, and needful. But in the doctrinal context -- the context of a self-defining community -- it is a proposition or a thesis. It isn’t complete until it is understood. Likewise, the titles "Lord," "Son. of God," "Father," "Savior" and, through millennia of use, "Jesus": in the former context, these raise nothing but relationship. But in the latter context these same names raise quizzical eyebrows and calls for explanation and exhaustive discussions. "What," demanded the Christian community of the Monophysite, "do you really mean when you say ‘Jesus’?" Even the angels, when they were not worshiping but rather declaring to the community the acts of God, used the names as qualifiers, defining the deity thereby. "Jesus," said the angel, "for he will save his people from their sins."

My point is twofold, since there are two kinds of qualifying which the church accomplishes by the names of God.

1. Qualifying God: Commonly the religious community requires of my language that it define God; it listens to my use of the divine names in order to understand our God the better. This clearly is not signifyin’, nor is it worship. My audience is learning, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach. But teaching seems rather to overwhelm art in our Protestant circles, and it seems to be given a place superior to pure signifyin’; also, educational naming objectifies both the deity and the divine relationship to us. I feel faintly lonelier when I interpret God by the names than when I invoke God by the names -- slightly more plastic in the pronunciation -- and thus my experience creeps close to Bonhoeffer’s.

2. Qualifying the speaker: Once the deity behind the names has been objectified, and once the Christian community has systematized the truths referred to by those names, the question put to the Monophysite takes on a whole new import. "What do you mean when you say ‘Jesus’?" becomes: "Do you mean what we mean?," which in turn becomes, "Are you right or wrong?"-- which is as much as to say, "Are you with us or not?"

There was a time when nations defined themselves by the gods they worshiped. Now I find, as I travel from one religious subgroup to another, that each defines not only its God but also its own identity by the name with which it refers to God. One group says, "Jeeeeeee-sus. Another restricts itself to a clipped and chilly "Christ." Another uses the trinitarian formula "Father-Son-and Holy-Spirit" as though it were a single word, while still another rejects the formula altogether, and so on. The speaker who uses God’s name before any one of these groups will qualify or else disqualify himself or herself by the name. If, before a critical audience, she uses the divine name in a form foreign to that audience, in a form rejected by it, she will be adjudged unqualified, someone to be excluded. This reaction, from one’s own community -- the people one needs -- is a very heavy threat. It cancels worship altogether, and another atmosphere pervades the place.

With this in mind, I continually find myself feeling like a confirmand; with Bonhoeffer, I find myself "reluctant to mention God by name to religious people" for fear that I may get it wrong. I expend energy to discover what, in the particular religious subgroup which I am to address, is the "right" name of God. I do this in order that I may be heard, that my message will not be dismissed because I used unacceptable terms. But when I do this, when I qualify myself by the subgroup’s approved deific title, I am re-enacting Bonhoeffer’ s experience precisely: "That name somehow seems to me not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest."

Among the religionless I use all the names of God that the Scripture has bequeathed to me. I also use names which the holy peoples of the world have lifted unto reverence. I say "Wakan Tanka" with Black Elk in exultant freedom. It is a matter of being.

Among the religious, I grow careful and wary -- precisely because I love them and hunger for their community. Until I am assured a worshipful freedom, I learn circumlocutions. Until I am catechized, I pinch my speech. Until then, it is a matter of being right.