The Cure

Illustration from Ludlow's article by Leif Parsons

My mother is reading a Marcus Borg book. This could be trouble, but if it is, it’s my fault. I gave it to her.

The book is “Putting Away Childish Things,” a novel. As a work of fiction, it’s not incredible. But, as a thinly veiled delivery method for Borg’s ideas, which are elucidated in a more straightforward manner in his other, nonfiction books, it’s a smashing success.

Case in point: my mom called this morning and asked, “What have you done to me?” She wants to throw the book down, and a few times has, but then she picks it up again to let Borg continue his assault on her orthodox Christian beliefs.

This is a good exercise, I think. It was for me when I read it. It is for me as I continue to read things that challenge me. But it is, of course, challenging, and so many people spend so much time avoiding challenging situations. Thus, we end up keeping to our own tribes. This is a bummer, but it’s true; it’s what we all do.

But one of the things that happens when any of us start to wander outside of our safer pastures is we begin to question things we once held for granted. If you’re reading this blog, I feel certain you’ve been there. As a person who has always been drawn to the written word, I’ll never forget when the thing I took most for granted, the sturdiness of words, began to crumble.

Honestly, I’m not sure why it took so long. As a kid in Christian school, subjected to year after year of Bible class, I always loved the verses and chapters of scripture that were difficult to understand. I distinctly remember being frustrated over the parts of the Gospels or Acts that just tell a story. I liked to think of scripture as a collection of wise sayings and sage advice. To my fortune cookie trained mind, the stories got in the way. They were too obvious. (Obviously, of course, they are not.)

But my favorite passage was and is the beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word” and so on. It was mysterious and yet I liked it precisely because I thought the point was to figure it out. Okay, I would think, Jesus is the word so this is saying that Jesus was there in the beginning. Got it. Check. Next?

When words have definite meanings, sentences and paragraphs become solvable puzzles. I like puzzles. But words don’t have definite meanings.

This is what being a junior in college and an English major teaches you. One class about literary criticism in which you finally discover what all the fuss about postmodernism is and you realize that Bill Clinton was only being kind of ridiculous when he questioned the meaning of the word “is.”

And I was reminded of this problem again recently in an excellent Opionator piece in the New York Times. In “The Living Word,” Peter Ludlow reminds us that not only do the meanings of words change over decades and centuries, they often change from conversation to conversation. Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “Ann Arbor is not a city,” as Ludlow does in his essay? He means, of course, that Ann Arbor is not a big city or a great city; it is, technically, a city. And if we can do this with a word like city, what happens to abstract words like love or peace or faith or hope?

Of course, Marcus Borg is relevant here too. In his most recent book “Speaking Christian,” Borg suggests that because we so often misunderstand the original Christian vocabulary, we misunderstand Christianity itself. Talk about an assault on orthodox Christianity.

But what do we do with this? Once we begin to understand that language is not static, that it is dynamic, as Peter Ludlow suggests, how can we ever claim a firm grasp on scripture, or on orthodoxy by extension?

We can’t. We have to wonder and question. We have to be humble interpreters and be gracious to those who come to different conclusions. We have to have what Brian McLaren called a “generous orthodoxy.” We don’t get to be right all the time, but we do get to be actively trying to be right.

And since we can never really know if we are right in any case, just trying to be right is good enough for me.

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About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Words Are Not Static, Just Try to Be Right

  1. J. Dobson says:

    This is an interesting piece and I was especially intrigued by Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” Can you define what exactly you mean by Orthodox Christianity. I’m assuming that you are not referring directly to Greek or Russian Orthodoxy but rather an American evangelical orthodoxy. Clarification on that point would be appreciated.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Sorry to be unclear. I do mean orthodoxy in the sense of “Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice” and, particularly as it relates to American Christianity.

  3. Mike Duran says:

    Since “words don’t have definite meanings,” neither does this blog post. And “since [you] can never really know if [you] are right in any case,” I’ll assume that you aren’t in most cases. In fact, this post is a good example.

    • cincyanon says:

      Mike,
      You seem very specific about your ability to define what words mean to others and what is right. That resoluteness should be feared by others (including yourself?)who see God’s or a Divine Plan as ultimately unknowable. Faith is not defined by a lack of questioning or understanding. It is Faith because it survives rigorous questioning and doubt.

      • Mike Duran says:

        cincyanon, the fact that you understood and responded to my comment proves that words mean something. When you speak of “God’s or a Divine Plan” you are referring to a specific something. Unless we can agree upon what you mean by those words, what the Bible means by those words, and what words, in general, mean, then all conversations are pointless.

  4. Kenneth Ethan Frantz says:

    I’m not a Borg fan; however, this is an interesting post. Words do change meaning. With that in mind, I do think that with the help of historical context and careful scholarship we are able to recover most,if not all, of the words’ and phrases’ used in just about any document original meaning. I don’t think we are completely blind when we enter in to the the world of Biblical, or any other form of literary, interruption.

    I do think there is room for lee way, but we shouldn’t be careless.

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