Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 6, 2010
Language reflects religions' loss of power
Modern vernacular drops words like moss, fern for blog, MP3 player
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
The British Daily Mail reported recently that Lisa Saunders, a mother of four children who lives in North Ireland was scandalized by, of all things, her children's school dictionary.
She consulted the dictionary hoping to learn the difference between "moss" and "fern." Not finding either word, she consulted an earlier edition of the same dictionary and found both of them.
Puzzled and with her curiosity aroused, she began checking successive editions of the same dictionary. She discovered a pattern in the additions and deletions that "horrified" her. Words that described nature and rural life, as well as religion and Church life had been dropped while words referring to media such as "blog" and "MP3 player" had been added.
Saunders complained to the publisher, Oxford University Press, who defended the deletions noting that dictionaries simply reflect patterns of actual usage. Words rarely used are deleted. In Britain, most children never go to church and few children live in rural areas. Almost all children, however, spend a great deal of time with computers and the Internet.
Therefore, words that describe, for example, "bishop" or "disciple" are socially of little value while "voice-mail" and "cut and paste" are. Therefore religious terms are delisted not because of prejudice but because of perceived lack of value.
INCLUDE WHAT IS WORTHY
Anthony Seldon, an educator from Wellington College, was reported to be "stunned" by this news. He grieved the loss of words like "saint," and "butter-cup," and said "I would rather have 'marzipan" than 'MP3 player.'" He thinks publishers have a duty not only to follow social trends but to prescribe what is worthy of being learned.
The broad outline of this discussion is familiar to religious educators. Many Catholic students in Alberta simply don't have a living vocabulary that allows them to make personal sense of a religious topic.
Teachers report students as being open to religion, pleasant and cooperative but generally puzzled when discussing religion and when taught a religious concept, they have real difficulty retaining it. Their memory, as it were, does not have real categories or mental hooks on which to hang religious ideas.
Similarly, children brought to church for a wedding or a funeral, for example, often appear to be at a loss as to even which direction to look. Church represents a world that is utterly foreign and weird.
The loss of religious faith and vitality in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and, to a slightly lesser extent, Canada is reflected in the weakening of religious language. Traditional religious terms today sound even to some elderly people as dated, from a bygone era, the "Age of Religion." The Sunday homily is one of the few places and times where religious language can be spoken in a straightforward fashion with some realistic hope of being comprehended.
Outside of church, in everyday secular life, religious language is vanishing. In Quebec, the situation is so extreme that the Catholic Church recently sponsored a series of billboards pointing out that the words used commonly as swear words in French actually have another meaning - a religious meaning. "Tabernacle," for example, is so commonly used as a profanity that young people in particular did not know that it had another meaning.
Don Cupitt, a former Christian theologian now an agnostic, in his 2005 book, The Way to Happiness, was fascinated by the rapid changes taking place in religious language and began examining colloquial language to see if he could detect a pattern as to how people refer to what is ultimate in their life.
Traditionally the term "God," was used for this purpose but now, Cupitt noted, English speakers increasingly use idioms about "life" in place of "God." "We say that one shouldn't tempt life, deny life, or sin against life. Sometimes we find ourselves joyfully grateful to life . . . or wrestling with life."
Cupitt thinks that most Britons follow a this-worldly religion focused on ordinary human life in which supernatural beliefs, sacred texts, or religious authorities are simply alien. "God" has been replaced by "life" and by "it." People say things like "How's it going?" "How's life?" "Life" and "it" function more realistically as a reference to the ultimate than the word "God."
This switch from religious language to ordinary colloquial speech to describe the ultimate is not part of any grand conspiracy but is rather symptomatic of a massive cultural shift indicated by the decreasing influence of religion. This is what is behind the often repeated slogan, "I am not religious but I am spiritual."
ECLIPSE OF GOD
Pope Benedict's recent announcement of a new Vatican office to address what he describes as the "eclipse of God" in Europe is in response to this same cultural shift.
The challenge we face is how to renew religious language so as to move closer to what some Quaker writers describe as "immediacy," religious speech that is grounded and alive. Douglas Steere describes immediacy: "Only when words come up fresh and breathless, come up still moist and glistening from the sea of existence do they carry power and authority."
No one is betting on quick results.
(Joe McMorrow is a religious educator and lives in Camrose.)
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