25 October 2018

Why I Don't Speak King James


While traveling in Quebec City, my travel companion (who also happened to be my aunt) and I found ourselves quite frequently having to apologize for our lack of French-speaking skills. Aunt Beth would clasp her hands apologetically, lean forward ever so slightly and say, "I'm very sorry, I don't speak French." The way she said it, she really did sound very sorry.

I have to confess to a similar lack of proficiency in "Bible-ese" -- King James and otherwise -- except that I do understand it; I don't speak it, and I'm not all that sorry about it.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I think it's simply terrible. King James English has a long-held and honorable place in literature and in history. Though I do admit to finding it humorous when a speaker of modern American English abruptly switches to Shakespearean when in prayer, as if God might not otherwise comprehend. No, my beef with King James English (and "Biblical" terminology in general) isn't that they use it to talk to God. It's that they address me with it.

Case in point: I was scolded by someone the other day for my "worldly" perspective on something. (I had the audacity to defend a viewpoint that the other person considered outrageously feminist.) Being on the receiving end of a long-winded, self-righteous tirade made me realize: You know, I don't think I'm all that big a fan of this term worldly. Not merely because the other person was misunderstanding me. And not merely because language changes over time, and these days worldly means something more like "mature, savvy; cosmopolitan."

No, I'm not a fan because it seems at odds with critical thinking. Dee Parsons over at the Wartburg Watch says, "Whenever Jezebel, Hitler or Satan is brought into the discussion, we have left the realm of thoughtful commentary." I feel the same way about worldly and other Bible-isms.

You might think this argument leaves me without a leg to stand on, theologically speaking. After all, doesn't the Bible speak out against the ways of "the world"? Doesn't it warn against the peril of loving the world and being conformed to it? Indeed it does. But context matters in this discussion. The Bible also says "For God so loved the world", and "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [the same word translated elsewhere as world]... and saw that it was good." We are all part of the world that God created.

Most Christians who use "the world" in conversation aren't mindful of this distinction, however. They tend to use it as code for "anything I don't agree with." If you're on their side in any given argument, you're spiritual and righteous. If you take the opposing view, you're worldly (shame on you).

"Worldly", in my opinion, fosters an escapist mentality. It effectively "others" people with whom we disagree, making us believe that we don't need to take the time to hear their perspective.

Besides coming off as incredibly alienating and "ivory tower", the words world and worldly fail to capture exactly why someone objects to something. Don't tell me that drinking is bad because it's worldly; that's a cop-out. Flesh it out for me. Why are you uncomfortable with it? You might believe that I'll become addicted, or you're worried about my reputation, or perhaps you have an alcoholic friend or family member. We can address those specific concerns and at least come to mutual understanding, if not to agreement. But dismissing something out of hand as "worldly" tends not to be conducive to such dialogue.

A similar issue exists with the past-its-prime term "fleshly." For some reason, people in my circles who drop the word fleshly in casual conversation demonstrate an appalling lack of both interpersonal and self-awareness: "I have a hard time getting up early to do my devotions, and it's because of my flesh." "The reason so many church members are missing from prayer meeting is because they're fleshly." No, getting up early is hard because it's hard, and because your body is built to run on a certain number of hours of sleep. Maybe prayer meeting is poorly attended because people want some time in the evening with their families after having spent all morning and part of the afternoon in church. (Or maybe, just maybe, prayer meeting is boring!)

I'd also add "old nature" and "sin nature" to the list of offenders. Again, my disagreement isn't with the facts, per se: Is humanity's nature beset by sin, by brokenness? I personally believe so. Yet for some reason the place I most often hear "old nature" used is in reference to the totally normal and age-appropriate behaviors of children: Crying infants. Toddlers getting into mischief because they're curious about exploring the world around them. Energetic preschoolers running around making noise. Supposedly, it's "old nature" -- and nothing else -- that makes the baby fuss during a church service, or the toddler get upset because he has to sit still for storytime.

That's why I personally don't use these terms if I can help it. They don't encourage us to dig deeper into what's really going on, either with ourselves or with others.

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