Sunday 23 July 2017
Sixth Sunday after Trinity
The Reverend Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian
One of my many obsessions in life concerns the use of language and grammar. The question being, what is meant by the use of any word, sentence, statement, punctuation, text or even in what we call scripture. Politicians and Church leaders often come under scrutiny to say what they mean, and to be clear as to what they try to convey. The well-paid John Humphreys often exposes hubris on the Today programme. The maxim stated by Ludwig Wittgenstein should apply, ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent’. Just to illustrate how sad I am, I am rereading a book entitled ‘For who(m) the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection’ by David Marsh. As well as warning against, although with exceptions, the use of the split infinitive (another obsession of mine), the Oxford comma, double negatives as in the Rolling Stones, ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ and the use of prepositions, Marsh also suggests that much writing and speech, whilst grammatically correct and ostensibly true, can hide a falsehood, which we should be wary of. For example, the statement ‘It is unlawful for a man to marry his widow’s sister’ is correct in its formulation and conveys a fact; it clearly is not true. He also points out the danger of the Oxford comma in a phrase such as ‘two meals, two desserts (comma) and a bottle of wine for £20’ suggest that the wine alone costs £20. You will be pleased to note that Michael Gove in May, 2013 as Education Secretary received a ‘bad grammar’ award! Politicians are very adept at using language to confuse: Donald Trump’s fake news does not exonerate him, and nor does the suggestion that there are ‘alternative facts’. Perhaps Trump and others of his ilk should consider the veracity of the statement, ‘I am a liar’!
It is unfair to berate just politicians for the use of confusing and obfuscating language. Church leaders and theologians are often guilty of the same sin. Into this category, I would include those who misunderstand and misinterpret scripture, conciliar definitions and even hymnody. There is a profound difference between literalism and metaphor. Many believe (a dangerous word in many contexts) that literalism is the only interpretive tool. This denies the more significant truths that can be conveyed through the imaginative use of metaphor or analogy. An obvious example is the phrase we shall shortly use in the creed, ‘he is seated at the right hand of the Father’. I would suggest that we look at the readings for today and the hymns we are singing to understand the strength of metaphor, rather than a literal interpretation of the words and grammar used.
What is the point, or even meaning, of this grammatical meandering? Firstly, I would suggest that we always look carefully at a text to understand what is actually being said, and in what form the words convey truth or meaning. I have always been of the opinion that much theological writing and scriptural texts are better understood through the metaphorical lens rather than the literal prism so many adopt, and which has an adverse impact upon the church’s mission, endeavours and engagement. Texts from scripture that are used as weapons, rather than imaginative exploration. For example, although the opening phrase in the first reading, ‘There is not any god besides you’, is not good grammar, the notion of God’s ‘sovereignly over all causes’ inspires a sense of the breadth of divine compassion and concern. In the second reading from St Paul, one of the seven letters we know to be from him, the idea of the creation waiting for the revealing of the children of God, again puts the divine into the totality of experienced reality. The Gospel reading gives a vivid analogical portrayal of God’s Kingdom, likened to good seed producing plants amongst weeds. Poetic and analogous, but not literal. Our imagination enables us to perceive the truth in the image, and we can understand the meaning. Let me conclude by focusing on the image of God’s Kingdom. The second verse of George Herbert’s hymn, ‘Teach me, my God and King’ illustrates perfectly the need to look beyond the immediate and literal, the eye passing through the glass. Consider the images in the offertory hymn (a personal favourite, as I chose it for my first Mass in 1975): sceptre and throne, songs like a flood (not too good at present for southern Cornwall), clouds receiving, songs sweeping across the crystal sea, earth as a footstall; and the significant emphasis upon the eucharistic feast. Finally, we are treated to Bryan Rees reminder of the nature of God’s Kingdom as justice, freedom for captives, challenge and gift. I think it is important to remember and remind ourselves about the core of Jesus’ teaching. It is not about salvation or personal gain or benefit, but rather the experience and establishment of God’s kingdom. This is not to be confused as empire, tyranny or caliphate, but rather stands in direct contradiction to these manifestations. As kingdom people, we are bound to struggle for justice, peace, equality, the end to poverty and wage restrictions for the poor (although not necessarily in the BBC). The late Marcus Borg has written that the idea of Jesus as King means quite simply that Caesar is not, and the empires of the world, past and present, are not. The designation is politically significant. In particular, Borg points out that Caesar Augustus took the title ‘Prince of Peace’ based on his military victory at Actium, whereas Jesus could claim ‘Prince of Peace’ based on justice as the opening line of Rees’ hymn affirms. Wittgenstein also wrote: ‘If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.’ Without speaking and being silent, but living the different life of God’s Kingdom, following the king, is both our calling and our embrace of the grammar of God. Also, we need to be attentive to the words we use in scripture, liturgy and hymnody, enabling the fullest appreciation of all that language affords, so long as the grammar is correct and understood, and we do not have to resort to silence. Put simply, the word kingdom is a metaphor which makes more demands than a mere literal use, if you allow your imagination to wander and wonder.