Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Our Changing Language

Most Sunday mornings find me in church. Sometimes as we sing hymns and choruses or as people pray or speak, I look around for newcomers. If I see any, I wonder: do they understand the words they’re hearing, or does it sound like a secret code… or insider jargon?

There’s the Shakespearean or King James English of the classic hymns. And old or new music can rely on references that the well-churched understand but that could mystify a stranger.

“Christian-ese” is based on the assumption that all hearers have the same knowledge base to supply meaning to the references given. With fewer and fewer people growing up in church, that’s not the case anymore.

And while we want the long-time members of our congregations to be comfortable and able to worship in ways meaningful to them, it can’t be at the cost of excluding the uninitiated visitor.

Sometimes after a particular song I feel like the leader should explain its obscure references: especially lines about the blood,  the Lamb, or marching to Zion. Beautiful, poetic imagery. But it’s figurative, symbolic. And if you don’t know the symbols, you may not have time or inclination to figure it out. You sure won’t ask the stranger in the next seat, who’s nodding and smiling in agreement.

Dorene Meyer wrote an interesting post at the Canadian Writers Who Are Christian blog, called “A Clear Message”. (Follow the link to read the whole post) In part she says:

I was sitting in church today, singing songs that were written 200 or even 400+ years ago, mouthing words like, “hark, thine, oxen, ass, whither, leadeth” and wondering how much our choice of songs has hindered the spread of the Gospel in our century….Why do we as followers of Jesus, hold so tightly to words and phrases and songs that create misunderstanding, confusion and lack of comprehension of the simple Gospel truth that Jesus taught?

Dorene’s suggestion is to make better use of the contemporary-language worship music available. I agree.

But I look at the lyrics of classic hymns from John Newton, John Wesley, and others not named John, and I’d like to add this hope too: can’t we find skilled song-smiths to update the language without marring the meaning? Some of these hymns pack a serious theological punch. Getting the message into our heads and hearts through song is as valid now as in the 1600’s.

Before anyone starts throwing things, let me point out that we’ve embraced carefully, prayerfully-done translations of the Bible into the English language of our times, with greater frequency as language continues to change. The New International Version, not a particularly ancient text, has just released a fresh update under a 2010 copyright date. If you compare verses at Biblegateway.com with your home NIV, you’ll find subtle differences.

And the Book of Common Prayer has been replaced in many Anglican churches with the Book of Alternative Service… including an updated rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. (While there may be other issues with these changes, my point is that there’s a felt need to make the language understandable to the average pray-er in the church.)

Then there are updated versions of classic Christian books like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest and many of George MacDonald’s novels. Our language is evolving so rapidly that even the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis feel old-fashioned and a bit awkward. Ten years ago when I read them aloud to my kids, I translated as I went.

I don’t want to let these treasures slip from our contemporary experience, but neither do I enjoy falling back into archaic language. And I’m old enough to understand it! What will the younger generations—and those to come—miss because it’s encrusted in thees and thous and wherefores? (Did you know, “wherefore” means “why” or “therefore”, and not “where”?)

It’s fine for us to say listeners and readers should recognize the value of the message and embrace it anyway. It may be difficult to understand, but it’s not impossible. A little work never hurt anyone.

But it looks… sounds… feels… old-fashioned. Out of date. Irrelevant. And especially in an age where everything is instant, the value has to be clearly visible on the surface. Old English, even early/mid-20th Century English, may not be a foreign language but it’s at least an obscure dialect.

Do we want people looking at the liberating message of Jesus, be it in song, in article or in fiction, as some out-dated tradition? Don’t we want to show it’s as fresh and relevant today as ever? Then we need to speak the language of the time.

Review: The Shack, by William Paul Young

The ShackThe Shack, by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2007)

You know how sometimes a new tune or arrangement will make you stop and notice a familiar song’s lyrics? That’s how I feel about The Shack’s portrayal of God’s love. It’s definitely a different picture of God, yet it’s familiar.

I’ve heard lots about the book, both hostile and complimentary, and about the tragedy that drives the central character, Mack, into The Great Sadness. Consequently it languished in my “should read” pile for a long time.

It was the book’s effect on my friends that drew me to read it. People who knew the Lord… suddenly knew Him better, more intimately. These are people I trust, and so I chose to read the novel.

One thing none of them mentioned to me is the book’s humour. It’s subtle, but it adds a delightful thread to the mix.

Consider the chapter titled “God on the Dock,” where Mack and Jesus lie on a dock by a lake and watch stars: the chapter’s opening quote is from C.S. Lewis, author of God in the Dock (which I believe addresses some of the same issues Mack does). Or in the same chapter, when Papa (God the Father who has chosen to appear in female form because of Mack’s memories of his own father) has cooked a meal: Mack describes a delicious feast “spiced with who but God knew what.” (p. 105)

The novel’s premise is that Mack receives a note inviting him to meet God at the site where his younger daughter was presumed murdered. He goes to find out if this is real or some kind of sick joke… and ends up spending the weekend with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in human form.

Needless to say, Mack has a lot of baggage and some heavy-duty questions. The novel feels in places like one long dialogue (perhaps sermon?) but that’s realistic to the story. Mack’s hurt has no room for platitudes and pat answers. And I love how the various forms of God will explain something to him and then simplify if it goes over his head.

I’m thankful not to inhabit a Great Sadness, but like most people I have my moments of “lesser sadness.” The message I take from The Shack reminds me to anchor in God’s goodness and love instead of letting the sadness build.

William Paul Young sums it up well when he has the character of Jesus say, “To the degree that … fears [imagined and of the future, not rational ones] have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you.” (p. 142)

The storytelling has a slightly distant feel, more like narration than the current style that would draw us into Mack’s heart and head. But with the trauma Mack’s been through, I don’t think we as readers could cope. Plus, Mack has had over three years to live with his loss before facing God with his questions. Readers experiencing it fresh wouldn’t be ready for that step.

It’s still a lot to chew on, and I expect I’ll read this book a few more times over the years to fully “get” parts of it. But I did get the basic message: God is especially fond of me… and you… and each individual on earth whether they pay attention to Him or not.

The Shack is Mr. Young’s first novel and has prompted a lot of discussions and debate. Among the recognition it has received is “Best Contemporary Novel” in The Word Guild 2008 writing awards. The author’s website says the book will soon be available in over 30 languages, plus as audio books.

Mr. Young is Canadian by birth and currently lives in the United States. Interviews and podcasts are available at the Windblown Media site.

You can read the opening pages of The Shack here. Be sure to read the Foreward – it’s part of the novel. If you’ve already read the novel and want to talk with other readers, visit The Shack online discussion forum.