Wednesday, May 08, 2013

poetics, process and prodigality

Last week, the NuDunkers got to hang out (in a HangOut, of all things) with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, authors of Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. You can check out the video (where three of us become mysteriously invisible partway through!) of our conversation here:

We spent a good deal of the conversation talking about language, how it shapes us, and the ways we choose to use it. I think that's important. I love words. Language intrigues and motivates me. It's easy to dismiss an idea because of the words with which someone chooses to express it. It's even easier, for me, to become enamored, sometimes mistakenly, of a thought because of the way the words fit together. Language is powerful, and it matters.

But I don't think our conversations about conversation, talking about how we talk, using language for our own language, is really helpful in very many situations. It is too tempting to fall into a long, drawn-out exegesis of a single term and forget what important implications we were worried about in the first place. Language is meant to be used. It's slippery and fun and alive that way. I think the way to redeem language is not to talk about which words we use, but to simply USE them in creative and redemptive ways.

[And now, I shall immediately disobey my own command and proceed to talk about the words we use.]

For instance:

I recently went through a series of interviews with district committees and boards in order to be approved for ordination in my denomination. In preparation for those interviews, I answered a dozen or so essay questions about theology, practice, and call. The committees and boards got to read my answers, and ask questions about my essays.

In one answer, I used a feminine pronoun for God. I wrote that particular "her" without giving it a second thought. I didn't even know I had done it until it came up in the interview, but it turns out that "her" is the only pronoun - masculine OR feminine - that I used for God anywhere in my essays. The question wasn't even about the personhood of God - the mention was offhand, peripheral to the substance of my answer. I was just using the language I had for the concepts I was trying to express.

So. A member of the committee read my own paragraph back to me and said, "Talk to me about that." Well...okay. I explained the answer, clarified the concepts, reiterated my (stunning!) theological point. "No," he said, "that wasn't what I was asking about." Someone else at the table said "It's the pronoun. He wants to know about the pronoun."

OH! Well.

Here's my answer: God is bigger than a pronoun. In our human cognition, we need categories. We have men and we have women, and we assign sex and gender as such in order to understand the world. Humans exist in sexed bodies, in gendered understandings. God isn't human, and as such, is bigger than human gendered pronouns. I know that God is larger than my understanding, and I know that my language is inadequate. I don't know much, but I do know that I do not know much. Using feminine pronouns for God in addition to the masculine ones that we hear so often reminds me: God is bigger than I can understand.

(Sidenote: kids in Baltimore might know more about God than I do.)

And that satisfied the interviewer, even though his theological perspective and gender norms are probably far afield from what's familiar to me.

I'd much rather speak creatively, redemptively, surprisingly, nodding at the vast unknown, than talk about why the way we talk is wrong. Language is meant to be used, not analyzed. The analysis is fun, sometimes, but it doesn't effect change. It doesn't surprise people to hear yet another conversation about why the way they talk is backward. There is little redemptive in arguing about whether or not words can be redeemed. Words are meant to be spoken. Language is meant to be used.

So. The masculine language of "God's Kingdom" may be problematic. But I just don't have the energy to have that conversation again, and kingdom language is what we're gifted - through scripture, tradition, language and translation. And besides, it still MEANS something very particular, very evocative. When juxtaposed and used creatively, it's even evocatively redemptive: Imagine "kingdom." Now, imagine "peaceable kingdom." Imagine "upside down kingdom." Imagine king. Now imagine "servant king." When we move away from kingdom language, it's hard to convey the complete upheaval that scripture tells us happens when God shows up. "Realm," for instance, doesn't have an immediate connotation or image attached. I can immediately conjure up an image of "kingdom," but "realm" feels distant, amorphous, made-up. So, when I try to imagine a "new realm," I'm not sure what would make it different than the old one.

All right. Enough meta-level reflection. Let's get back to poetry, shall we?

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