-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I am an active reader. I put emphasis in my words. My 5th grade teacher, Ms. Miller, taught me how to read actively. My entire literary world opened up the day she stopped me, and told me to try again with feeling. That’s why I love reading in class. With a book in my hand, I can get a group of middle schoolers on the edge of their seat in suspense, or laughing out loud with an author’s joke. It’s like for a brief 40 minutes I can show jaded kids one of the ways adults play pretend.
Two weeks ago I was reading a book out loud. It was no different than any other book, except this one used “damn,” and “hell,” pretty loosely. The middle schoolers thought it was hilarious, not because I was reading them outloud, but because it was me reading them outloud. They wanted to know why my ministerial sensibilities were not crushed by these PG-13 words. (PG if we were to be honest.)
Language is a construct
Language is a human construct. We made it up. We continue to make it up. We’ll make it up for years beyond this moment.
Because we make it up, we give words power. An excellent example:
Back in 1420, King Henry V led England to victory over King Charles’ French army, successfully conquering France. This meant English became the language of the higher class, while French became the language of the lower class. The remnants of this sort of class language can be seen in the grocery store. The animal is often given the English name, but the butchered food is given the French. Cow:Beef, Chicken:Poultry, Pig:Pork. It was the higher class buying food from the lower class- so while English speakers retained their words for the actual animal, they took on the other language when purchasing foods from the market.
I went down this rabbit hole over 20 years ago, when I realized the German word for meat was “fleisch,” literally translated, it becomes flesh. We don't call our prime rib "flesh," but how is "meat" any different? This grisly knowledge opened my vocabulary, and helped me understand how words can change over the years.
I was really illuminated when my final German project was translating Genesis 1 from Luther’s Bible. When our “Heavens” was “Himmel” in German, the literal word being, “sky,” I realized our language was just that, our language. A few years later I would look at the Hebrew in Genesis 1, and Heavens would be הַשָּׁמַיִם, or “sky” in Hebrew. Not God’s words, but a translation of what God wanted the people to know. Otherwise, God simply being in the sky doesn’t work. We have a far more complex view of our universe than we did thousands of years ago.
Language is an entrance fee to a culture.
Point blank: It is super difficult to write Christian. If I want to be taken seriously as a Christian writer, I have to write academically. Academic writing requires writing over everyone’s head. I don’t need to sway academics. I’m pretty confident most of them feel I’m not even relevant. If I want Christians to flock to my words, I better use Christianese. I better write about being blessed and being touched by the Spirit. Only, Christianeze is really great to talk to people who already agree or mostly agree with what you are trying to say. To me, that’s an epic waste of time. If you are wondering why Christianeze couldn’t work on different kinds of Christians, well, that’s because we know our languages. We can pick up right away whether someone is writing from a reformed, evangelical, Catholic, [insert your version here] brand of Christianese, and we already basically know what each brand is going to say, so we ignore what doesn’t belong to our brand.
I’m constantly walking the line of writing over people’s heads, or too much to the wrong audience, knowing not writing academically, or to a specific brand of Christian basically turns off almost everyone who would willingly read a Christian writer.
Fuck, I’m off topic.
“Shit” isn’t what makes me pastoral or not.
When I read to that middle school class, some of them wanted to know why I could read “damn” and “hell” aloud and still call myself a minister.
Let me out myself right this very moment. When my husband and I are alone in the car we swear like sailors. I don’t believe that makes me any more or less a pastor. Let me list some things that would make me less of a pastor:
If I’m at school- I’ll read the book. I’ll keep my language PG. I’ll wear clothes that are within the school dress code.
If I’m chilling with pirates, I’ll use their language and their dress to communicate. I’ve already lost them if I use mine. (Although, I think they’d appreciate neon nails and bright red hair.)
If you think that’s being two-sided, check yourself. Social constructs are merely keys to kingdoms. I keep what’s real the same: I actively love my neighbor. I openly seek the truth. I want to make the community I’m interacting with comfortable in their house. I’m after what’s real. What’s real is deeper than the language we use, it’s deeper than the clothes we wear, and so much deeper than anything else that excludes others. That's what I'm after, and if your not… well, good luck with that.