Express

Full sentences.  They’re underrated.  If, like me, you receive many tersely-worded emails—an inevitable result of the txt generation—you make know that disoriented feeling of not knowing what’s being said.  Sure, in caveman grunt style, you get the gist, but what of the tone, the context, or the art of polite human conversation?  Some colleagues think me quaint for beginning each email with a greeting, followed by a body, and a closing.  I try to articulate the purpose of my communication using full sentences, often explaining why I’m asking.  Sometimes I ask questions.  Sometimes multiple questions.  When I get an answer answer stating just “Yes” am I to assume that’s to all of the questions?  What if one of them didn’t accept a “yes or no” answer?

Scientists often suggest that it’s our ability to communicate vocally that set us on a different evolutionary track from other animals.  Our large brains, we’re told, were to accommodate the complexities of speech and the abstract thought that followed it.  Seems a pity that now that we communicate constantly we seem to have lost the ability.  Well, not so much lost it as have allowed ourselves to be completely distracted.  I get busyness.  There are times when new emails arrive every few seconds and everyone wants an answer.  At those times I try to envision the half glasses and green eyeshades of a telegraph operator.  Dots and dashes and a good deal of waiting and still business got done.  And I wonder what this cryptic email before me, not even a full sentence, was meant to convey.

Cave-dwellers, I imagine, had some pretty vital information to communicate.  Things like, “I just saw a cave-bear go in there, I’d avoid that place if I were you,” or “Do you think that saber-tooth cat looks hungry?”  The more precision they could put on their grunts the better advantage they would have.  Syntax wasn’t invented for the fun of it.  And yet, here we are.  No time.  Full sentences might serve to avoid confusion and mistakes.  None of us would have these jobs had we not the ability to communicate.  Would you apply for a job using anything less than full sentences?  In our rush to be more efficient we create situations where more information will be required further down the line.  A pity.  If we’d only take the time.  You know.

Which Bible?

No doubt the Bible holds a privileged place in western civilization. Arguably, it is the most influential book that exists in terms of its cultural influence in this hemisphere. Not that the Bible has had an easy ride of late. Many are vocal about its shortcomings, notably its violence and steadfast consistency with its own social mores of patriarchalism and election. Unfortunately these critiques sometimes (often) discourage people from reading it. (It is a very big book.) Having spent a good deal of my career dealing with the Bible, however, it is like a friend. Most friends have a habit or two that drive you to the brink of madness, but still, you know and trust them and tend to see the good rather than the flaws. The Bible is a holy book with warts. I cringe when I read parts of it. I’m not quite ready to let it go yet, however.

One reflection of this ambivalence I see often is that scholars (among others) have now taken to spelling the Bible without a capital letter: the bible. Perhaps it is the latent editor in me, or perhaps it is the Chicago Manual of Style that hangs like Damocles’ dictionary above my head, but like it or not, the Bible is a proper noun. In English we capitalize proper nouns. On Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube (all of which my computer auto-corrects to capitalized proper nouns), I understand. Most hands don’t get sufficient pinkie exercise to make that stretch to the shift key. But in academic writing? I’m pretty certain that e. e. cummings had nothing to do with the title, and other than loss of prestige, I’m unsure how to explain it. I have read book proposals from biblical scholars (biblical, by the way, is an adjective and does not require capitalization unless it is part of a title) who leave Bible all in lowercase letters. Have we come to this?

Leaving the “Holy” out of the title is academically sound. After all, Holy is a confessional modifier, and scholars strive for neutrality. With the proliferation of bibles—everything from Beer Bibles to Gun Bibles are out there, all capitalized, I note—we should take care to treat the Bible with grammatical care. It shows nothing of one’s faith commitment to capitalize it properly. God, on the other hand, may be used as either a proper noun or a common noun. Usage dictates capitalization. In the Bible Elohim is more often a title than a name. I knew civilization was in trouble the day I saw the phrase “butt crack” in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The least we can do to combat the decline is to stretch that pinkie once in a while as an offering to the god of good grammar.

Bible

Chronicle Illness

In a completely innocent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum wrote about the use of singular “they.” I won’t try to summarize his work here—it is quite fine the way he writes it. What I would like to note, however, is what was likely an unintentional grammatical association that is quite profound. In two consecutive paragraphs, Pullum requires a synonym for someone who is unwilling to listen because they’ve already made up their mind. His choices are those who believe in “unquestioned dogma” and those who hold a “resolutely and hermetically theological view.” Both phrases indicate those who unswervingly accept religious belief. The article is lightheartedly written, and quite witty, but there is something serious here. Religion has built itself into the great bastion of intolerance.

The more I contemplated this correlation, the more it became clear—when we need to express someone’s complete devotion to unquestioned propositions, even when reason dictates conclusively that they are wrong, we are in the realm of religion. Religions may accept one another, but as long as truth is at stake, and as long as truth is one, there will always abide that smug satisfaction of knowing that my religion is at least a smidgeon closer to that truth than yours. Such thoughts, when matured and fully-grown, are bound to cast the seeds of intolerance abroad. Religions don’t take prisoners. Having spent a lifetime studying religions I’m not so crass as to put them all in the same cage together (that would be cruel), but history has demonstrated that when properly provoked any religion will turn intolerant. The provocation is mostly just daily life.

Literary folks have thousands of tomes full of words and ideas from which to draw. One of the joys of reading is finding so many ways of expressing that which we experience in fresh and insightful ways. With all these words and concepts from which to choose, the most immediately recognized to express unwillingness to listen belong to religion. Listening to Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI, it is not hard to see why. Religions give the world much more than reasons to fear, distrust, and hate others. But they do include these components as well. The only way to change this image is replacing the arrogance of dogma with the willingness to listen with humility. If religions would do this, there would be room for everyone in this conversation; they’d like that, wouldn’t they?