It once seemed improbable that an entire book could be written on one word. The first time I noticed this I was a doctoral student who’d run across the late William Holladay’s published dissertation on the Hebrew word shuv. Wow, I thought, an entire book on a single vocable. One syllable, nonetheless. Thus I was predisposed to read Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. The justification Metcalf gives for his “greatest word” award is the fact that OK is the most-used word of American origin world-wide. Even in languages with other scripts, there are ways of fabricating the “okay” pronunciation and everybody knows what it means. It’s really quite interesting. All the more so since OK first appeared as a joke. It’s now used by everybody in all seriousness. Just think of what one says to someone who’s been hurt or is ill. Isn’t the first question inevitably, “Are you okay?”
OK, you may be saying, but you say your blog’s about religion. Yes, and I’m getting to that, okay? Along about halfway through the book, Metcalf discusses how OK tends not to be used for products because it suggests mediocrity. An exception was James Pyle’s O.K. Soap back in the 1860’s. One of the ads included this affidavit: “The most intelligent classes in New-York use it. Editors of most of the religious papers patronize it.” I had to smile at that. Religious folk had, and sometimes still have (when they’re not too oily) the reputation of clean living. If you’re selling soap, you’re selling sanctity. It’s a very ancient connection. Anthropologists have shown time and again that purity is a concept that the religious own. Something about being worldly makes you feel like you should take a shower.
And it’s not only soap that makes okay religious. In the concluding chapter that describes OK as an American philosophy based on the “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” transactional psychological school, Metcalf notes we treat religions in just that way. Religious tolerance is saying “your religion’s OK.” That’s a lot to think about, considering that we’re talking just two letters here. And this book was written before the 2016 election, when tolerance was a word Americans were just beginning to understand. Maybe our hope is in getting OK back into circulation. After all, giving national security secrets away to Russia is okay. If you’ve got a Republican majority who’s going to quibble? Even Russians know what OK means, at least when it works to their advantage.
Legislation covering female reproductive health maintenance has finally passed. Even in a nation where equality is highly touted, women will have, until 2013, been treated as more expendable than men. A few years back I read Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. There I learned that even as of the publication date of her book, many aspects of the female reproductive system were still poorly understood. The reason: lack of interest by (mostly) male scientists. Of all the great equalizers of humanity, it might be expected that religions would step in to champion the cause of citizens routinely treated as objects and chattels. Instead, the opposite has been the case. Most religions, and even until the last century Christianity in the forefront of them, relegate women a secondary status to men. Religion is all about power. Now that legislation will allow women basic reproductive rights without extra fees, Catholic hospitals are concerned about the implications. “They defied the bishops to support President Obama’s health care overhaul. Now Catholic hospitals are dismayed the law may force them to cover birth control free of charge to their employees.” Thus begins an article in today’s paper by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press.
Instead of cheering equality, the church is muttering about medieval conceptions of conception. The entire idea that life begins at conception was not even possible in the biblical world where sex did not involve sperm and ova—such things were unknown in those days. The Bible has a few clues to when human life begins, and generally it is thought to be at first breath. Semen should not be wasted, however, since it was thought to be the full set of ingredients to grow new people. The uterus was simply a waiting area, a comfy place to grow with regular womb service. Men were the creators, women were the deliverers. That idea of reproduction formed the basis for all biblical and other ancient legislation on the subject. Comprehending “conception” as now scientifically understood, was only possible with the invention of the microscope. In response, a sexually underdeveloped church decided that the new data strengthened the male hold on ecclesiastical authority. Once the seed is planted, there’s no uprooting allowed. What male, after all, has ever had to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term?
Female religious leadership was recognized in many early societies, and even in some branches of early Christianity. No legitimate rationale exists for saying half the human race is disqualified on the grounds of basic hardware. After all “male and female created he them.” Concerns of “purity” for an age when menstruation was not understood could be marshaled to the cause of male supremacy. That mystery was solved when conception became clear. An unequal result emerged nevertheless. Since women couldn’t be discounted on genetic grounds, they could on the basis of “impurity.” And here we are two thousand years after pre-scientific Christianity was conceived, still waiting while a coterie of all-male bishops castigates normal health care for females. Believers like to suppose that their leaders receive special word from the mouth of God. Those leaders tremble in the face of true equality for the very first word the Bible has to say on the subject is “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”