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.
There may come a time, perhaps “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” that junk mail will be no more, a mere historical curiosity. For now, in these days of declining postage prices, we’ll continue to put up with it. I suspect much of it targets my generation and those older—people who are modest about the time they spend on the internet, and who long to look out the windows when they’re at work. (The non-virtual windows, I mean.) Although I lament the waste of paper, and the cost to our literal dendritic friends, sometimes free amusement comes in my mailbox along with the occasional profundity. I received a survey the other day that had decorative check-boxes on the envelope for agreeing or disagreeing. “My beliefs about religion are nobody’s business but my own” the question read. My knee-jerk reaction, itself a religious term, was to think “Of course! Nobody can tell me what to believe.” An occupational hazard of being a religionist, however, is that the ready application of exegesis always stands to hand.
Are my religious beliefs nobody’s business? I suspect since the sender was looking for money that some manner of business was indeed involved, but beyond that are my beliefs nobody’s concern? Freedom of religion allows us to believe what we will, and since beliefs are very, very difficult to change, this is a central tenet of any form of democracy. You can’t have a free people without letting them believe what they can’t help but think to be true. It may, however, sometimes be somebody else’s business what I believe. If my religion is dangerous—and what religion isn’t, to some degree?—don’t hoi polloi have a right to know? Ah, but then aren’t we in danger of registering, profiling the believer? This is a violation of rights as well.
My pen hovers uncertainly over the paper. My views are something that I keep to myself. Few people know what I actually believe. On the other hand, day after day I post thoughts that in some way can be tied to religion. Is this a trick question? A junk mail survey shouldn’t be so hard. When did studying before checking the mailbox become a requirement? In my teaching days I had students who claimed they had a right to know what I believed. I had a right to keep my views private. Who’s right? Whose right indeed? Belief doesn’t come easy. It’s not as cheap as the media makes it out to be. Unless, of course, it arrives unbidden among the junk mail that makes up so much of our lives. And even then it might be something to take seriously, at least for a little while.