Incarnational Language

By Norris, Kathleen | The Christian Century, July 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Incarnational Language


Norris, Kathleen, The Christian Century


The most pressing language issue for me in worship today is not that of "inclusive language," but whether we will have any language, language in its root sense, based on that lowly human organ, the tongue. Incarnational language, in the sense that it considers the body -- the sound and mouth-feel of words -- as well as the ideas they convey.

George Orwell, whose coinage of the word "doublespeak" makes him a prophet of 20th-century language, realized that our propensity for disincarnating language is a ubiquitous as our tendency to make idols of anything we value. An excerpt from his essay "Politics and the English Language" might serve as an example of incarnational language and its opposite. He gives us Ecclesiastes 9:11 in the King James Version:

I saw under the sun, that the race is

nor to the swift, nor the battle to

the strong, neither yet bread to the

wise, nor yet riches to men of

understanding, nor yet favor to men

of skill; but time and chance

happeneth to them all.

Orwell then offers a mid-20th century translation:

Objective considerations of

contemporary phenomena compel the

conclusion that success and failure

in competitive activities exhibits no

tendency to be commensurate with

innate capacity, but that a

considerable element of the unpredictable

must invariably be taken into

account.

This is the sort of hot air that is all too familiar to us as the jargon of bu-reaucracies and the professions. I have also encountered it in worship, in a prayer billed as a call to confession which began: "Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have." It seemed less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another.

At a Presbyterian conference, I attended what was termed a "focus group" on education and worship. Several people lamented that Presbyterian worship is so much "in the head." This was discussed for a time, and I mentioned the value of having people visit other types of worship services. Our leader, a pastor, interrupted the story I was telling to ask sharply, "Do you mean worship resources?" "No," I replied, somewhat startled, "I mean the experience of worship," and she rolled her eyes as if I'd said something foolish. Soon I realized that she was anxious to steer us to our real business: listing recommendations regarding "resources and facilitators," "team building," "identifying early adapters," "religious components" along with "experiential sharing components," and of course, "how to run effective meetings. …

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