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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

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A Prayer for Writers (based on process theology)

Monday, February 16th, 2009

When they asked, I was both thrilled and cowed. Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral had always given the invocation in the past – but he would be sailing the South Seas on Friday, February 13, 2009.  And so Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen (the organizers of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference) asked another minister-cum-writer to deliver the opening invocation … and that was … me.

Following the Very Reverend Alan Jones would be a challenge for anyone, for he epitomizes wisdom, courage, and grace in his every written and spoken word. But Elizabeth is my literary agent and Michael is my friend, and I am forever indebted to them. After honoring me with the request, they told me to focus on the needs of writers, be inspirational but not religious, and keep it under five minutes.

So with the blessing of Rev. Jones, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible as my guide, I was thrilled to give the following invocation:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the sixth convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to make new friends, explore new possibilities, and encourage each other.  As such, we are “making community” – and surely that is the work of God, or Spirit, or Muse, or Desperation, or whatever we call that force that pushes us to keep writing.  For we know that the challenges are real – in fact, I wonder if sometimes our prayers sound like this:

The Muse is my shepherd,
I shall not want for words.
She makes me lie down with greenbacks that flow from big contracts;
She restores my self-esteem.
She leads me in paths of rhyme and right phrasing
For her arts’ sake.

Yea, even though I stumble over stones of shame and self-contempt,
I fear no writers’ blocks.
For Thou are with me;
Thy words and phrases, they comfort me.

Surely verbs and verses shall follow me all the days of my life
And my books will be bestsellers forever.

In all seriousness, I suggest that, whatever your religious beliefs, you might resonate with “process theology,” in which God is the creative process – more like electricity or magnetism than a person or entity. As you read the Bible or other sacred texts, replace “God” with “Creativity” – I think you will like the results.  And remember what St. John wrote:  “In the beginning was the Word” – the seed planted in us so that we could be co-creators with God.

And so, as we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands who planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Great Creativity that lies at the core of our cosmos and at the center of our yearnings. And thus we pray:

Our Creator, who art in the Eternal Imagination,
Hallowed be Thy powers.
Thy arts be honored, Thy works be written
In the mundane
and eternal realms.
Give us this day our daily Word,
And forgive us our mixed metaphors, split infinitives, and the overuse of adjectives.
Lead us not into feelings of inadequacy, but deliver us from the travails of unresponsive agents and unappreciative publishers.
For thine is the glory, the possibility, and the connection with the Eternal Word.
For ever and ever.  Amen.

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