Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A graceful dictionary of faith

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Kathleen Norris' book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, is a wonderful narrative dictionary/lexicon for the Christian language (in English, anyway). She approaches the task by taking "church words" that always made her uncomfortable - even helping drive her away from the church for a few decades - and re-narrating their meaning in light of Scripture, Church tradition, and her own experience of re-entering the Christian life. As part a class assignment, but also because I think these tidbits are worth sharing, here are a few snippets out of each story/definition:

  • From the preface: "Our words are wiser than we are. And that's a good thing. Language used truly, not mere talk, neither propaganda, nor chatter, has real power." (p. 9)
  • Anger: "I wonder if holiness is not the ability to apply one's anger in quietly working against systemic evil, taking care not to draw undue attention to oneself." (p. 126)
  • Antichrist: "Each one of us acts as an Antichrist...whenever we hear the gospel and do not do it." (The words of a pastor, p. 15)
  • Apostasy/Heresy: "The Christian church has always co-existed with heresy, and with any luck it always will. Contending with heresy is what helps keep orthodoxy alive. But good will and sanity are essential, as Christian history is full of evidence that the vigorous rooting out of heretics is a cure worse than the disease." (p. 202)
  • Idolatry: "Maybe God addresses the problem of idolatry at the outset of a new relationship with Israel because human beings are incurable and remarkably inventive idol-makers. And it is all about resisting love. We can even make that resistance an idol, walling ourselves in, physically or emotionally. We can become so safe that, as far as other people are concerned, we might as well be dead." (pp. 91-2)
  • "Organized" Religion: "I have begun to wonder what people mean, exactly, when they say they have no use for 'organized' religion. They mean to reject Christianity in an intellectual sense, or to resist what what they perceive as the power structures of Christendom. But as it is the ordinary church congregation that most Christians dwell in, and that defined Christian experience from the beginning, I have come to suspect that when people complain about 'organized' religion what they are really saying is that they can't stand other people. At least not enough to trust them to help work out a 'personal' spirituality." (p. 258, emphasis mine)
I'm naturally drawn to storytellers like Norris. It's the same reason I loved reading Brian McClaren's A Generous Orthodoxy a few years ago. He said he entered the ministry "through the back door of the English department," and at the time I was working on a BA in English and dreaming of seminary. Norris' Amazing Grace is no seminary/lit nerd book, though. It's eminently approachable for a wide audience, churched or otherwise. I'd probably quibble on fine theological points but she's on the right track to correct Christians who have misappropriated the Christian language while simultaneously offering an olive branch to people still wary or downright afraid of it (i.e. the Christian language/"church words").

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