A few months after I entered college I hooked up with a campus ministry that spoke continually about having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ. The summer after that, and often since, was spent puzzling over that terminology, wondering what it meant if I had that of which it spoke. It was not, really, a matter of faith – it was a matter of the vocabulary of faith. The words spoke of a reality in a way that caused me to question the presence of the reality in my own life. I think I know what was meant then, but as these words are not biblical words, I tend not to use them today.
Poet and essayist Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith addresses the power words posses to shape and to repel; to build up and to confuse. This is true in any arena, but in Christianity our desire is to see words open eyes and reveal Jesus. So complex can be the vocabulary that some leave the faith, and others who would understand give up in confusion.
I am reminded of how hard it is to be in a setting where no one speaks my language. To not hear the familiar rhythms and comforting resonance of one’s own language can leave us weary and longing for silence. Norris speaks of her own experience of trying to return to the church after a twenty-year absence.
When I first ventured back to Sunday worship in my small town, the services felt like a word bombardment, an hour-long barrage of heavyweight theological terminology. Often, I was so exhausted afterwards that I would need a three-hour nap.”
And though it is already difficult for someone new to learn to understand basic terms like ‘faith’ and ‘salvation’ and ‘love’ and ‘heaven’, we tend to complicate matters by creating our own internal jargon (which my friend Mike Osborne is busily battling) adding another layer to the fog. But even without that, we can give specialized meaning to words not meant to bear that.
Any language can become a code; in religious terms, this means a jargon that speaks only to the converted. But in my long apprenticeship as a poet I leaned to refuse codes, to reject all forms of jargon. [I have] a preference for the concrete and specific language of poetry….
Norris’ book is her attempt to provide some concrete ways of thinking about dozens of words from our Christian lexicon. I probably will not agree with all she will say, but I’m enthusiastic about the project. Perhaps it might help this preacher open pathways for others to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus.
Whatever that is.