The Voice of Jesus, Grammatically Speaking - Guest Post

Virginia Parrish (@texpatnj) is among the intelligent people I know. I asked if she would write about the grammatically passive voice of Jesus in the Gospels. What follows is a theological and philosophical exploration of the additional meanings found in the voice of Jesus, grammatically speaking of course. (I added the image and all underlines and bolds to the text.)


 How can we make war not war?

How can we make war not war?

            I’m a language person, as you know if you’ve seen my Twitter rants on the incorrect usage of words like notorious and fulsome. Words matter. Not only that, but the arrangement of the words matters, giving us that thing we call grammar. I love grammar, partly because I like the orderly structure of it, but even more because grammar allows us to be precise in communication. Grammar is about things like tense, which tells us exactly when something happens. I eat cereal and I’m eating cereal are both present tense sentences, but the first is the simple present and the second is the present progressive. If your friend calls in the middle of breakfast and asks what you’re doing, you automatically respond with the second, even if you never heard of the present progressive tense. Grammar is hardwired into our brains, and we make grammatical choices every time we open our mouths.

            We now also have computer software that checks our grammar, just in case we don’t have English-teacher friends to do it for us. When I write something, I always run a grammar check, just to be sure everything is clear. It usually reminds me not to start sentences with conjunctions. I know that’s incorrect. But sometimes I want to emphasize a point. My grammar check may also tell me not to use sentence fragments. Seriously, though?

            One thing almost everybody gets snagged on with grammar check is the use of passive voice. Most grammar software programs hate passive voice. If you’re not a grammar person, you probably aren’t sure what passive voice even is, but it just sounds like it must be weak writing, right? You don’t want to be a passive person. Software seems to look at sentences as if they were people – let’s make sure they all stay active!

            Except sometimes keeping all sentences in the active voice is ridiculous or impossible. Here’s a sentence in the passive voice, taken from an HGTV show today:

The house was built in 1890.

            It’s passive because the subject of the sentence, the house, performs no action. The actors – those doing the building – aren’t in the sentence. That may well be because we don’t know who they are. If I try to change the sentence to the active voice, I get

Some people whose identities are unknown built the house in 1890.

            That’s a silly sentence, so HGTV’s original passive-voice sentence works much better, and they’re right to use it. When we’re writing sentences about houses, it seems logical not to expect them to be active, but what about human beings?

            There are times when there is a good reason that a sentence focuses on the person receiving the action rather than on the actor.

Thousands of soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.

            That headline and others like it in 1940 gave hope to those at home. Later, maybe, they would hear about how the rescue took place and who performed it, but their immediate need was to be reassured that thousands of soldiers, their loved ones, were safe. In that moment, those who had been rescued were the most important.

            Here’s another use of the passive voice.

Stones and bottles were thrown during the demonstration.

            Now things get a little murky. This sentence uses the passive voice to focus on stones and bottles without saying who threw them. We’re writing a journalistically neutral story, and we don’t want to place blame. Besides, it looked like everybody was throwing stones and bottles, so how can we know who started it? The grammar is correct, but the ethics? Maybe not.

            Later, maybe the follow-up story on that demonstration will say things like.

A man was injured.

Arrests were made.

Laws were broken.

            Grammatically, the subjects of these sentences did nothing; something was done to them. They did not act; they were acted upon. We don’t know who injured the man, who made the arrests, or who broke the laws. The passive voice can be a convenient grammatical hiding place. Listen to how often a politician on the news says, “Mistakes were made.”

            In the Gospels, Jesus uses the word forgiven nineteen times; in eighteen of those instances, he uses the passive voice.

You are forgiven.

Your sins are forgiven.

Their sins will be forgiven them.

            There’s no question about who is doing the forgiving. In each instance, Jesus could have said, “I forgive you.” Why did he hide himself grammatically? When he could have been naming himself as the divine actor, he instead excluded himself from the sentence, pointing us back to ourselves.

            We have adopted that use of the passive voice. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are blessed. But have we taken what Jesus did and turned it backward? In grammar, as in all things, God has acted, and we have received. Jesus made us the subject of those sentences, and we accept that gratefully in our repetitions. The difference is that Jesus spoke in the second person – you – and we repeat in the first person – we. Jesus kept himself out of the sentence to focus on us; our repetition in the passive voice focuses us on – us.

            Maybe Jesus put us in that grammatical place because it’s usually the subject that performs the action. His use of you as subject moves us into an active role. If we are forgiven, loved, blessed, it’s because God has acted on our behalf. If Jesus makes us the subjects, it’s because we are to act in his name. We forgive. We love. We bless.

The Ideal Neighbor To Love Is a Dead One

Sorren Kierkegaard continues to be source of delight for my theology and imagination. I do not understand him so much of the time and yet and drawn to him with some consistency.

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Kierkegaard said the ideal neighbor to love is a dead one. Which sounds awful and, on the surface, a rational to kill a person. This is where literal meanings and the true meaning are miles apart.

Literally, loving a dead neighbor is a horrid idea. If we have to kill people in order to love them then do we really love them? Of course not. So if Kierkegaard does not mean this literally, then what the heck is he talking about?

If we understand someone as our “neighbor” then we have made the distinction of them and us. Specifically, when we make the distinction that someone is “my neighbor” we are “other-ing” them. When we put people into categories, even the category of “neighbor,” we are prone to keep people in those categories and see them primarily as that category and not as a fully human person.

You may see where Kierkegaard was going with this when he suggests the ideal neighbor is a dead one because what is dead is not the physical person but the very idea of someone being an “other”.

It is like Jesus showing us the best way to destroy an enemy is to love them. If you love someone then they are, by definition, no longer an enemy. “Loving enemies” and “killing the neighbor” are two ways to express the same thing - there is only one way to have no enemies.

Doctrine. I have been doing it wrong.

Doctrine in the Church is important. I am a fan. The doctrines of the Church have helped me better understand the nature of sin, the salvific work of Jesus Christ, the function of the Holy Spirit and how the Church is to be in relationship with the world. I am going back to school in fact to study doctrine, specifically the doctrines come out of the late antiquity period.

In my studies thus far I have discovered something about doctrine that has deeply affected how I understand that conversations around doctrine. I am embarrassed that I had not seen this before, and in many ways am disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner.

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So what is the discovery? Here it is:

Doctrine is the point of entry.

That is it. Doctrine is the point of entry into the conversation and understanding of the Christian faith. So why is this “discovery” worth noting? It is because I the primary problem I have had with theologians who cite doctrine is doctrine is used as a point of arrival.

It is like when you have a math book in school and all the answers are in the back of the book. There are many ways to get to the solution that is provided in the back of the book, but what is important is that you get the correct answer. Doctrines are often treated as an answer in the back of the book, and you can have many ways to get there, but ultimately you have to come to already stated position.

For example, Christians have a doctrine of the virgin birth. There are many people who will work to prove this doctrine, because the doctrine is the point of arrival - not the point of entry. When doctrines are points of arrival, then we have to defend and prove them. When doctrines are points of entry then we discover more than the doctrine teaches.

If the virgin birth is not the point of arrival, but the point of entry then the questions change. Rather than asking “how did the virgin birth happen?”, we get to ask “what sort of claim is being made about Jesus through the doctrine of the virgin birth?” Oddly enough when I ask the second question, I come to a deeper understanding of God in Jesus than I do when I just search for reasons to justify the virgin birth.

Doctrines are important, because they invite the disciple to enter into the transforming story of God. The irony is when we insist doctrines are the point of arrival, many discover those same doctrines as their point of exit.

Success Is Not a Name of God

Many people know that Jesus taught many times using parables. A parable is a story that puts things “parallel” to one another in order to allow the space between them to illuminate what we are missing. Sort of like putting a frame around a picture. The frame is the tool the artist uses in order to show within the frame. To get focused on the frame is to miss the point of the art. Which is why we do not get hung on on the historical accuracy of the parables, we know that they are just the frame to show us something else.

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Clearly I am not Jesus - on my best days I am able to be in the parking lot of his stadium. I am not a master story teller and I am working with the art form of parable, but it is not easy for me. What follows is not a parable, but an attempt to offer a frame in order to show a hyperbolic contrast in order to expose the question: What is success to God?

The frame is just two quotes. One from Dorothee Soelle’s book and the other from Jerry Falwell Jr’s twitter feed.

“Martin Buber said that “success is not a name of God.” It could not be said more mystically nor more helplessly. The nothing that wants to become everything and needs us cannot be named in the categories of power. To let go of the ego means, among other things, to step away from the coercion to succeed. It means to “go where you are nothing…” The ultimate criterion for taking action cannot be success because that would mean to go on dancing to the tunes of the bosses of this world.” - Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance

“Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” - Jerry Falwell Jr. via Twitter (Sept 28, 2018)


Again, I ask, what is success to God?