“Well, we need language. We need language and we need to talk.” ~Toni Morrison on democracy
Kathleen Norris has given us a true gift with her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. As the subtitle suggests, she examines words that are often used in the Christian tradition, like incarnation, repentance, evangelism, and grace. The key is that Norris wrestles with these words until she discovers meaning for herself. In conversation with the tradition, the Bible, and leaders, both clergy and lay, she gleans insight not only into Christianity but also her own journey of faith.
Norris grew up in the Presbyterian Church, but left organized religion as a college student and young professional. As she gradually returned, she was unwilling to leave her mind in the vestibule. She sensed that, in order for her faith to be viable, she could no longer swallow the teachings of the church without critical reflection. For example, a pastor can stand up in front of the church and maintain that our sins our forgiven; but what exactly is sin? How do we think of forgiveness? In asking such questions, Norris strengthened her faith. She discovered that Christianity was relevant and meaningful to her.
For this reason, I believe that Amazing Grace is a gift to the church. It demonstrates to people in the pew that they, too, can engage the tradition. Norris also challenges the leadership to explain what exactly we say and mean. Rather than simply throwing out the big, bold words of faith, we need to take the time to unpack their theological meaning. It seems to me that incredible teaching moments can occur if we can overcome our assumption that we all have the same understanding, just because we worship in the same church.
I can’t help but think of our current election season. In the debates, candidates throw out words, like tax and middle class, security and commitment; but one of the most disappointing aspects of the media coverage is that the tone or style of the speaker is weighed more than the content. How something is said seems to be more influential than what is said! Truth is watered down to mean something like rhetorical flourish. We can do better; we must do better. Wasn’t it Jefferson who insisted that a true democracy only functions with an educated voting public?
Whether in the pews or behind the pulpit, either on the floor of a town hall or in the voting booth, we need to raise the level of conversation in this country so that we are not simply spouting off words, but actually understand our vocabulary, so that we can mean what we say. This is not really “grace” because I am talking about hard work. But, my God, wouldn’t it be amazing?