Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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In the mood for a little subjunctive?

I made it through high school without ever encountering the subjunctive mood. Then I decided to learn French. I fought my way through the bewildering thicket of conjugations of regular and irregular verbs, then I was introduced to the subjunctive mood. My head hurt for weeks.

I didn’t seem to have any reference point in English to help me comprehend this way of expressing oneself, yet it seemed an essential part of French. Every English grammar book I looked at devoted about a paragraph to the subjunctive. They told me the subjunctive mood was on its deathbed in English and I would never have to worry about it.

Then an amazing thing happened: I finally got my head wrapped around the use of the subjunctive in French and I realized that it is still very much a part of English.  So here I go where most grammarians fear to tread.

Subjunctive, from French, originally from Latin, means subjoined. (That little bit of information does nothing to understand it.) The best definition is from Oxford via Fowler’s: a  verb form different from that of the indicative mood in order to denote an action or state as conceived (and not as a fact), and expressing a  wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical or prospective event.

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Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

When used to express a wish, a phrase in the subjunctive mood normally begins with let or may, though they me be omitted. All greetings are subjunctive:
– May God bless you!
– May you have a good day / May you have a happy birthday (even when shortened to Good day or Happy birthday, they are subjunctive).
– Good-bye (drastically shortened form of May God be with you).

Commonly used expressions in the subjunctive:
– Come what may
– Be that as it may
– Far be it from me
– I wish it were over
– If he were here now
– I move that nominations cease
– I move that we elect a committee to . . .

The Sunday School lessons that are used in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite usually contain a sentence or two in the subjunctive mood; for example:
– Let us conduct ourselves accordingly
– May we never forget . . .

Examples of the subjunctive in the Bible:
– Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done (all three of these phrases in the Lord’s prayer are in the subjunctive mood).
– Let not your heart be troubled (let not  . . . is found in many places in the Bible, it always indicates the subjunctive mood).
– Let no man despise thy youth (1 Timothy 4:12, Paul is expressing the wish that Timothy’s conduct would be such that no one would find fault with him because of his age).
– James 5:13, 14: Let him pray / let him sing psalms / let him call for / let them pray (these are all exhortations).
– Genesis 1: Let there be light, etc. (The creation account has many examples of God expressing a wish for something that was not a reality at the moment the wish was made, but immediately became reality.)

I hope this helps a little to understand the subjunctive mood, especially when it is encountered in the Bible. The translators did not drop in all those subjunctives to confuse us, they were subjunctive in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts; may they be less confusing to us as we recognize the subjunctive mood. 

Mr. Average Canadian 

This was first published four years ago.

In 1926 Stephen Leacock tried to describe the average Canadian man of his day. Eighty-nine years have passed and Mister Average Canadian of that day is long dead and buried. Therefore, I will take it upon myself to describe his modern counterpart, according to census statistics.

In 2015 Mr. Average Canadian is 42 years old and lives in Sudbury, Ontario, but was not born there. His mother tongue is English, but one of his grandparents was French and he speaks 1,000 words of that language. He also speaks 100 words of Mandarin and 100 words of Hindi, Urdu or Arabic, and knows a few words of Cree or Ojibwe.

He has lived with three women, is halfway divorced from one and halfway married to another. Two children live with him and his halfway wife, they each have one other child who lives with the partner from whom they are halfway divorced. Mr. Average Canadian and his halfway wife each have one half of a university degree, but this does not add up to one full degree between them.

Mr. Average Canadian drives a Ford pickup and his halfway wife drives a Toyota Corolla. They also own a riding lawnmower and either a Skidoo or a Kawasaki ATV. Mr. Average Canadian shops once a week at Canadian Tire for parts for their vehicles and equipment, parts to fix the tap in the bathroom, new tools with which to do the repairs, or clothes to wear on his upcoming hunting trip. He also meets with friends for coffee at Tim Horton’s two times in the week. He has an Android phone which he uses to keep up with family and friends, the weather, sports, news and various other things.
Mr. Average Canadian and his halfway wife attend a church five times a year. They may also go to a synagogue or a mosque occasionally. They have one quarter of a Bible in their home and each will pick it up three times a year and try to read something in it, but they still don’t have a clue what it’s all about.

This I believe is a reasonably accurate portrait of Mr. Average Canadian. Here is the big question: where does one begin when he wishes to share the gospel with such a person?

The answer should be obvious — you need to be one of those friends he meets with at Tim Horton’s, show him the nifty Bible app on your Android phone and encourage him to download it too. That is the beginning.

An abandoned child

In 1797 a child, estimated to be 9 or 10 years old, was seen living in the wild in the region of Aveyron. He evaded capture until 1800. All attempts to discover who he was or where he came from were fruitless. He was taken to Paris to be examined.
The leading minds were excited by such a find, expecting that this wild child would corroborate the ideas of Rousseau. Having had no adult influence or teaching, he should have been the perfect example of the innate goodness of uncorrupted humanity.

They were disappointed. The child made no sound, was not able to distinguish or understand sounds or voices, seemed to have no appreciation for the aroma of cooked foods, was not accustomed to clothes or beds and was disoriented in the presence of people. They finally concluded that he had been abandoned because he was so stupid.

Doctor Jean Itard obtained custody of the child the following year. He believed the child’s behaviour reflected a lack of human contact and teaching. In other words, he was stupid because he had been abandoned. Doctor Itard named the boy Victor and spent the next five years working to rehabilitate him.

Victor’s hearing was good, but he never was able to speak, When found he had many scars on his body, including a 4 centimetre gash across his throat. It is probable his vocal cords had been damaged when that wound was made. Victor’s progress under Dr. Itard was slow but steady and he learned to conduct himself in a socially acceptable way. He was cared for in a home in Paris until his death in 1828.

Francois-Xavier Bellamy uses the story of Victor of Aveyron to argue that it is teaching that makes us fully human. We need contact and interaction with other people to develop the skills that enable us to cope with life. A child left to himself degenerates into something hardly recognizable as human, as in the extreme case of Victor of Aveyron when he was found.

Taking this further, the teaching of language, grammar and vocabulary is essential for us to be able to describe how we feel, what we think about ourselves and the world around us. We cannot understand such things until we have the ability to put them into words.

Being taught the value system that his built our society, and the history of our society, enables us to understand why things are the way they are. It opens the door for us to become participants in our world, not just bewildered and frustrated observers.

M. Bellamy’s book is a passionate plea for us to abandon the failed theories of René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and resume the transmission to the youth of today of all that is of value from our heritage.

Who am I?

It was in a little church near St Marys, Ontario, that my wife and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. After the service, the minister who had baptized us advised us to “Just be yourselves.”

That was a very kind and generous welcome, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t really know who I was. I have spent the forty years since that day sifting through the baggage I have picked up along the road of life and trying to discern which of those things have a place in defining who I am.

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My mother’s ethnic and religious heritage is not part of who I am. Her mother tongue was Plautdietsch and her second language German, the language of the church her family attended and which she joined in her youth. After some years she realized that German was the faith of the church and the things she had learned in the catechism were only decoration. This church had no message for anyone who didn’t know German, including Mom’s eight younger siblings.
She left that church and married my father, a very determined step away from her background. My grandmother sent me a German primer once, I suppose in the hope that I would learn German so I could be a Christian. I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, I loved her, but that was how she had been trained to think. I was intrigued by that German primer, but Mom showed no enthusiasm for teaching me German. If I asked questions she would answer them, but that was all. I soon stopped asking questions. I have no interest in cultural Christianity. That is part of who I am.

My father was from the USA, of Puritan descent but Wesleyan Methodist by faith. That denomination got swallowed up in the social gospel and church union movement. My father had no use for anything to do with the social gospel, in religion, politics or business (the co-operative movement). I have no interest in Christianity as a social movement. That is part of who I am.

My father’s mother spoke French. Dad had some pride in his French heritage but found it embarrassing that his mother actually spoke the language. He wished everyone would speak one language, namely English. Mom talked about how her father had wished that he had learned French when he had the opportunity in his younger days and wished that she could have had the opportunity to learn French. I listened to Mom more than Dad.

I have had allergy problems since I was a baby. That has limited the type of work that I can do. Little by little I have learned what I can do and what I can’t do and am coping quite well, but allergy awareness is still very much part of me. I am a vegetarian, but not because of any religious or philosophical persuasion. I really don’t know why, but I quit eating meat 65 years ago. Maybe it had something to do with my allergies. Maybe it had more to do with the butcherings I saw as a boy.

When we were away from home my father would go up to complete strangers and ask: “What do you think of Jesus?” It embarrassed me terribly when I was young, now I wish I could be more like that. I’m not as bold as my father, but then neither am I as argumentative. Those who know me might wonder about that last statement, but trust me, it’s true. You didn’t know my Dad.

English was Mom’s third language. She had a large dictionary that she had been studying for years and spoke English with no trace of accent. I come by my love of dictionaries honestly. I learned to read when I was four years old and have never stopped. I have been putting my thoughts into writing for a long time now and a desire to communicate is very much part of who I am.

I lived on a farm in the hills of the Missouri Coteau in southeastern Saskatchewan until I was almost 10. There are scenes in my memory from that time that seem almost like heaven. I have lived many other places since then: five provinces, rural areas, towns, villages and cities large and small. I am living on an acreage at this time, but would really prefer to live in a city where there are people around.

I went to a small town school and had read every book in the school library before I finished high school. I learned something important in that reading: two historians can write about the same events and refer to the same dates, the same people, yet come up with different versions of what had really been going on. In my school days, history was taught from the point of view of the Orange Order. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but that point of view has had a negative effect on relations between English and French, Protestant and Catholic, white and nonwhite people in Canada. I am not one who thinks that Christians would be better off not knowing anything about history. I believe that we can’t really understand what is going on today if we don’t know anything about history and the biases created by different perceptions in the past.

I have worked in occupations that encouraged my natural tendency to be detail conscious: like grain buyer, quality assurance and bookkeeper. I probably tend to overdo it at times.

In addition to my parents, I have been influenced by my wife, my daughter, her husband, our grandchildren, brothers and sisters in the faith, preachers, teachers, co-workers. Everybody I have ever met has probably left some small trace on my character.

So who am I? I am a born-again Christian and a Mennonite, not by heritage, culture, language or philosophy, but by the call of God and my response to that call. I am a Canadian, by birth, by education, by life experience. I am a native of Saskatchewan, it is home to me but I have been able to feel at home almost anywhere in this country. I speak both of Canada’s official languages and no others, but occasionally make a stab at learning Italian. I see myself more as an urbanite than as a countryman. And I am a writer. I’ve hesitated for years to admit it, especially to myself, but writing is what motivates me more than anything else.

The genius of French

Yesterday’s word from Mot du Jour, a French word of the day app, was adulescent. It is one letter short of adult, one vowel different from adolescent and describes a young adult who behaves like a teenager. Another word used in the description was quincados, which means people in their fifties who try to appear much younger. Ado is the French equivalent of teenager.

I have met people like that, haven’t you? It must be a hard life, always trying to avoid confronting the reality of who you really are.

At 76 I am still very much alive, but I am not young. Seventeen was a long time ago and I don’t wish to go back. I have lived all those years, I don’t regret any of them, at least not the lessons they have taught me, but I have no longing to relive them.

That quality of being at peace with who you are is described in French as being bien dans son peau, comfortable in one’s own skin. Mine has a few wrinkles, that’s just part of being 76.

Migrations

The Dene (pronounced Denay) people speak a language which has 39 consonants and 116 vowel sounds. That is a total of 155 phonemes. For the sake of comparison, English and French run from 40-45 phonemes (total consonant and vowel sounds).  These people are indigenous to the northern regions of the four western provinces of Canada, plus Yukon and Northwest Territories.

About 600 years ago (the timeline is sketchy), large numbers of these people migrated to the southwest part of what is now the USA. There they are known as Navajo and Apache and their languages are just as complex. It is said that Dene and Navajo people can still understand each other.

The Iroquoian people of Eastern North America, Cherokee in the south and Six Nations in the Great Lakes area, developed permanent settlements sustained by the cultivation of corn. The cultivation of corn originated in southern Mexico and spread south and north from there. It appears that the Six Nations people originated in the south and moved northward.

From where did all these people originate? The most likely explanation is that they came from Asia and travelled to North America over a land bridge that once existed in the area of the Bering Sea. Some indigenous people reject this explanation, because some whites use it as an excuse to claim that the indigenous people are also immigrants.

That is not very valid. The indigenous people have obviously been here thousands of years, spreading throughout the Americas and differentiating into a multitude of linguistic and cultural groups. White immigration to the Americas goes back just over 400 years. We are obviously the newcomers. My family came to North America 380 years ago, but the indigenous people were here long, long before that.

Many of the early European settlers hoped that the indigenous peoples would fade away and disappear. That hasn’t happened. North Americans of European, African and Asian origin are not going to disappear either. What will it take for us all to live together in mutual respect and appreciation?

A first step might be to admit that Charles Darwin was wrong, the white race is not a more highly favoured race destined to supplant all other peoples. DNA testing confirms what the Apostle Paul told the Athenians: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” There is no white race, or black race, or red race, we are all part of one human race.

Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound?

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The issue in question when Paul wrote those words was the disruptive influence of incomprehensible ecstatic speech in a worship service. I don’t believe it does any violence to the Apostle’s teaching to apply it in other circumstances.

Immigrants arrive in a new land – for instance Canada, USA, France, or Brazil – and they establish places where they can worship God in their mother tongue. The children learn the language of their new homeland much easier than their parents, but still have some attachment to the old mother tongue. But the third generation speaks only the language of the land of their birth. Their parents and grandparents continue to worship in the old language, but for this generation the preachers are speaking into the air. They have two options: look for another church; or forget about God entirely.

This happened to one congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite almost 100 years ago. The congregation had begun 50 years earlier, and the first and second generations were faithful Christians, worshipping God in the German language. The third generation knew only English and joined other churches in the community. Finally, the last surviving member passed away and the congregation was officially defunct.

The same thing almost happened in another, much larger, congregation. Young people were growing up, getting married, living honest, respectable lives, but never heard the gospel preached in a language they could understand. Finally the congregation called a minister who only knew English to come for revival meetings. Frank Haynes returned several times over a period of almost 10 years, and during those meetings at least 200 were converted and baptized. The congregation switched to English preaching.

But I am thinking that we may have a more subtle problem in our day. We are living in a post-Christian society, yet we continue speaking and preaching in Christian jargon that is incomprehensible to most people around us, perhaps even to many of the young people growing up in our homes. Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound? Those of us who have grown up with this kind of language, or who have been Christians long enough to be familiar with the jargon, may not even realize that the words we use are not really getting through, but to most people today they are just words in the air.

The deceptive thing is that we are speaking important, eternal truths, but if others do not understand what we are saying, we are speaking in an unknown tongue. “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Corinthians 14:11).

It is surely our intention to speak words easy to be understood. Perhaps the first step would be to ask people if they really understand what we are saying. If they seem in doubt, or if they are confused by the jargon we use, we need to make efforts to find a way of speaking those eternal truths in a form that they will understand. That will mean leaving out a lot of the Christian code words and slogans that are so familiar to us. It does not mean watering down the gospel; if anything it means finding words to make the message come through more strongly, in clear unambiguous terms. We owe it to all the people around us who have never heard the gospel in a language that they could understand.

The curse of knowledge

“Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it.”

The title for this post, and the quotation above, are taken from the book Made to Stick, © 2007, 2008 by Chip and Dan Heath, published by Random House.

The curse of knowledge is a stumbling block for every Christian who attempts to speak of his faith to non-Christians.  We have developed a whole jargon of “spiritual” terminology that is so familiar to us that we cannot imagine what it was like before we were converted.

“Converted” – there I go.  What does that word mean to me?  How can I make it clear to someone else who may not have a clue what I am saying?

I remember the time before I became a Christian and thought that people who claimed to be born again were hypocrites boasting of being better than other people.  No doubt some of them were, but I have since come to know many people who have been changed through and through by the love of God.  And it has happened to me.  How can I communicate that without using hackneyed expressions?

I don’t believe we can get the message of Jesus Christ out to people in our post-Christian society while using the kind of language we use in talking with one another.  The curse of knowledge is a great impediment to that, at least until we realize that it exists.

The apostle Paul writes about becoming “all things to all men.”  The whole passage reads as follows:

“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).

He was not pretending to be two or three different persons, depending on who he was with, but he could understand each person’s way of thinking and speak with him in language he would understand.

In the public square, or marketplace, of Athens, Paul spoke of Jesus to any who would listen.  They took him to Areopagus, Mars Hill, the site of the highest court of Athens and asked to explain himself.  He spoke to them of the altar dedicated to the Unknown God and told them he was only telling people about this God whom they worshipped in ignorance.  He continued his defence with many quotations from Athenian philosophers that would have been familiar to his listeners.  It was only when he spoke of the resurrection that he introduced an unheard of doctrine.  At this point the hearing broke up, some mocking Paul, others saying they would like to hear him again some other time.  A few people in Athens were converted, including Dionysus, one of the judges.

Oh to have that kind of wisdom, to be able to present the gospel in the language and terminology of the listeners!

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