“Clarity is kindness,” a coworker of mine is fond of saying, quoting Bréne Brown. It’s become a bit of a catchphrase on my team. I’ve mumbled it under my breath, deciding not to press “send” on a long, hastily written email and, instead, drafting plainly what I mean in a few sentences. It helps me remember the reader on the other side of the page. I saw it the other day, in an editorial comment on a document, gently admonishing me to break up a convoluted paragraph with better sentence structure.
If clarity is kindness, then perhaps question marks are courtesy, and semicolons are sympathy.
A while ago, I came across the phrase, “a uniquely Christian grammar.” Like Bréne Brown’s words, it has prompted me to examine my writing and speech more closely. Can grammar be Christian? (I think, by “Christian grammar” the writer means the structure of language broadly— the rules of both grammar and style.) Can there be a morality or theology to the structures and systems of language?
We tend to think of grammar as correct or incorrect. Punctuation and tense do not seem to have moral status. The rules of grammar are just that—the rules. Grammar cares about adherence to the letter of the law, not the accomplishment of some larger purpose. Anyone who has managed to read through the “terms and conditions” knows that correctness is under no obligation to be either clear or kind. Legal-ese can be a particularly malicious form of correctness. In fact, several examples come to mind of instances of “perfect” grammar used to exclude, confuse, and devalue.
I personally have not always loved grammar. Writers, I know, are supposed to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma and compulsively correct other people’s verbal stumbles. But I first loathed grammar and then was ambivalent toward it. Correctness has always seemed like the bitter, petty stepsister of eloquence. Perhaps this is because the spoken word filled my early life. I memorized Scripture through songs, directed plays to tell stories, listened in rapture to millions of pages read aloud. The written word did not come so easily. Spelling was a kind of roulette one played with letters and sounds that sometimes matched and sometimes didn’t. Grammar caused equal confusion. Clauses and phrases seemed arbitrary. My middle-school papers were plagued by run-on sentences because commas mystified me. Writing was a tedious task of marshaling sentences out of the anarchy of letters. For a long while, I antagonized other young writers by suggesting that punctuation was only necessary to indicate the rhythms of the spoken word and, therefore, we only needed periods to note pauses and the occasional question mark.
Mere correctness, in addition to being arbitrary, nonsensical, and unnecessary, seemed the lowest possible standard to which one could aspire. What is the point of grammar if it does not add meaning and goodness to writing?
But there is beauty and power in order.
The structures and rules of language, both grammatical and stylistic, when applied as constants in communication, do dramatically affect meaning and writing. Person-first language is a lovely example. Person-first language stipulates that the word “person” always come before naming a diagnosis—“person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” It demands that we distinguish between what someone has and who someone is. There is faithfulness and beauty to this rule, an uncompromising commitment to honoring people.
I learned this rule when I was writing a journalistic story on building accessibility. When you have to construct your sentences around person-first language, it does two amazing things. First, it takes a story that could be about things—buildings, wheelchairs, disabilities—and makes it about people. Very often, the people became the subject of a sentence where they would have been the object. Second, in this particular story, it forced me to do what I was challenging architects to do—build around people, or, better yet, for people, to facilitate their personhood and agency.
Are there similar rules we could use to create a Christian grammar? Could the very structure of our language be crafted in such a way that, on that very tangible, skeletal, foundational level, we would speak and write differently, and sound different, too?
Maybe a uniquely Christian grammar is as simple as returning to a careful reverence for God’s name. When I was little, a Sunday school teacher told me to always write God’s name in capital letters to remind me of God’s power and glory. I kept up the habit for a very long time and found it hard to break. Every time I wrote “GOD,” I experienced an instant of worship.
In a similar vein, some Jewish publications remove the vowel from the name of G-d and replace it with a hyphen. It causes the reader to momentarily pause instead of reading quickly over the word.
I find the same effect is achieved by avoiding, whenever possible, using pronouns for God. The writer who doesn’t use divine pronouns is obliged to make “God” the most important word in the sentence and work everything around God or embrace the unavoidable grammatical awkwardness as the lovely absurdity of the divine inhabiting the ordinary.
Relatedly, I have been trying to break the habit of using “Good Lord!” as an exclamation because “I wouldn’t say it if God were present.” I wonder how the patterns of my speech would change if I could remind myself that I speak, not just about God, but before the face of God, or, rather, to the face of God.
In these questions, I’m not seeking to come up with an ordinary, tired prohibition against profanity nor to set out a definitive “Christian grammar.” (Though it is interesting how quickly I can imagine these practices devolving into legalism). My curiosity is for what depth of relationship with God and each other might be achieved if we were to change the structure of our communication. After all, the reason my coworker reminds me to be clear is to call me to mindfulness of the reader—the other person my writing creates a relationship with. And perhaps this relational concern is missing in many aspects of life. I am weary of faith, art, writing, indeed, of any relationship that consists mostly of unchecked, unstructured self-expression.
I think the beautiful secret at the heart of grammar is love that manifests as duty. It is devotion—a stalwart faithfulness to a thousand small marks of respect, courtesy, and affection. It is a humble practice of faithful attention to detail, tiny acts of correctness that set apart the whole piece of writing.
Truly good grammar, is, in many ways, similar to the Old Covenant law. The Old Testament labors over the precise practice of law, which can seem as arbitrary and antiquated as the rules of grammar seemed to me. And, yes, Paul writes treatises on the New Covenant that releases Christians from obligation to those old patterns. But perhaps we are too quick to be satisfied with that answer and miss the real glory in the law. In the steadfastness of the rules, we find the strong, anchoring threads of practice—faith acted out as life—over and under which is woven the tapestry of love between God and God’s people. The rules mark love by structuring grace, faith, and life.
I sometimes wonder if modern Protestantism, in the revelation of salvation by faith alone, has lost some of the love that is rule and duty, minutia and habit.
God may no longer demand the Old Testament rituals of his Church, but are there small, humble, persistent rules which might structure our speech and behavior and indicate our desire to be shaped and defined by a life pleasing to God? A consistent, integral marking system for language and life that communicates our purpose?
It is hard to apply sweeping principles to one’s life. One cannot, I’m convinced, just set out to love God or live a life marked by worship. It is like setting out to write well. One must commit the disciplines to practice one by one and repeat them until they meld with the rhythms of your expression and it sounds and feels odd to do otherwise. That may be the point of the Levitical commands—breaking down into small, daily actions a life shaped by the desire for holiness. In any case, grammar and devotion ask the same thing of us—small, humble, habitual adherence to the rules, because they are right if for no other reason.
And as grammar finds its elegance in utility and clarity its purpose in kindness, the law finds its fulfillment in love (Romans 13:8). The point of practicing goodness, the big picture drawn by small acts of correctness, is faithfulness—steadfast love.
Simply, Christian grammar, may, with practice, become devotion.
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