Saturday, February 24, 2007

Emergent, Submergent, Convergent ... Avergent

We've heard a lot, in the last couple of years about the "Emergent church," what many who are unhappy with the current state of the evangelical "free" church have proposed as an antidote to its ills. A friend of mine recently coined the term Submergent, for those folks who still (most of the time) adhere (more or less) to the Christian faith, but aren't particularly interested (not at all, in fact) in organizing it. (According to Christian pollster George Barna, that's one of the faster-growing groups.) But recently, I heard about another group, who see themselves as the Convergent church, as opposed to the divergent church (catholic, protestant, pentecostal) that dominated the 20th century.

Convergers are a collection of folks who once were exclusively committed to either evangelical, charismatic or liturgical forms of worship (some of them, to more than one, one at a time) who have, evidently, found they each need the other. The convergers' quarrel with church as it is, is this: The church's evangelical, liturgical and sacramental threads have become separated, and they need to be reunited, as they were in the Ist Century. Convergers say they're not opposed to the sense of mission that has enlivened evangelical faith and pratice, but they have subsumed the "saving of souls" under a larger concern for creating a "community of worship." As I understand it, they hope to bring together the best of what each brings to the party, and become the church that touches all the 20th Century bases, but doesn't get stuck at any of them. It remains to be seen if they've hit a homerun with that one (sorry, I got stuck in the baseball analogy and there was just no way out but through the middle.)

The Convergent idea has a lot of appeal. A few years ago, I went to an Episcopal Church in Ambridge, Pa. that lived out convergence, combining the liturgical worship from the Book of Common Prayer with contemporary worship music (we had a great band) and charismatic ministry. It was wonderful. But I don't recall ever hearing the word "Convergence." According to this, the Convergence "movement" isn't exactly new, either. I'm just living a pretty provincial existence, I guess.

Although Emergers have gravitated to convergent thought, too, it appears that capital "C"-type Convergers tend not to be young, enthusiastic and start-from-scratch types. Rather, those prominent in this group tend to be older, greyer and self-described "wounded warriors" most of whom are currently entrenched in well-established institutions. Recognizable names include:

Robert Webber, who wrote extensively about worship in the 1980s. His book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Way described and then helped encourage an exodus of protestant evangelicals to what is now the deeply divided U.S. Episcopal Church.

Thomas Howard (brother of Elizabeth Elliot, whose first husband was Jim Eliot, one of the five martyred missionaries whose story was recalled in the recent movie End of the Spear. Once an influential thinker and writer in evangelical circles, Howard's much publicized conversion to Roman Catholicism in the last century briefly stood the evangelical world on its ear.

Mike Warnke. Yes, he's the former Satanist (a disputed claim) turned charismatic Christian comedian, circa. 1970s. One of the more wounded of the warriors (most self-inflicted, according to this), Warnke became interested in Easterm Orthodoxy in the 1990s and actually started his own independent denomination, the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church in Kentucky.

Prominent among those at the meeting was Simon Chan, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. Don't be fooled by his Asian origins. Dr. Chan is thorough-goingly Western in his tendency to go to scripture and find in its complex web of song, law, history, prophecy, parable and epistle a systematic and, in fact, ontological argument for liturgical worship. For a taste of his argument, check out this interview on the Christianity Today Web site.

Convergers are — so far — an unofficial group, but I say "so far" because, unlike Emergers and, especially, Submergers, Convergers have a high view of apostolic authority. Their attempt to reunite the divergent strains of the faith is wrapped up in a larger desire to reunite the church not only as one faith, with one practice, but under one government. Convergers seem unashamedly hierarchical and simply assume that the church needs an institutional structure in order to accomplish its mission. So, while Emergers tend toward the catholic, with a small "c," Convergers show all the signs of a movement that would inevitably lead to something more Catholic, with a very large capital "C". Full circle, anyone?

To be fair, the investigation I've done so far (by no means thorough) indicates that their commitment to this concept is not necessarily to be confused with a commitment to such things as an all-male priesthood or a return to the deep division between clergy and laity that once kept the scriptures out of the hands of the laity — one of the many ills the protestant movement sought to remedy. But they've still got to ignore a lot of history. One of the reasons Eastern Orthodoxy has so much appeal to both Emergers and Convergers, I think, is that the Orthodox strains have a slightly less bloody history than does the Western liturgical strain, what with the latter's inquisitions, crusades and the other negative fallout from its political hegemony in Europe. If you're advocating a return to the idea of a single church institution, its best not to appeal to the Roman model.

I dunno. I suppose all of this is just part of the deal. We just keep searching for the One Right Way to "do church." I'd like to propose a new group (NOT a movement): The Avergent church. We are those who are simply averse to all this dissecting, theorizing, systematizing, codifying and pontificating about what the church is (or isn't), what it's supposed to do (or not do), and the endless writing and reading and discussing of books on the subject. It is this sort of endless discourse and the inevitable wrangling and nitpicking that attends it that first divided us. How is it, then, that we think it will, now, this late in the game — against the evidence of all this history — unite us?

Avergent churchers believe that if there was One Right Way to do church, there would be a book in the Bible entitled, "The One Right Way." There isn't. It's just not clear.

Jesus did say, "The world will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." Pretty clear.

We'd have to stop arguing with one another to do that. So in the meantime, we Avergers figure we do the best we can to do what is clear, and leave the wrangling to the academes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Linguistic Tweaking

So ... could we retire the "F" word?

Back in the day (wa-a-a-y back, if you're my age), even the tough guys in my neighborhood didn't use the word. It was the most well known of several you just didn't use, especially in front of your mom or a girl you liked. Of course, I didn't come from a very rough neighborhood, so there may have been places where it was already impacting daily speech patterns, but if so, we didn't know about it.

Not so today. With plenty of encouragement from the entertainment industry (movies, rappers, punk rockers, etc.) it now peppers the speech of grade schoolers. Trash talk has become small talk. And, courtesy the feminist movement, it's also no longer the preserve of the guys. Follow a pack of teenage girls around the mall for 15 minutes some Saturday and listen to the conversation. "Swear like a sailor" comes to mind.

Once a word that made a big, if negative impact, it's become as common as "and uh" and "like." In fact, for the generation now in high school, it is, like the once sacred act it purports to denote, nothing more or less than punctuation. The act itself — devalued through careless, thoughtless repetition with little connection to the intimacy of committed love it was intended to express — has lost all meaning and purpose. Neither the act nor the accompanying four-letter word carries much punch anymore. Spoken in the wrong company, it once might have earned you a punch in the jaw. Today it rarely raises an eyebrow. In fact, it's a badge of coolness in certain circles, along with baggy, fallin' down britches, black fingernail polish, multiple tattoos and piercings in sensitive areas.

Even Christians don't want to be left out. They do the best they can, albeit obliquely, using sound-alike terms in an attempt to get with the cool without breaking the rule, as it were. I've heard otherwise orthodox, Bible-believin', church goin' folk substitute forkin', freakin', frickin,' friggin' and just plain f'n — with no thought to what Paul might have meant in his discussion of the letter vs. the spirit of the law.

Linguists will tell you (if they haven't already given up and retired to monasteries in the desert) that the way we use our words says a lot about our culture. In this case, our society has managed, despite its best attempts to do otherwise, to make the subject of sex commonplace and ... well, downright boring. About as fun as chain-smoking cigars. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

I'd like to suggest that it-s time for a thorough-going change. We've worn this one out. So how 'bout we all agree on a new word?

My vote goes to tweak.

I know. It's an irritating word, but ... not quite the same. But say it over and over. Kind of obnoxious, right? Now use it three or four times in the same sentence. What have you got? An expletive that, unlike its well-worn predecessor, actually gets more distasteful with use!

And use it we do. Our project at work doesn't need a rewrite or another edit anymore, it just needs a tweak. We don't adjust things anymore. We tweak them. We don't get out ducks in a row, we tweak things into line.

Tweak is already in common use and, in my estimation, has already crossed the border into overuse, so it's an excellent candidate. Imagine it as punctuation — truly breathtaking, and certain to be every bit as aggressive, irritating, offensive and off-putting as the word we're retiring.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

3Gs vs. TXT TLK

We're living in the dawn of a new age, which is spawning a new culture, right before our eyes.

If you've got any doubts about that, you don't have teenagers.

It's a technology-driven change, to be sure, and I suspect it will have effects as far reaching as the Industrial Revolution, which has rated initial caps in all the history books for decades. I'm predicting that the Electronics Revolution will get equal billing in high school textbooks of the future. Assuming there is such a thing as high school.

The explosion of intant text messaging, e-mail, and chat/billboard/blog/RPG (role-playing game) sites, such as MySpace, Invisionfree and Gaia, has almost assured that this generation will alter the English language forever. In fact, practitioners of instant texting already have a new name for the language they are inventing. It's txt tlk (in English: Text Talk).

As you've probably already noticed, two of the distinctives of this new language are the dropping of vowels and lack of capitalization (exception: ALL CAPS are used for emphasis). A third is the pervasive use of single characters in place of sound-alike words. Examples: u = you; 4 = for. This technique also is used to shorten multi-syllable words. For instance, educ8 is used, (rather ironically, I'd say) in place of educate. Then there are the three-letter combinations that stand in for common phrases: omg (oh, my god), btw (by the way), lol (laugh out loud) ... oh yeah, and the already well-worn wtf (what the f---?). Some forms are simply the instituionalization of common typos: teh or te, for the. Then there's pwn3d, which translates to "owned" which has acquired the new meaning of "the state of having had crap kicked out of." Punctuation, predictably, is unnecessary, the exception being the ubiquitous "smiley-faces" which dot txt tlk communications and represent, iconically, the writer's current emotional state. There's at least one Web site from which you can download a face, many with animation, for every imaginable emotional state.

This would not be so bad if it were not for the fact that these new rules are not followed with any real consistency and, depending on the practioners, there are a number of other modifications employed that often render the message indeciperable, even to those fluent in txt tlk. For example, educ8 sometimes ends up as eduk8, eguc8 — or even edu* for those who, for reasons known only to themselves, suddenly lapse back into use of the shift key. R u bgn-n 2c hw crzy it cud gt?

In part, text tlk is motivated by necessity. It's tough to fit a message in the tiny space available on a mobile phone screen. It's also a pain in the neck to use that tiny keypad as if it were a typewriter. And it shortens the hunt-and-peck time for those who can't type in the first place. But txt tlk has spilled over into e-mail, chat rooms, billboards and blogs.

Adults, predictably, are scratching their heads at this plundering of the mother tongue's rich heritage. But what you may not know is that a growing number of young folks otherwise hip to everything electronic have mounted a counter-assault on txt tlk. At the Gaia site (, an RPG site where members can join "guilds," based on their current interest, the most popular guild is (I'm not making this up!) the Gaia Grammar Guild. It recently surpassed in popularity the previously most visited guild, which attracted those wishing to learn how to draw Anime figures.

Members of 3G find and expose particularly egregious (and often hilarious) examples of txt tlk and offer correction. (The rule is, ridicule the practice, but not the person.) To join 3G, one must submit a written request, using proper capitalization, grammar, spelling and word forms accepted by Webster. They aren't snobs. They're prepared to forgive the occasional typo. But they're passionately for communication and, therefore, preserving enough of the language we already have to make it possible. They're after the intentional desecration. And there's plenty to be found.

They may be fighting a losing battle. Languages change, whether we like it or not. English, for instance, is a polyglot mixture of German, French, Latin and the remnants of Celtic and Gallic tongues used back when the Irish, Scots and Brits were loose-knit collections of warring clans. But the pace of change, for most of human history, had been slow enough to give most folks the impression of stability. What's different today is that the pace has accelerated to near light-speed. By the time these kid's kids hit grade school, it'll be a rare kid for whom the English we adults now speak isn't a second language.

No way, you say? Consider this: One Gaia member recently entered into evidence a student survey, composed by school faculty members in txt tlk. Worse, I read, years ago now (long before text messaging was even a possiblity), an article by a linguist who made the case for intentionally creating a new language eerily similar to txt tlk, as a means of keeping our communication up to the increasing speed of modern life. One could hope that, now that they (linguists and teachers) are doing it, many kids will decide it's no fun anymore. But don't be surprised if, in 10 years time, your local school board is debating, with straight faces, the wisdom of permitting students to turn in written assignments in txt tlk. Teachers, of course, will be compelled to spend their continuing education credits boning up on this new verbal phenom in order to "relate" to their students.

Future history books will have chapters entitled "d lektrnk rvlushn." No caps, of course. lhm (Lord, have mercy!).