Mikitish: Contending with Christian words

America is a Christian nation. I do not mean this in a political sense, but rather a sociological one. In comparison with Western Europe, we simply have a lot more Christians. According to a 2007 survey, 78.4 percent of Americans call themselves “Christians,” and 59 percent consider religion very important. This is more than in England (71.75 percent and 33 percent, respectively) and many more than in France (approximately 67 percent and 11 percent). True, we aren’t quite Georgia, where a greater portion of the population is Orthodox Christian (83.9 percent) than ethnic Georgian (83.8 percent) — but we are a nation of faithful. I would posit that this is due, at least in part, to our tradition of pluralism, which has allowed the development of so many distinctively American Christianities — particularly that catch-all, “non-denominationalism.” What’s even stranger about this pluralism is that many conservative Christians — particularly so-called “fundamentalist” Protestants — refuse to acknowledge its historical development or current presence, even in their own midst. After all, how similar, really, are the beliefs of the different Christian denominations or “non-denominations,” even of the conservative-Protestant bent?

However, my purpose here is not to comment on American Christianity per se. American Christian language, or, more broadly, the English language’s “Christian vocabulary,” is what interests me. It, like most of the American (and English) Christian tradition taken as a whole, is both immediately conservative and yet surprisingly “unorthodox.”

In most Western European languages, the old gods still live on in the names of the week-days, old toponyms and the like. English is not exceptional in this regard. What is amazing about English (and its cousin, German) is that even the name of the feast which defines Christianity — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, Easter — derives its name from that of a pagan goddess: the Venerable Bede’s famous Eostre, whose celebrations took place (roughly) in the Germanic April, Eostur-monath. In the Slavic languages, Latin, all the Romance languages, Celtic, the Scandinavian languages and West Germanic Dutch, the word for the feast derives from Greek Paskha, and thereby from Hebrew pesach: “Passover.”

This example really encapsulates the linguistic paradox that, accidentally or not, also manifests socially. On the one hand, the survival of the very ancient word “Easter” is remarkable in its conservatism. On the other hand, the naked paganism in the term marks this conservatism as something other than a strict adherence to “orthodox” Christian terminology.

Examples less striking but probably more telling are the English collection of “-mas” words, many of which are now moribund, at least in the United States. Christmas is the most common of these, as a word at least, but there are several less-well-known others (e.g. Lammas(tide) on Aug. 1, Michaelmas on Sept. 29). Whereas the words for Christmas are in many other languages either simple words for “birth” (e.g. Latin and the Romance languages) or “Christ’s birth” (e.g. Russian and Greek), English has instead substituted, with great stubbornness (the word goes back to at least 1038) a word meaning “the mass of Christ.” Of course, this term could as apply just as well to the Resurrection or Ascension or Transfiguration or just an average Sunday liturgy. Even more unusual is Lammas, “loaf mass,” which seems to be entirely English, whether invented by English Christians or partially of pagan heritage. In either case, these “-mas” feasts again illustrate how innovation, or at least variation, can quickly become entrenched, even when so different from the rest of Christendom.

And so we come back to the beginning. The preceding is neither a criticism of American Christianity in many forms, nor of our idiosyncratic religious vocabulary — indeed, I don’t claim that peculiar habits of our language are related to the peculiar habits of our Christianities. Strange words do not always indicate strange practice, nor vice-versa. However, it is nonetheless worthy of reflection that, in our language as well as our society, reactionaries so often place their trust, not in the original, but in the “new old.” “Fundamentals” — of religions, of political platforms, of grammar — change with both time and place, and the “old way” is not always the “oldest way.” The “oldest way” is not necessarily the best way, but it is what it is — the oldest. Time can obscure these ancient things naturally, but so can, unnaturally, the human will. Some American Christians — the “King James only” set — treat a translation only 399 years old as the Bible. Those words, young as they are compared to the Greek Byzantine text or the Coptic editions, have become, by a bizarre displacement, the “original.” And, like the words, so is the faith. “That old time religion,” then, that the traditional (but only in America!) hymn requests, only comes, for better or worse, as old as the supplicants would have it. Have it your way! And thereby we arrive here: America is a Christian nation.

J. Max Mikitish is a sophomore in Silliman College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    , *I don’t claim that peculiar habits of our language are related to the peculiar habits of our Christianities.*

    The plural “Christianities” is accurate: What we have actually is a ***Fleet of Jesuses***, like a rent-a-car operation, and Americans can pick and choose which one they wish to have parked in front of their homes.

  • RexMottram08

    It would have been a bit more appropriate on the opinion page to note the Christian language in the public square. While our Christianities are varied, the language of Christianity in American politics is largely Catholic: natural law, human dignity, life is sacred, Just War, subsidiarity, social justice, solidarity, intrinsic good, etc. Even Protestants/Evangelicals use these with stunning frequency.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Really Rex? Head in the sand?

    “social justice”?

    Marriage rites for some, not all. Priesthood for some, not all.

    I love your inadvertent (?) juxtaposition: ” life is sacred, Just War”

    ( 40 to 72 MILLION estimated “sacred dead” in WW II alone)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_anthropogenic_disasters_by_death_toll

    PK

  • River Tam

    @Paul Keane –

    Rex was commenting on the terms used, not the merit of the Catholic Church. Read carefully before reacting next time.

  • RexMottram08

    PK-

    Sloppy reading on your part.

    Surely you agree that Love > Life. The greatest love is to lay down one’s life for another. Just War heroically builds on this principle.

    We will excuse your ignorance of matrimony and holy orders. Unitarians have little to contribute in a discussion on sacramental theology.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Mr. Mottram:

    I am not a Unitarian . I am an egalitarian.

    Sacred rituals do not excuse injustice or unfairness.

    Heroism is the carrot placed in front of the donkey of human beings to enable them to slaughter 40-70 million people in 10 years and deny that such mass hysteria it is not bloodthirsty, ritualized, sado-masochism (which of course it is) .

    If you need pretty little sacred euphemisms and war chants to decorate history and your life , fine.

    I prefer to look at what is actually happening.

    PK

  • RexMottram08

    You are the greatest troll in internet history.

  • The Anti-Yale

    RM08:

    You seem to have many labels, the use of which makes you feel secure in our fickle world. Mortality will erase those for you eventually.

    In the meantime, bask in the false security of your self-intoxication.

    PK

  • River Tam

    > Heroism is the carrot placed in front of the donkey of human beings

    Yeesh, why can’t you just use “sheeple” like all the other hippies?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Sheeple—–Lovely portmanteau word: never heard it before. Many thanks

    .PS
    Not a hippie. I voted for Richard Nixon (to my eternal disgrace) in ’68. That forever disqualifies me from being a hippie.

  • RexMottram08

    There’s only one person on this thread basking in “self-intoxication.”

  • RexMottram08

    The Peacemaker by Joyce Kilmer

    Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,

    For Freedom’s sake he is no longer free.

    It is his task, the slave of Liberty,

    With his own blood to wipe away a stain.

    That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.

    To banish war, he must a warrior be.

    He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,

    And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.

    What matters Death, if Freedom be not dead?

    No flags are fair, if Freedom’s flag be furled.

    Who fights for Freedom, goes with joyful tread

    To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,

    And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head

    Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.