patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Saturday, March 9, 2013

inside my mother's uterus

Every year I attend the biggest professional conference in my field of creative writing, and, on the first day of the conference last Thursday—didn’t manage to post that day or yesterday, sorry—I attended one of the two scheduled sessions (out of some 500 sessions) on writing as it relates to faith. It was about teaching students who want to write about matters of faith, a big interest of mine since I teach a course called “writing from faith” every fall.

As usual with faith-related sessions at this conference, two of the four panelists prefaced their presentations with the announcement that they themselves are atheists and a third claimed agnosticism (although he did say that the best he could do was hang as tightly as he could onto Jesus, which, I would say, is the best any of us can do).

Anyway, the fourth guy, a believer, led the session, God love him, and gave a really wonderful little talk on the difficulties presented by the language of faith: that it’s hard to talk about the supernatural, that the best we can do is talk about it in terms of the natural world. Thus, just about all the language of faith starts out as metaphors. He used the example of breath, the metaphorical source of our word spirit in the ancient languages of scripture. (Arguably, if life and spirit are synonymous for you, then you  might think of the connection between breath and spirit as literal, not metaphorical, but the guy didn’t get into that.)

After a word's genesis as metaphor, though, it usually stops meaning that way—that is, it loses its link to the original natural world word it was derived from—and starts to just be what we call that thing when we talk about matters of faith. So, spirit mostly isn’t thought of as breath or even breathlike. It has lost its referential nature and becomes, in a crucial sense, meaningless, merely a label.
I totally agree with this assessment. I love to go back to the original meanings of the words to refresh my faith language in my writing, and I recommend doing so as a way to avoid “Christianese,” as I call it, to my students.
Along the way in the guy’s presentation, he mentioned how much he liked the story of Nicodemus—which comes early in John’s biography of Jesus and is thus where I am in scripture in my chronological progress through Jesus’ life—because Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ explanation that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3 NIV) is so insistent on the real words of Jesus’ metaphor.
“How can someone be born again when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4).
I love this passage too, and for pretty much the same reasons. in discussing it with my students, I like to go even further into referentiality, past even the Bible translators’ Christianese.
“When was the last time you used the word womb not in the context of faith?” I ask them.
When no one raises a hand to give an example of talking to a friend or a gynecologist or a parent or a professor about a womb, we go on to talk about the word they’d actually use in any such conversation: uterus.
“How would your understanding of Nicky’s question be changed, honed, if he asked it that word in English—which is precisely the way he asked it in Greek?”
They titter, consider, discuss. For many, even the word uterus makes them uncomfortable when used in the context of faith—which, I tell them, is good.
“Just as it’s good to be uncomfortable when Jesus says he wants you to eat his body. If that statement makes you squirm, it means you’re really taking in those words. Really hearing them. Really thinking about them.”


  1. Welcome back.

    I wrote several letters to a buddy in jail a few years back. I wanted them to be positive and uplifting and I wanted to encourage him to find faith. I found that whenever I started to write about Christianity, I had to first try to explain all the concepts and words - which was really challenging. He is an agnostic with no religious upbringing and some words I take for granted are words that he would not understand at all - "simple" things like the Trinity and Holy Spirit and salvation and redemption and sanctification and on and on and on. Since then, whenever I see a Facebook post of scripture, I notice that they so often include similar words and I feel compelled to add a comment intended to help explain the meaning.

    BTW: If you want to post something on Facebook that some people "like" but nobody comments on then post a scripture.

    Anyhow, I've kind of made it a mission to try to add a comment to scriptures that I see posted - to agree with or clarify or add meaning or provide background, etc. Sometimes, the posted scripture is so Pharisaical that I quote a different scripture intended to reflect the grace and mercy of God that isn’t apparent in the original scripture. I am sure it is not by accident that society at large has steadily moved away from the words in scripture. I once saw a vocabulary word list from a school book from the early 1900s and many of the words were Christianese. No so anymore.

  2. How sweet and lovable you are, GerryLarry! Keep it up!