Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's Not the Feminism, It's the Strunk & White

Yes, yes: ELW stinks. But not for the reasons that so many of its detractors imagine. It's not Gracia Grindal's humbug notion of a changed focus, from us to God. Nor is it the trusted conservative bogey-woman, Radical Damned Feminism. On the contrary, the central problem with ELW, at least so far as the rendering of liturgical texts goes, is that the translators were not encouraged to re-read The Elements of Style before they sat down to work.

Here's a typical complaint, from the blog of one Jack Whritenour, who claims to speak for something called "The Society for the Preservation of Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy." Whether such a society exists we do not know; if so, nobody has ever invited us to join, and we're miffed.

Father W. has compared the forthcoming ICEL translations to those from 1970, and greatly prefers the new ones for graceful phrasing and fidelity to the Latin. But his principal concern in the post is to take a swipe at ELW's liturgical language. He points to the creeds and, especially, the Psalms -- a subject about which we are pretty unhappy ourselves.
It would have been wonderful if the committee that produced Evangelical Lutheran Worship had waited until these new ICEL translations had come out. Actually, however, it wouldn't have mattered since the ELW people were not interested in fidelity in translating ancient liturgical texts but in promoting their own narrow ultra-feminist sectarian agenda....
But, for the record, if he really thinks that this hamhanded PC paraphrasing constitutes an "ultra-feminist agenda," he needs to get out more. This is ultra-feminism. Or this. or even (barely) this. (And by the way -- don't you love the way some people turn "agenda" into a dirty word? Try leading a vestry meeting without one.) After the swipe, though, he makes a point worth hearing:
The irony is, in some cases, the Latin texts are much more inclusive than ELW's. For example, the response that has been rendered "It is right to give our thanks and praise" is "Dignum et justum est" in Latin. This should be translated simply as "It is right and just." In the LBW it was rendered "It is right to give him thanks and praise." This was borrowed from the ICEL text of the 1970 Missal. Then the ELW people tinkered with an already poorly rendered text, changing "him" to "our" in order to avoid 'offensive masculine language for God. ... All this could have been avoided, of course, if the Latin had been translated properly in the first place.

Okay, cards on the table. We like feminism in theology, at least in many cases, and we tire of those who want to blame its insights for everything they dislike. The problems with ELW's language for prayer, and they are many, flow from several sources, of which an excessive concern about gendered language is only one.

Still, with all these demurrals properly made, here is our main point: Whritenour is correct about translation. Because of the way gender works in the original languages, a translation is often most faithful when it avoids gendered nouns in English. The reason is that our language connects grammatical to biological gender in a way that many others do not, whence Mark Twain's quip that "in German, a young lady has no sex while a turnip has." Hence, the long tradition of adding he, him, and (more debatably) man to sentences whose original lacked them is one categorical error, and the shorter one of replacing them with she-and-a-snicker, they and humankind is another. (Readers found using Godself in our presence will be sent a copy of Fowler by express post). Of course, there are cases in which biological identity is spelled out in ways that modern people find unnecessary; both the LBW and ELW shied away from Ps. 1's blessed is the man, which is perfectly clear in Hebrew.

Although Whritenour doesn't mention the collects, they are the best example (far better than the notoriously obtuse Sursum corda, etc.). Rarely addressing God as "Lord" and still more rarely as "Father," they are feminist-friendly as written. Much is made of their typical three-part structure, but for us the defining characteristic is their brevity. Compared to the usual windy prayer, including many from centuries before "I just wanna" became a characteristic bit of filler, they are masterpieces of both depth and concision. This is achieved largely through the use of Latin grammar, and cannot easily be translated into English. Still, Cranmer did a damned fine job, and it ticks us off when less adept translators feel a need to add, apparently for "clarification," concepts which are either absent from the originals, or implicit in them.

We're looking at you, ELW. In our post about last Sunday's collect, we pointed out that the LBW (based, we presume, on the 1970 ICEL translation) added several ideas to the Latin original -- that God's ears are always open, that the gifts for which we pray come from the Spirit, and that beyond asking for things that God wants us to have, we should live in harmony with God's will -- a much more daunting task. That was the LBW, but ELW goes much further in the same direction, and it is the wrong one.

While we at the Egg may adopt a faux-Edwardian pomposity for comic effect, let us be clear: in real writing, the kind that matters, we flex a knee at the altar of Strunk and White. We admire in particular section 13: Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. That is where the ELW collects fail.

And this complaint isn't primarily about gendered language. It isn't even primarily about faithful translation. It is about literary style, a subject closer to the heart of traditional worship than many people understand. What, after all, separates our churches most from the "I just wanna crowd," if not the deliberate choice of carefully-prepared liturgical texts, which speak to and about God with the precision, clarity and economy of good writing?

7 comments:

Diane said...

yes, texts which so many people don't want to use any more. They want us to be like the mega-churches where we blather on about "Just praising God"; it's so much more genuine.

I'm a deep admirer of Strunk and White. Thanks for including the references!

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Perhaps the practice of pastors praying with up raised arms will help keep the prayers short. When I hear a preacher carry on in a prayer with all the details, I think: Where is his faith? Doesn't he know that God knows all that stuff already, plus God knows more about what we should have than we ever will.

That wasn't brief.

Of course, ELW could be greatly improved if there was ONE numbering system. I see the visitors who are trying to figure out hymn numbers vs the page numbers. That's why churches which want to or do welcome lots of visitors print the whole liturgy in their bulletin, a practice that I think is theoretically unnecessary if the book had a simple numbering system and the worship leader has a mindset of hospitality.

Father Anonymous said...

All good points!

The best-written prayers in the world don't do us any good if pastors and congregations won't use them. And despite my many complaints, the prayers in ELW are better than they might have been, and do offer one clear advantage: numbers. No Lutheran service book, at least in the US, has ever offered this many collects and Eucharistic prayers. I dread the thought that they may all drop out of use.

I'd never thought about "orans" as a prayer shortener. Maybe I should try it when preaching. Probably make a lot of friends, not to mention strengthening the deltoids.

And yes, PS, I'm right there with you on consecutively numbering every single page in a service book, so that Hymn 1167 is on page 1167, etc. In fact, I had gotten it into my head that ELW would be organized that way, and have not overcome the disappointment of discovering otherwise.

Soulbuick02 said...

The vast majority of corporate prayers I see in my PCUSA context could use revision in the light of section 13!

Pastor Joelle said...

Nobody writes well any more.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Our small town church uses at least four of the liturgies in the ELW plus we still use one in the WOW, which is, in my opinion, the best of the lot. And that book is so much simpler to use, so we're not getting rid of it.

The ELW has lots of options for each part of the service, and we've used some of them, for example, a bluesy version of each part, but so much variety just make life more complicated, especially if you have to navigate around in a book that you aren't used to.

Do we really need so much complexity? Cell phones that can show TV shows, give weather reports, and TVs with four controllers because of the DVD and satellite signal, etc etc.

When we worship, it needs to be about worshiping our God, learning about God. I DON'T want to crane my neck to look at the words up on a screen. I don't want music, no mater the style, that fills every single moment I'm in the sanctuary.

Back to your central point, the language and style in these hymnals: Well written, concise, precise prayers help us center on God and teach us as we pray. And we don't need to teach God.

Matt P. said...

Also a great lover of Strunk and White... AND of With One Voice. There's no way that the people who had the most influence on ELW are the same people who worked on the WOV.