Just what we need: another “ism”

I typically read local and national news online everyday, but seldom go to international sites for news. Last week, I searched for a news source related to the death of Amy Winehouse that would have a more vested interest in her story, so I went to the BBC online news page. While there, I did find pages and pages of articles not only on her life, but also on British ideas on the topic of addiction and treatment options for addicts and their families. Unexpectedly, I also found an article series that piqued my interests in another direction.

The series was a viewpoint debate between two journalists: A British journalist named Matthew Engel and American journalist, Grant Barrett. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/14130942?print=true The argument specifically was about the prevalence of American English words and phrases – referred to as “Americanisms” – becoming more and more commonly used in everyday British life. The editors published a list of 50 most-detested Americanisms based on responses. Just for fun, here are a few that made me giggle a bit, mostly because I do use them often: 24/7, touch base, “Can I get a . . .”, and heads-up.

Now for me and for other Americans, this might seem a bit ridiculous. It is especially so when the complainers suggest the use of words like shopping “trolley” and not shopping cart or “expiry” in place of expiration. Engel argues that we Americans “forged [English] to meet [our] own needs, then exported our own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated into the way [British] speak . . .” Apparently for the British, these “imported” English words are quite maddening! Engel is quoted as lamenting that British English is being allowed to wither due to “sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.”

Barrett, the American journalist in this linguistic banter, argues that there is no parent English but that “English is, in truth, a family. American English and British English are siblings from the same parentage.” One of the commentors within the series states that language is “a living thing that adapts and changes for the society . . .”

I do agree fully with Barrett’s viewpoint in this debate. Similar to the awkward purity debate regarding races that we have witnessed for centuries, there is no eternally pure human language. Language is continually tweaked and edited through years of use by successive generations. (Did you ever have to read Chaucer in high school or college?!) Beyond language itself, I see a parallel with the Christian debate surrounding worship styles. Just as language itself is our method of communicating – of expressing ourselves – to each other, worship is our method of communicating and expressing ourselves to God. To prefer one’s own dialect of worship over someone else’s dialect to the point of believing that other expressions are wrong or otherwise offensive is what I call “worshipism” – an “ism” along the same lines of racism or sexism.

Now just because the English language as developed in America uses its own phraseology and terms that are particular to Americans, it doesn’t mean that British phrases and terms became obsolete. It also doesn’t mean that American phrases and terms are wrong or inherently obscene. Having grown up as an American Southerner, I know all too well how it feels to be on the receiving end of condescending American attitudes about proper use or preferred dialects of American English. Having served as a contemporary worship leader for the past ten years, I also know all too well how it feels to be on the receiving end of condescending Christian attitudes about proper worship styles within the larger Christian tradition.

It is my simple opinion that worship styles use different “dialects” in expressing worship. It doesn’t mean either style is inherently better or proper or obscene or obsolete. Differing dialects in worship are a natural progression within the larger language of worship! Whether you worship by expressing “Thanks be to God” in concert with other worshippers at the appropriate moment, or “Hallelujah” or “Amen” as you feel led, or in your own special prayer language as someone sings to God, you are expressing the authentic language of worship.

Music has its own special place in discussions of English language. Our shared love of music transcends the originating sources, whether British or American. When we sing, our dialects, phrases, and “isms” seem to disappear into thick, beautiful, melodious air. It is also my belief as a worship leader that music styles matter little in authentic worship. Whether we choose to sing songs penned centuries ago or written by contemporary worship artists of today accompanied by organs, orchestras, pianos, guitars, drums or else altogether unaccompanied, I am convinced that our God – our audience of one – is pleased when our hearts are connected to His through our varied expressions of genuine worship.