Dawn reflects on corrupted religious words

Cathy Guiles

Perspectives Co-editor

If Marva Dawn sounded like a theologian well versed in linguistics, perhaps it is because she believes words are integral to religious practice.

``To be a theologian is simply to be someone who does `God words,''' Dawn told the audience in the Fine Arts Center auditorium at Tuesday's January Series lecture. ``How we talk influences how we live. If we talk bad theology, then we live bad theology.''

Dawn said she would explain ``how to live uncorruptively in our relationship with God.'' She began by comparing learning a language to learning the basics of a religious faith in that it is best done by spending time among people who already know the subject and use it regularly.

She then went on to re-define several religious terms whose original meanings were lost or corrupted.

One such word is liturgy.

``People think `liturgy' is boring or outdated,'' Dawn said. But despite the popular definition of the word, ``there is no such thing as a `non-liturgical' church, because without order, it's just a performance.''

Dawn defined another word often heard around Calvin: ``community.'' She emphasized that selflessness is at the heart of the meaning of this word.

``[Christian community is] that we love each other so much, that we would die for each other,'' she said.

``We are so into our own personal tastes [about styles of worship and music] that we can't be a community,'' added Dawn. ``Community, as God defines it, requires a great cost. That's why we don't have it.''

Dawn listed ``sin'' as another corrupted term that needed to be restored to its proper meaning and place in Christian vernacular. ``Sin is not just brokenness or illness,'' she said. ``It's something we're accountable for, it's something in our nature.''

Dawn devoted part of her lecture to reviewing a contemporary statement of belief, which she called a ``horrible creed'' because it misused inclusive language and left out several important terms for God. Dawn said the creed keeps people from using traditional terms that denote the special relationships between them and God and among the members of the Trinity.

``Why can't we call God `Mother'? Because it destroys the Trinity!'' Dawn said. ``The name `Father' [in reference to God] re-describes what human fathers should be like.'' She added that calling Jesus ``son rather than child,'' ``helps us understand the double nature of Christ.''

Dawn also took the creed to task for using ``creator'' in place of ``father'' in reference to God.

``Creator isn't a name! `Creator' is all three persons in the trinity!'' -- and for taking out ``Lord'' as a description of Jesus. ``Jesus as my Lord is the most fair thing in all the world!'' she said.

Dawn said she personally does not mind singing hymns that refer to Christians as sons rather than children.

``Child means having no rights or responsibilities,'' she said, while ``son'' implies both. ``You just have to redefine it.''

Drawing on her comments on creed and community, Dawn concluded, ``The church reminds itself of who it is by creeds. A creed actually is a great gift to us because it enables me to know that I'm not alone and that it's not my faith - it's our faith!'' Growing more solemn, she added, ``Even in the darkness of loss, when we can't believe it ourselves, others can believe it for us. I need the rest of the community to remind me what joy is.''

Besides discussing religious terms, Dawn also spoke about secular words that have lost their meaning. ``Consumerism is another word that's misunderstood,'' she said, adding that it does not merely refer to acquiring material objects.

Rather than treat worship like a commodity that yields a certain feeling, Dawn thinks Christians ought to engage themselves in it as a practice.

``I absolutely refuse to tolerate when anyone says `I'm going to church,''' she said. ``We can be church anytime! The `when' of church is every when, between the first and second coming of Christ.''

She told of encountering an unhappy young person after church who complained, ``I didn't like that song!'' To which Dawn replied, ``So what? We're not worshipping you!'' Her retelling drew a strong, positive response from the audience

Dawn has written over fifteen books on contemporary religious life and contemporary music. She is a teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.