The Professor of Linguistics at Wellington’s Victoria University is embarking on a project to clarify the rules of English. The rules are those we assume we all know until we encounter the language’s many complications.
“There are,” says the Professor, “a lot of ‘rules’ in English we assume everyone knows, because the language has been around for so long and we’ve been teaching it to foreigners for so long. But the fact is we don’t.”
Examples given include the use of fish rather than fishes – why do we say two fish instead of two fishes? Why do we talk of Disneyland’s stuffed toys as Mickey Mouses instead of Mickey Mice?
Another problem area with English is words we do not understand. Take “segue”(seg-wey) for example. Frequently bandied around by broadcasters on both radio and TV, most of us have little or no idea what it means.
It is not in my two-volume copy of the Shorter Oxford English dictionary. Mind you, my OED is about 60 years old, so I checked an online dictionary and discovered “segue” means to move smoothly from one situation to another. “Daylight segued into dusk.” Imagine if we announced in church, “we‘ll now segue from the sermon into Communion.”
It is a word that can describe what happens when you are reading two or three books at once. You find yourself moving effortlessly from a passage in one book to similar themes in the others. It happened to me recently.
Engrossed in Cogito Ergo Sum, Cartesian scholar Richard Watson’s biography of the famous 17th Century philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, I was taken by Watson’s description of Dutch houses. He writes of the house where he and his wife lived whilst researching Descartes’ life and then goes on to describe Dutch houses in general.
“Dutch houses have huge windows, and it is considered antisocial to pull the drapes or shades by day or night. You can look in the windows and anyone inside looks back. I sit by the window writing and everyone who walks by peers in and waves. It surprises me but I wave back. The same at night.
“Nothing to hide in here. No one knocks, they simply walk in. Neighbours, meter readers, postmen, repairmen, schoolteachers, reporters, all alike drop in. This openness,” he concludes, “may be a heritage of Calvinism.”
That provided the perfect segue into another book I was reading.
The Trouble with Tom is a slightly left-field study of Tom Paine, one of America’s Founding Fathers. Described by the author, Paul Collins, as “the firebrand rebel of 1776, the radical on the run from execution in London, the senator of revolutionary France, Paine was a walking revolution in human form – the most dangerous man alive and the first man to coin the phrase United States of America.”
In his closing chapters on “Further Reading,” Paul Collins describes the phenomenon of death masks and, in particular, Tom Paine’s death mask. The making of such masks was a custom, which has now, I gather, been replaced by photography! A collection of these masks is owned by Princeton University and Paine’s mask was part of that long and curious historical practice.
Here is Collin’s comment on the nature of such masks:
“Death masks are altogether more haunting than any bust or heroic statue. The effect is that of a man sleeping; you realise you are seeing them as perhaps only their spouse and children ever did: unguarded, a little unkempt and unconscious. He does not pose, he does not try to look pleasant. In his mask he is seen, as it were, with his mask off!”
Segue now to the New Testament. Jesus appealed to his disciples to let their lives have open windows, without guile or hypocrisy. Don’t, he told his followers, using a different figure, be people with masks on. Masks belong to the realm of death. Be transparently alive. Take the mask off.
Listen to Jesus in the translation of The Message:
“Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theatre but the God who made you won’t be applauding.”
This principle is what the New Testament calls parrhesia, which can be translated as courage or openness. It’s a courageous transparency that challenges our subtle hypocrisies, our closed-mindedness, our unwillingness to share our lives intimately with one another. Perhaps fear of discovery, fear of rejection if we refuse to let prejudices and half truths that rule others rule us, or other hurtful experiences, may make us hesitant to remove our masks and be open with one another. We may even consider such openness denies our fundamental differences of personality or means we have to let everything that ever happens to us spill out for all to see.
Whatever our reservations, and acknowledging that there are distorted expressions of candour, Christian disciples and Christian communities, along with all human and social relationships, are most dynamic and healthy when they discover the “perfect love that casts out fear” – including fear of genuine openness.