Language: August 2010 Archives


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Joe Carter points to an interview with sociologist Rodney Stark (who is not a historian, despite often being called a historian of religion) that complains about the use of the word "mainline" in the expression "mainline Protestant denominations". This term usually refers to the more liberalizing denominations within each major Protestant grouping. So for Presbyterians, it means the PC-USA. For Methodists, it's the United Methodists. For Baptists, it's the American Baptists. For Lutherans, it's the similarly-ironically-named Evangelical Lutherans (who are much less evangelical than the Missouri Synod). Episcopals are usually seen as part of this group, and the United Church of Christ is also commonly included.

Stark's point, which Joe agrees with, is that these groups aren't really mainstream anymore. They're dying off. As they shed central and historic beliefs of Christianity, they become less mainstream within Christianity. I fully agree with that observation, but I think it's a mistake to complain about the use of the term "mainline".

What's going on here, as I see it, is that the term "mainline denominations" no longer functions as a description. It functions as a name. So in terms of the semantics of the expression, it doesn't really matter that it's ceased to be informative. It's like complaining that you park in driveways and drive on parkways. It's an interesting irony in the etymology of such terms, but it's not a problem with the language. Names often originate in circumstances that make their etymology seem ironically opposite to their current reference. The problem is not that anyone uses the term to refer to the groups it refers to. The problem is if they, in so doing, think they're using the name as a description rather than as a name.

It's wrong to think the mainline denominations are all that mainstream. I suppose it's true that they're closer in their ethical and theological outlook to secular America than the more evangelical congregations and denominations are, but there's enough counter-cultural Christianity present that large swathes of them are not mainstream in that sense. But they're not as mainstream Christianity as the more evangelical congregations and denominations are (and when I say "more evangelical" I mean it; it comes in degrees). Stark is right about that. But that doesn't make it illegitimate to continue to use the name for the group it's come to refer to any more than it's wrong to continue to use the name "Rhode Island" to refer to the entire state, even though it originally was only ever meant to refer to the island that constitutes Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown. The name has come to refer to the entire state, and its inaccuracy as a description doesn't change the fact that it does refer to the whole state.

Attorney General

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from Wikipedia on Attorney general, commenting on one of my pet peeves:

Some people think the word "general" used in that way entitles the official to the honorific "general", but this is strictly only appropriate for military generals. The word "general" in "attorney general" is an adjective modifying "attorney". However, in the Supreme Court of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States and Solicitor General of the United States (for which office the same rule applies) are addressed as "General" by the Chief Justice. The plural of "attorney general" is "attorneys general." The history of the term dates back to Norman England when many of the French legal terms were imported into English common law. In French, the adjective often comes after the noun and so Attorney General meant General Attorney.

It's maddening that so many people insist on treating this as a rank like in the military, just because the word adjective "general is used". It makes no sense to address the U.S. Attorney General as General Holder, for example, given that he isn't being said to be a general of the U.S. attorneys but rather simply to be the U.S. attorney responsible for the government in general. You'd think the plural form "attorneys general" would signal to people that the word "general" is an adjective here.

But I think this is one of many cases where people are trying so hard to do something they see as correct but largely unrecognized that they end up being incorrect. (Another example would be those who use expressions like "Phil and I" as the object of a sentence after being told that you don't say "me and Phil", not realizing that it's only in a subject that you don't say "me and Phil" and that it's actually correct to say "me and Phil" in standard English.)

Direct discourse reports what someone said with an exact quote. Biblical authors almost always never intend exact quotation. They use indirect discourse, reporting the basic content of what's said rather than the actual words used. When the biblical author is reporting in translation (as most of the gospel accounts do), this is even a translation of a summary of the actual words.

There's a common way of reporting indirect discourse by summary in the Hebrew scriptures that the ESV handles by expressions like "thus and so". It usually occurs to avoid repetition. Biblical Hebrew often reiterates something very closely for emphasis or for structural reasons. Sometimes it does so to show that a prophecy or command is being fulfilled exactly as given. But sometimes the author sees no need to repeat everything again. So you'll see these cases where someone will be told something who then reports it to someone else, and the second occurrence is something like, "and he told me thus and so". I noticed an interesting occurrence where that may be going on, but it may be something else.

1 Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, "Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. 2 And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. And go in and have him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. 3 Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.' Then open the door and flee; do not linger."

4 So the young man, the servant of the prophet, went to Ramoth-gilead. 5 And when he came, behold, the commanders of the army were in council. And he said, "I have a word for you, O commander." And Jehu said, "To which of us all?" And he said, "To you, O commander." 6 So he arose and went into the house. And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. 7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. 10 And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her." Then he opened the door and fled.

11 When Jehu came out to the servants of his master, they said to him, "Is all well? Why did this mad fellow come to you?" And he said to them, "You know the fellow and his talk." 12 And they said, "That is not true; tell us now." And he said, "Thus and so he spoke to me, saying, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.'" 13 Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, "Jehu is king."[II Kings 9:1-13, ESV]

In verse 12, Jehu uses an expression that for all I can tell can be an instance of the above phenomenon. The author may simply be saving us some time by not reiterating everything the prophet had told Jehu, and the sense is that Jehu explained it all to them but that we're not going to have to hear it all explicitly. So when he says, "Thus and so he spoke to me" it means he actually told them the prophet's words or summarized them more fully than we see, but we only get "Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel". We're getting discourse within discourse. The author is reporting what Jehu says, and Jehu is reporting what the prophet had said, and it's possible the "thus and so" is an abbreviation of what Jehu says.

On the other hand, it seems just as possible to me (and perhaps the Hebrew precludes either option, but I don't know enough to know about that) that the "thus and so" is intended more like a direct quote from Jehu, and he is using it himself to abbreviate what the prophet said. Jehu has already shown his reluctance to tell his army buddies what went on, so it wouldn't be surprising for him to brush off their question by a quick summary, giving them the basic point that he's now been anointed king but leaving aside his responsibility to eliminate Ahab's house and the specific details of what will happen to Jezebel.

So if this expression is functioning the way I think it's functioning, then there's no semantic reason to prefer seeing it as Jehu's abbreviation of what the prophet said in order to brush off their question or the author's abbreviation of what Jehu said in order to spare us the repetition. There may be contextual clues that make one more likely, but it seems to me to be a semantic ambiguity that stems from the particular way this expression functions, and the Hebrew language (as far as I know) lacks a modifier to tell us whether direct or indirect discourse is going on, and so we can't (again, as far as I know) be sure just from the grammar which is intended. It does slightly affect the interpretation of the passage, since it may be another instance of Jehu's reluctance to embrace the kingship and/or his mission to eliminate Omri's dynasty, or it may just be an instance of the narrator sparing us a speech that repeats what we'd just heard.

If anyone who knows Hebrew has any information that helps here, I'd love to hear it.


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