Words, words, words

  1. Seeking le mot juste
  2. “Religious Freedom”
  3. “Tradition” and “liturgy”


The Wall Street Journal reported somewhat belatedly on Anthony Scaramucci’s tirade to Ryan Lizza, calling it “profane language.”

My OCD and OED kicked in, crying out “No! No! No! ‘Profane’ is not le mot juste!” (my OCD lapses randomly into French, much as the Mooch lapses into F-bombs), whereupon I resorted to Google and thence to Merriam-Webster.

The Journal’s use was adjectival, and although the Mooch’s “colorful” characterizations and admonitions (involving acts that were contortionistist if not physically impossible) was “not concerned with religion or religious purposes” and “not holy because unconsecrated, impure, or defiled,” it did not “debase or defile what is holy” (except in the tacit contemporary sense wherein only sex is holy), which is, I think, central to the meaning of “profane” as the Journal used it.

Obscene” would have been better, so long as one is not using it in a First Amendment sense: “containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage.”

Scatological” (interested in or treating of obscene matters) also would be nice, and would suffice, but for a connotation of excrement that was largely missing in what the Mooch sought to evoke.

None of the suggested synonyms seem any better:

abasebastardizecankercheapencorruptdebauchdegradedemeandemoralizedepravedeterioratelessenpervertpoisondebaseprostitutesubvertvitiate, warp

Frankly, I’m not certain English even includes le mot juste for Scaramucci’s tirade, capturing the element of abasement or vehement insult in addition to transgressiveness. Maybe Italian does.


The Journal did a great job on a Saturday Opinion Page piece, registering the crucial difference between “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion.”

“There were other cases in the court’s last term that were a little quieter on religious liberties, but just as important,” Ms. Alvarado says. She refers, somewhat improbably, to Matal v. Tam, popularly known as the “Slants” case, after the Asian-American musicians who asserted the right to trademark an ethnic slur as the name of their rock band. The 8-0 ruling permits citizens to register terms that are “disparaging.” It regards any government attempt to prohibit such expression, however offensive it may be, as a straightforward violation of the First Amendment’s free-speech protection.

“It’s also a religious liberties case,” says Ms. Alvarado, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief. I ask her to elaborate on what seems a novel analysis. “Oh,” she exclaims, as if she’s been asked to explain something much too obvious, “because any time the government can limit speech for one side or another, you’re in trouble. In ‘Slants,’ they said you can’t say your name is something because it’s disparaging to a specific group. Well, anything that I say as a Christian or a Jew could be disparaging to someone else. Individuals want to say things from the pulpit about any kind of cultural issue, like abortion or same-sex marriage. If they don’t have the right to express themselves on moral issues, you’re limiting freedom of religion to a freedom of worship alone.”

Ms. Alvarado’s point goes to the heart of the different ways in which religious liberty is perceived in America. The progressive or liberal approach is to equate free exercise of religion with the freedom to worship and to deny that it has anything to do with how a person organizes his life. The Becket Fund and others assert that most religions have complete codes governing not only worship but other aspects of conduct. This comprehensive Way of Life—which leads a devoutly Christian baker to decline to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding, for instance—commands much more from believers than progressives will allow.

This thrust of Matal v. Tam would seem relevant to a case on the Supreme Court’s menu for the coming term, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The justices will decide whether Colorado’s attempts to compel a patissier to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, in contravention of his religious beliefs, violates his free-speech or free-exercise rights under the First Amendment. Ms. Alvarado believes the state’s position is logically untenable. Colorado is “arguing that baking a cake is not expressive,” and therefore not protected speech. “But at the same time, not baking a case is obviously an expression. Is it one or the other?”

(“God’s ACLU” Seeks Freedom for the Faithful, Wall Street Journal, emphasis added). More, apropos of the article’s title:

“The ACLU has a sadly checkered record on religious liberty,” Ms. Alvarado says. “It’s sometimes with us, and sometimes against, but the moment that a lot of the sexual-morality issues came into play, it seems they lost the live-and-let-live philosophy that was so fundamental to them.” The ACLU, she says, supports religious liberty only for the groups it likes. “It’s an all-too-common error that undermines the First Amendment standard of equal protection for all religions.” This broader view is why legal scholar Viet Dinh has described the Becket Fund as “God’s ACLU.”

When I think of the ACLU these days, I think of a wholly-owned subsidiary of the progressive Left (not traditional liberalism), relentlessly hostile to orthodox Christianity and with an expansive-to-a-fault tacit concept of “civil liberties.” Its very Right counterpart would not be Becket, but ADF, the Alliance Defending Freedom.

I support both groups financially, even though ADF at times appears a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Religious Right, partly because ADF seems to have foreseen, as its distinctive contribution to the religious freedom war, the coming threat to religious freedom from the sexual revolution. So ADF jumped into some battles somewhat removed from core religious liberty issues to build a sort of safety zone around religious freedom.

That got ADF labeled a Hate Group by the odious Southern Poverty Law Center, but I appreciate the prescience and support ADF, strident though it be times, much as a traditional liberal might support the ACLU with some qualms.

But stylistically, I’m a Becket Fund guy. Their few fundraising letters just don’t scream at me the way I dislike in most fundraising letters. They defend the turf we’re ultimately interested in defending, but they don’t draw lines in the sand, however defensibly, remote from the borders of that turf.

They are somewhat more conspicuous, too, it seems to me, in defending the religious freedom of non-Christians; I don’t doubt that ADF does so, too, or at least weighs in with amicus briefs, but so help me I can’t think of an instance at the moment.

On the whole, Ms. Alvarado is buoyant “without being complacent” about the future of religious liberty in the U.S. The end of the Obama administration, she believes, should bring some respite to the faithful. “His administration was definitely hostile to conscience rights,” she says. “If you look at a lot of the writings his administration put out, you’ll see they were really focused on worship, the importance of being able to practice within the four walls of a church. But they were hostile to religious speech, hostile to religious exercise, anything within the workplace. They’d say, ‘You shouldn’t have this job. You’re a second-class citizen if you’re unwilling to perform same-sex marriage services, or to accept the contraceptive mandate, or hand out these drugs. That makes you unfit for a specific position in the market.’”

… The Obama administration … authorized “direct, government-enforced action, and a wielding of the force of the state against conscience.”

I’ve said much the same thing here, repeatedly. The man who daily (and nightly) sows chaos and debases the Presidency does not, unlike Obama and Hillary, take a cramped “freedom of worship” line and has no voter base that wants to watch us beaten like piñatas. I feared even worse treatment than Obama’s under Hillary.

Trump’s indifference is not nothing. But it won’t buy my silence about his wrongdoing on just about everything else, either. Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Ms. Alvarado’s comments on Trump are very guarded as well: “This administration isn’t necessarily one way or another on these issues. But Trump’s campaign promises were awesome.”

Yeah, nicely, and guardedly, put. That and $2.95 will get you a “Venti Bold, no room,” at Starbucks.


As a conservative Evangelical, I was taught to be suspicious of the bias of certain translations of the Bible. We didn’t trust the RSV of the 50s, for instance, because some of the translators were liberals and it showed some liberal bias — or so we were told.

What I did not realize was that our own translators had biases as well, and that all the versions we trusted had Protestant biases. I’m tempted to say that some of the biases are inexcusable, but I try to remember how hard it can be to see some things that don’t fit into your mental pigeon-holes. I sure went through that when approaching Orthodoxy.

I’ve been thinking about such things as I look forward to my 50th high school reunion at Wheaton Academy, an Evangelical high school near one of Evangelicalism’s holy cities. Inevitably, religion will be a topic; even those who have apostatized know better than to expect otherwise. And I’ve been working on defending my faith with less conclusory hostility or incredulity toward Evangelicalism than I’ve often vented here.

Telling them their Bible translations have disguised some Bible truths is an approach they’ll understand. If they’re honest, they know that the chain of translations between the original autographs (no longer extant) and the modern English version in their hands  is long, and they know it’s dubious to claim that every link was infallible, as is their interpretation.

So let’s start with “tradition.” I think the Orthodox view of tradition differs from the Roman Catholic view somewhat, so let me make clear what I mean by that.

Tradition is the life in Christ bequeathed to His Apostles and thence to the Churches they founded. It is not a set of doctrines running parallel to the doctrines in Scripture. (These points gleaned, in roughly these words, from something spoken or written by Clark Carlton.)

Among the elements which make up the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Bible holds the first place.  Next comes the Church’s liturgical life and its prayer, then its dogmatic decisions and the acts of its approved churchly councils, the writings of the church fathers, the lives of the saints, the canon laws, and finally the iconographic tradition together with the other inspired forms of creative artistic expression such as music and architecture. (Fr. Thomas Hopko)

In a sense, tradition is inevitable, and Evangelicals have it, too:

  • Hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Closing eyes during prayer
  • “Altar calls” (to no altar, no less!)

Protestant Bibles’ treatment of tradition is among the more shameful biases.  The Greek word for tradition – paradosis (παραδόσεις) – occurs 13 times in the New Testament. Even in modern Greek, it’s still “tradition.”

The New International Version (NIV) translates it “tradition” every time the context is negative, differently the three times it’s positive, as in II Thessalonians 2:15, “stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught” twists things around and turns tradition into “teachings,” leading to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you.”

If Jesus categorically condemned tradition (Matt 15:3, 6; Mark 7:8-13), why does He bind His listeners to tradition by telling them that to obey the scribes and Pharisees when they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:2)?

If St. Paul categorically condemned tradition (Colossians 2:8), why does he tell the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15 — see NIV mistranslation, above) and praise the Corinthians because they “hold firmly to the traditions” (I Corinthians 11:2, which the NIV translates correctly because it involves a tradition Evangelicals don’t keep)?

If the authors of the New Testament believed in sola Scriptura to the exclusion of tradition, why did they sometimes draw on oral tradition as authoritative  (Matthew 2:23; 23:2; I Corinthians 10:4; I Peter 3:19; Jude 9, 14-15)?

For today, since I’m focusing on words, just one more example: liturgical worship. It’s a small “not one jot or tittle” point, but important.

Acts 2:42, emphases added:

“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (American Standard Version, quite literal, early 20th Century)

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (New American Standard Bible, mid-20th Century, purportedly favoring literal translation, but deviating here)

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (New International Version, late 20th Century)

Dropping the definite article “the” from “the prayers” (I believe καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς is the Greek in question) obscures that the earliest Church’s worship was liturgical. “The prayers” suggests something other than spontaneity, as “prayer” simpliciter connotes to the Evangelical mind.

That the earliest Church’s worship was liturgical might sound absurd, especially in caricature, as if I were suggesting that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or the Tridentine Mass descended along with the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

But I’m not suggesting that. Rather, the early Church liturgized in the synagogues until they were tossed out. Presumably they liturgized still, though thrown out. They liturgized because liturgically is how the Jews worshipped in synagogue. Some Jewish converts to Orthodox Christianity have commented on the familiarity of the liturgical style of worship.

There’s more in the Bible to emphasize that true worship is liturgical (e.g., just note how worship is being done in Isaiah’s vision the year that King Uzziah died in Isaiah 6, or in Revelation 4. I know it’s sexier trying to make Revelation fit this morning’s newspaper, but don’t ignore what’s patently there while going on an end-times snark hunt.

Indeed, Christ is a “liturgist” (λειτουργὸς) in Hebrews 8:2 and  the apostles were “liturgizing” or “performing the liturgy” (λειτουργούντων) in Acts 13:2.

I don’t plan to go a’preachin’ at my reunion, but I think I can give reason for the hope that is in me, and why Evangelical is not Enough.

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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.