As a professor of English who regularly teaches a course called Advanced English Grammar, I'm frequently approached by colleagues and friends and even total strangers wanting to know the "correct grammar" for something they're writing. My answer is usually that there is no single right answer. Almost invariably, the issue the person's struggling with is an issue that perplexes all writers—all, that is, except those under the spell of a grammar enthusiast who either inherited or invented rules to solve every problem.
When I tell people there's no single right answer to their question, they usually get upset. Like my grammar students, they don't want to have to analyze the grammatical context to figure out what's best. They want a rule.
The most important thing students in my grammar course learn is that language changes. It changes over time. It changes with the influx of people who speak other languages. It changes as technology and cultural values evolve. It changes as we change.
"Language is wonderful that way!" I revel. "It's not some tight little box of rules. It's flexible, dynamic, a living thing. It's human, real! That's why we call Jesus the Word.
The changes alarm many students, though. Gender-inclusive language, for example. Some of my students were taught, as I was in grade school, to use he for a person whose gender isn't specified. Others blithely use the genderless plural they, ignoring number agreement. Perhaps because I teach at a fairly conservative Christian university, I never encounter students who follow the equally sexist rule I was taught in college: replacing the he of yore with she.
Only a few students learned, as my daughters did in the third grade, that using he is discriminatory and using they is grammatically unsound. My daughters' textbooks taught them how to do what all writers of Standard English must do these days: revise the sentence to solve both gender and number errors. How much simpler, my students whine—after a few also whine about the evils of feminism—if we just had a word, or a rule, that would solve the problem!
It fascinates me, this desire for a rule. A way not to have to think. An artificial weighing apparatus to replace the built-in scales of our God-given brains and hearts. I sense this love of laws in myself every time I have a problem.
Parenting, for example. If only there were a rule I could follow to turn out perfect kids, I fantasize. Kids who would never disappoint me, never disappoint themselves. Kids who would never disappoint God. I buy parenting books and try to follow their advice. But my kids, alas, are turning out to be sinners just like the rest of us. Even the little the Bible has to say on the subject of child-rearing doesn't appear to solve the problem. We all know plenty of kids who were not spared the rod or who truly seemed to have been trained up right, but who turned out worse than others who were abandoned to their own feckless devices.
A funny story in Judges illustrates this rule-mania well. An angel visits a nameless woman—we know her only as Manoah's wife and Samson's mom—and says she's finally going to have a child. The angel instructs her not to drink wine or eat anything unclean during her pregnancy and, when her son is born, not to cut his hair because he's "to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb" (Judges 13:5). A lengthy exchange ensues—involving several conversations between the woman and her husband and a second visit from the angel—in which the couple try to get the angel to tell them "the rule that governs the boy's life and work" (Judges 13:12). In vain. The angel just keeps repeating the dietary requirements, which to the couple must seem utterly unrelated what they want to know: namely, how to go about this business of parenting. Give us a rule! they beg.
The whole of scripture, one might argue, is full of rules. There's the Law—the source of such dietary requirements as the angel promoted—governing everything from sacrifices and sexual behavior to mold control and when to throw out spices. There are also all the rules Jesus offered—turn the other cheek, don't pray like a hypocrite, don't even think about adultery—and summarized with two more rules: Love God and love others as yourself. And then there are the rules Paul and other early church leaders added: Take turns prophesying in church, don't let someone be an elder who has more than one wife, don't wear your hair in braids if you're a woman, and so on.
Somehow, though, none of these rules—not singly, not combined, not even Jesus' two summary rules—satisfy my deepest desire when I'm faced with a difficult decision. I want a special rule to govern my life and work in every situation, one that bypasses thinking and feeling and eliminates risk. A rule that will turn me into a happy automaton who always does the right thing.
God's response to my desire for such a rule, like my response to people who ask me grammar questions, is that there is no such rule.
On the one hand, God did give us behavioral rules that would surely render our lives problem-free, if we were capable of following them. But we're not. Had God wanted robots, capable only of doing right, he could have made us that way, of course. But he wanted something better. He loved us and wanted us to love him back. And loving inevitably involves thinking, feeling, and being willing to risk everything.
Jesus said, on the other hand, that when we believe in him, we're already doing the "work of God" (John 6:29). Indeed, through Jesus, we in some sense become the rules we seek. God says of his new covenant, "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33). Through the sacrifice of Jesus, in other words, God equips us to think and feel our way through every predicament through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Rules are nice, I like to tell my grammar students. But real life is better. So much better.
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