Monday, December 10, 2007

My New Pet Peeve about Orthodoxy

Since I have not written anything in nearly two months, I fear some of you might be wondering whether I still have anything to blog about after completing my transition to Orthodoxy. The answer is an emphatic yes, but I’ve been channeling my writing energies in other directions lately, leaving me with a growing backlog of bloggable topics that are stranded in my head, rather than flowing across your screens. I hope to resume my more-or-less weekly blogging pace soon, but I can’t make any promises about when.

I am finding Orthodox Christians, collectively, very odd in their consensus about which bits of Anglophone Christianity to embrace and which to reject. Many Orthodox, for instance, insist on saying Pascha, rather than Easter, as if these were two different, totally unconnected events. Or as if Easter somehow embodied the peculiarities of Western or Catholic or Protestant belief. Some claim to reject it because of its possible indirect connection to a putative ancient pagan goddess, Eostre. But the only testimony we have to the worship of a goddess of this name comes from the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century English monk, in his speculation about the etymology of the term Easter. Bede himself was, of course, an Orthodox Christian who called the feast by its English name when speaking English. It goes by similar names in other Germanic languages, all corresponding to their languages’ names for the month of April.

(In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the speakers of Old English often avoided transliterating terms from Latin and Greek, instead preferring to coin new words rooted in their own language. This preference even persisted into the early modern period, resulting, for example, in the peculiarly English word atonement for reconciliation.)

Yet Orthodox Christians do not hesitate to call the Great Fast by its English name, Lent, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the season of spring, corresponding to the lengthening of days at that time of year. Nor do they shrink from calling the morning office Matins, which is cognate with the name of Matuta, the Roman goddess of the dawn.

My newest pet peeve about Orthodoxy is its ubiquitous adoption of the Puritan practice of capitalizing divine pronouns, i.e., pronouns that refer to God. It seems that some people have actually been taught that this practice is a rule of English grammar! But if you look at the King James Version of the Bible or any edition of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find that the practice of official English-speaking Christianity (i.e., Anglicanism) has always been to treat divine pronouns like any other pronouns. Nor does this practice have precedent in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. The use of mixed cases – i.e., uppercase and lowercase letters together in the same text – developed long after the Scriptures had been written and collected. No, this practice was first introduced by the Puritans, who published their own Bibles and devotional materials outside England, in defiance of the Established Church.

(I understand that those who capitalize divine pronouns intend thereby to “honor” God. I try to imagine what the prophets might say to them about the proper way to honor God. Perhaps, “This people honors me with its capital letters, but its heart is distant from me.” cf. Isaiah 29:13.)

My first objection to the capitalization of divine pronouns is practical and asesthetic: I find it hard to read a text cluttered with capitalized words that are not nouns and that do not begin a new sentence. Every time I run into Thou or Thee, I want to start reading a new sentence! But I object even more to the Protestant hermeneutic implicit in this capitalization. It assumes that one can always identify every pronoun as referring either to God or not to God. This, in turn, rests on assumptions that 1) the meaning of Scripture is transparent, and 2) Scripture is only to be read literally. These assumptions defy the Orthodox method of reading Scripture inherited from the Fathers. In addition to the literal level, we Orthodox read Scripture on a typological level. A person or event might be interpreted simultaneously on both levels. The entire book of Song of Solomon, for instance, has traditionally been read typologically as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, yet the capitalizers do not capitalize any pronouns in this book of the Old Testament.

(If the Puritans were reading Song of Solomon literally, perhaps they were not as “puritanical” as is often supposed!)

In short, I object to the practice of capitalizing divine pronouns in texts intended for Orthodox use because 1) it is contrary to standard English usage; 2) it has no precedent in the original Greek texts of the Scriptures; and 3) it is inconstent with Orthodox readings of Scripture.

While most Orthodox Bibles and liturgical books continue to capitalize divine pronouns, I have found some exceptions, so I know I’m not alone. In the liturgical texts on the Anastasis Website, for instance, Archimandrite Ephrem’s translations follow the traditional English liturgical usage, which does not capitalize divine pronouns.


Trevor said...

. . . and there are a lot more gripes where those came from ;-)

So now that the catechumen has become a convert, the floodgates are open, I see. Perhaps Orthodox lack enough of the big flaws to satisfy your craving for criticism, so the little ones will have to do. (This is going to look really weird if I have to keep cyber-winking after every sentence, but I hope you get the idea.)

I guess personally I'm kind of ambivalent about the Pascha thing. It probably fits nicely in a larger issue about how we deal with holidays in general. Whatever the pros and cons of preserving the Julian calendar might be, should we actually revel in the fact that most of our holidays we get all to ourselves? (I say "we," fully realizing that neither you nor I live by the Julian calendar, but it's still a part of worldwide Orthodox culture.) I don't have much objection to citing the advantage that Old Calendar Orthodox can take advantage of post-Christmas sales for their own holiday shopping. I'm thinking more of the notion that by following a different schedule Orthodox holidays can be purified of the secular dross that defiles their Western counterparts. Since it seems like there was an intentional strategy when many of these holidays originated in Christendom to sanctify already existing pagan celebrations, the notion that we now need to divorce them from the secular equivalents seems like a contradictory impulse.

Even for New Calendar Orthodox, this issue applies to Pascha, which continues to be observed according to the Julian calendar. Does using the name Pascha augment the sense that we're really celebrating a different holiday altogether?

Personally, the main advantage I can see to using Pascha rather than Easter (aside from the obvious point about not offending those who do so with more conviction) is that it is by far the more standard practice worldwide. If we rejoice to say "Christ is risen!" in every language we can think of, why not also use a term for the holiday that applies in just about every language except English? I also like the more direct connection it makes with Passover, which is of course a biblical and patristic connection.

As for capitalization of pronouns, I guess I made my peace with the whole business before I ever encountered it in Orthodoxy. I realized a long time ago that it was as artificial in Bible translation as red letters or using Elizabethan singular pronouns only with reference to God. I may find it off-putting, but with enough practice it's not a serious impediment to reading. It might not be what I would choose to do personally, but I can live with it.

Oddly, I got quite a bit more worked up over these issues when I was Evangelical. Even though it was criticizing Protestant custom, I think the desire to be so radically "accurate" as to repudiate any and every tradition that got in the way was an Evangelical strategy. The fundamental assumption was that there's a way to translate the biblical text such that its one, literal meaning comes across with perfect clarity. I find this tendency, when I see it, out of place in Orthodoxy. If we read Scripture in the context and light of Tradition, we should be more comfortable with the notion of an imperfect but workable translation, which in any case will not be read in isolation.

Alex said...

The Puritans weren't as Puritanical as you'd think. I've heard that in one New England village, they threatened to remove from their community a couple who had abstained from sex too long. Also, the Puritans did see Song of Solomon as regulative with respect to sex...

Because salvation is powered by God's grace, it is a doing-without-doing for us. The examples of pet peeves you cite -- peculiar capitalization, using words like Pascha, etc., they're all ways to try to do salvation. I don't think they're an impediment, but if the Divine Pronoun Capitalizers would cut it out, they'd find very little different, and realize that their practice wasn't helping very much.

James Noel Ward said...

Guilty as charged on using capitals for pronouns referring to G-d.


But we also might as well abandon the Chapter and Verse divisions of the Vulgate in favor of the original Hebrew divisions (1 Chron 5: 27-41 versus 1 Chron 6:1-15).

Don't fall into the trap of scrupulosity of originalism, or the next thing you know all the candles will be held by people rather than candlesticks.

Remind me to tell you sometime how I had this girl going once with my outlandish story the censing the offerings was originally started to “help get the weevils out of the bread.”

Roland said...


Your feeble efforts to keep me humble are appreciated, doomed though they might be! I'm saving my calendar rant for February, so I won't respond on that issue here.

But I really don't see a legitimate connection between the calendar controversy and Easter vs. Pascha. Speakers of Germanic languages were calling the Feast of the Resurrection Easter or something similar long before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Meanwhile, Catholic speakers of non-Germanic languages continue to call it Pascha or something similar even though they use the Gregorian calendar. Greek Catholics use the Gregorian calendar and call it Pascha. The issues are totally unconnected except in the minds of those who see everything through the lens of the calendar issue.

Personally, I always try to say Pascha when I'm in a context where that is the custom. But when I slip up and say Easter I don't correct myself because I do not consider it incorrect. As far as I'm concerned, they ought to be as interchangeable as Theotokos and Mother of God.

As an editor, I have an eye for little things that most people would not even notice. For instance, it really bugs me when '0' (the number zero) is used for 'O' (the capital letter between N and P) - something I frequently see in Orthodox texts on-line - because (in most fonts) I can see the difference and it jumps out at me. I'm sure my editor's eye makes me more sensitive to such things than most readers.

Last week I acquired a copy of The Orthodox New Testament. It is a relatively literal translation, based on the KJV but retaining even more transparency to the Greek, particularly in its handling of terms central to Orthodox theology. Overall, I like the word choices in the translation. But the punctuation is driving me crazy. It retains the KJV's use of a new quotation mark at the beginning of every verse of an extended quote, even though it does not retain the KJV's setting of each verse as a separate paragraph. And it capitalizes divine pronouns. Today's Gospel lesson (Mark 8:27-39), included 22 added capital letters and 4 extraneous quotation marks in just 13 verses!

(Today I also noticed an error in grammar - whom instead of who. But this error was actually copied from the KJV. It is corrected in the RSV, which remains my favorite translation despite its idiosyncratic use of archaic pronouns for God but not for anyone else. I would prefer archaic pronouns all around, but if some pronouns are modernized they all should be.)

The whole point of using pronouns at all is to avoid repeating - and thus over-emphasizing - the noun for which they substitute. Capitalizing the pronouns calls attention to them, defeating the whole purpose of using pronouns. I find it just as annoying as the hyper-feminist avoidance of pronouns, and for pretty much the same reason: a fetish about divine pronouns results in artificial, hard-to-read English that unintentionally emphasizes too many words in each sentence.

I guess my passion for the integrity of the English language is now exposed for the world to see.

Roland said...


Yeah, I've heard similar stories about the Puritans. They seem to have had healthier attitudes toward sex than they are given credit for by modern liberals. Thanks for the additional insight.


As long as you're not translating the Bible or liturgical texts that I am expected to read/chant in church, I don't care what conventions you observe. But I'm currently training to chant at Vespers and Matins, and the last thing I need is non-standard punctuation conventions in the texts I'm reading from.

If you were telling whoppers like that about censing, it's no wonder you were afraid to go near a thurible! You could easily have gone the way of Nadab and Abihu! (If anyone else wants to get this inside joke, see Leviticus 10.)

Trevor said...

I think you've misunderstood my point about Pascha. I'm not saying it is the same issue as or necessarily part of a preference for the Old Calendar--only pointing out what I think is a corresponding impulse on the part of some practitioners of both customs. In the same way that some defenders of the Old Calendar will argue that it cuts Orthodox holy days free from the secularism of their Western counterparts, some Orthodox (even those on the New Calendar) seem to prefer anything that sets Orthodox Pascha apart from Western Easter, whether the fact that they often fall on different days, or the use of different nomenclature. In both cases, I think there is an adoption of an attitude more Puritan than Orthodox, since Orthodoxy has traditionally baptized the world's holidays, not separated itself from them. And I'm not trying to say that the reasoning makes any sense historically. I realize the actual roots of the difference in terminology go back before the distinction between East and West. My point is that I doubt most people who advocate separate holidays think along such lines. They simply take what is a convenient difference already existing due to other circumstances, and apply to it a new meaning.

I can certainly sympathize with your annoyance at 0 for O, superfluous punctuation and capitalization, etc. I'm not only an editor but a philologist as well. But I recognize that my hang-ups in these areas are weaknesses I need to address. What bothers me doesn't bother most people, and from what I can tell, the search for a perfect English translation has been directly responsible for the incredible waste of energy that has gone into producing hundreds--even thousands--of English Bible versions. I'd rather not see Orthodoxy spin off in that direction, and I think there are good theological reasons that it shouldn't follow Protestantism down the same path. Even so, the Orthodox New Testament does set my teeth on edge :-)

-C said...

As a fellow recent convert to Orthodox Christianity, I sort of understand your peeves, but am glad to say that neither your peeves nor mine make any real difference (which is part of the reason I converted in the first place).

The Church is what it is, regardless of what "peeves" me or anyone else.

And I love that.

Roland said...


Thanks for clarifying - now I understand what you were getting at, and I agree. I think the real differences between Orthodoxy and other varieties of Christianity are sufficiently profound that we don't need to exaggerate them or invent new differences to make Orthodoxy distinct. In fact, inventing new differences can only serve to obscure the differences that really matter.

I should have put in a link to The Orthodox New Testament to distinguish it from The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms. I'm not a big fan of the latter. The NKJV translation combines 17th century scholarship with 20th century English - the worst of both worlds!

Trevor said...

The NKJV has its faults, to be sure. Personally, I'd rather stick with the KJV, which was a superior effort for its time and commands a wider acceptance and broader influence in the scope of English literature.

On the other hand, I understand the practical considerations that led them to use it, and as far as English Bible translations go, they could have made worse choices. One incidental advantage of 17th c. scholarship (or perhaps more accurately, 16th c., since the 17th c. hadn't had much time to get going yet) is that by default they used a NT text that was closer to the traditional Byzantine standard than anything we typically see today. I realize some would argue that modern translations are based on a better Greek text, but personally I think the arguments are questionable. In any case, for a traditional Orthodox Greek NT you could do worse than the Textus Receptus. The drawback on this count, actually, is that the editors knew better. They could have used a 20th c. representation of the Byzantine text (working from a much wider range of manuscripts), but instead they pandered to the KJV-only crowd and relegated it to the footnotes.

It also seems to me that their updates in the English language side were minimalist enough to prevent quite the scale of damage you often see in modern Bible versions. And it's certainly more readable than the Orthodox New Testament.