01 January 2010

... Happy/Merry/God Bless...

'Tis the season to make greetings like "Happy Holidays," or "Happy New Year." Strangers walking past me on the sidewalk say them. It's nice, really. But after a few times I realized something. It's incomplete.

Happy, or Merry for that matter, are adjectives. What we are saying is "Have a Happy New Year," or "Have a Merry Christmas." But Americans speak in shorthand, like billboards and other advertising where space and time are costly. So we leave off the "Have a..." part. We're so good at this shortened speech that many folks now use Twitter, with its 145 character limit, to do lots of their communicating.

(This blog, of course, has no facility for short speak. Which partly explains its limited appeal. People like reading short things as much as saying them. Only a few strange souls enjoy the scrolling length of these posts in their email box. This also means you are more likely to care about such quirky things in the first place, so let me get back to the point.)

And even the longer "Have a ..." is shortened. The full and complete sentiment, is "May you have a happy/merry..." Simply saying "Have a ..." is in the imperative voice. It is a command. But no one can command us to be happy or merry. What we are trying to do is wish something, exhort or hope, a state of uncertainty or possibility not certainty. Which is what grammarians call the subjunctive voice. In English the subjunctive is signalled by phrases like, "May you," in which "may" is used to create a verb that indicates possibility not ability.

I am not a grammatical expert at all, mind you. But I do know that when we speak poorly, we learn poorly too, to wit the ubiquitous phrase "God Bless America."

This too is a subjunctive that has been shortened over time. Strictly speaking, we mean to ask God's blessing, which would mean saying "May God Bless America." But by leaving off the "May" it now sounds like an imperative, which is preposterous after all. We are hardly in a position to order God to do anything.

And yet, saying it that way it leaves a faint sense of entitlement. "God Bless America!" is said more as a cheer than a prayer (which are by definition subjunctive statements) and even as a rallying cry. This sentiment, a moral triumphalism that is nigh on to jingoism in its fervor, is, to my mind, leading us to the precipice of tragedy.

Last month, at the close of 2009, I received my semi-annual copy of Criterion, from the Univ. of Chicago Divinity School which I attended and which my son now attends. In it was a marvelous, challenging, and properly chastening essay by Professor Franklin Gamwell. At this opening moment of 2010, I urge it upon you. Here is the link.

He, along with Mark Noll of Wheaton College I believe, makes the case that Abraham Lincoln was our most theological president, and his second inaugural the most profound of national sermons. See if you do not agree.

May the year opening before us be one where we step back from the edge toward which we have run so eagerly these past years. The question is how shall we, you and I and the rest of those who share this endeavor of a nation, do this? The streamers have fallen and the confetti is being swept away. It is cold. Now is the time to pause before such questions, and ponder long. May it be so.

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