Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Writing and Taking God's Name in Vain

Last week, our music director informed us of the Vatican's decision to remove "Yahweh" from all the songs and literature used in Mass. The reason given is that "Yahweh" is a mispronunciation of YHWH, the Jewish letters for God, which are never to be pronounced anyway. Apparently, using "Yahweh" is a fairly recent innovation in the Church and an error we are now trying to correct. I agree with it. My name is mispronounced on a regular basis. I've gotten used to it, but I know how upset I'd be if my books came out as "Katrina Sabin" and no one cared to correct them. Why would I show such disregard for the name of God?

This got me thinking, however, of the many ways we writers might use God's name in vain.

On a small level, when you say "Oh, God!" as an expression of surprise, amazement, or disgust, rather than one of praise or entreaty to the Divine, you are disrespecting God's name. In writing, this can pose a challenge. People use this phrase regularly, and to be realistic, a character might need to as well. The trick, as with all forms of profanity, is to use the phrase judiciously, in character, and for a specific purpose. Personally, I avoid it unless my character is entreating God.

Nonetheless, a bad habit phrase is minor compared to a more serious misuse.

Some years ago, I heard a wonderful definition of "taking God's name in vain" from Dr. Laura. She suggested that we take God's name in vain whenever we use it or Him for our own purposes. At the time, she was talking to a woman who didn't want her husband's wild stepdaughter to live with them because she had "a good Christian home to protect." However, you can see it in the publishing world as well.

* The publisher that loudly proclaims to be Christian in order to project the image of trustworthiness.
* Publishers and editors who are Christian yet put out works counter to Christian principles.
* The writer who thinks that just because his or her work is "Christian," God will personally see to it is published and sells well--without the person going through the work of editing, re-writes, querying publishers, etc.
* The writer who writes Christian (or Jewish) stories, articles or books not because they believe, but because it's where the money is
Or worse...
* The writer who condemns the specific religion or religion in general in order to be trendy, vent their own frustrations or stir up trouble.

I have seen all of these--from the vanity press website "loudly" proclaiming, "We're good Christians! We take care of our authors!" to writers submitting to Infinite Space, Infinite God II who decided priest-bashing scenes qualified the story for Catholic sci-fi.

Does that mean that publishers or writers who define themselves as Christian are taking God's name in vain? No. Like the phrase "Oh, God!" it depends on intent as well as form. The Christian writer who refuses to write an erotic scene even though it would make her romance more marketable; the Christian publisher who look at his submissions not only for quality of writing but moral value--these people are using the name of God in a way that defines them and are doing respect to Him and His name.

What about those who firmly believe "God called them" to write the book? I've known some writers like that. Michael O'Brien comes to mind. However, just like the prophets had to work at what they did--and boy, did some work!--so, too, writers must work to perfect their stories. After all, if you are doing God's calling, shouldn't you also give it your human best? Unfortunately, just as I know many wonderful writers who are divinely inspired, I know some who feel that since "God called them to write," whatever they hashed out the first time must be exactly as He wanted--i.e., perfect. That hasn't happened since the Gospels.

Taking God's name in vain is more than just an injunction against certain phrases. It's an injunction to live by our beliefs, and that applies to writing as to all we do.


Gray Rinehart said...

"...we take God's name in vain whenever we use it or Him for our own purposes" is a far cry from mispronouncing it -- a very different standard, and I think a better one.

How does anyone know (really KNOW) we're not pronouncing YHWH correctly? Because the Hebrew is written without vowels, and we're told it's unpronounceable? Does the new restriction extend to no longer using Jehovah, which itself is a made-up name derived from YHWH (via the German, I think)?

In the end, I think, we all have to make our own choices about how we respond to, interact with, and represent God.

Karina Fabian said...

Jehovah was never used by Catholics, as far as I know, Gray.

Actually, the Jews do have a pronunciation for it--a far better guess than Yahweh--but they do not use it.