17 September 2015

We must, must we?

Source: Nina Yakushova's slideshow "Let's Learn Modal Verbs!"
Apparently I get distracted easily. I read through this interesting article, "Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals," and I found myself counting the number of times the author uses the verb "must."

This is not a criticism of Brett McCracken's writing, more a self-diagnosis of my own contrariness. When I see the word "must," I almost automatically want to ask "WHY?"

This irritation isn't helped by the fact that, as a defective modal auxiliary verb, "must" doesn't have an infinitive, it doesn't have a past or future, it doesn't allow partner verbs to have infinitives ... all the more fun when I'm trying to explain this verb to my students here in Russia.

I remember one of the first times my patience boiled over with too much "must" ... it was an editorial in the New York Times, from which I quoted back in 2010:
"Mr. Karzai's Promises"--note the string of wishful "must" statements: "Afghan and American government contracting procedures must be streamlined and made more transparent. Afghan institutions must be strengthened. Programs must be audited. And leaders more interested in good governance than self-enrichment must have a place at every level of Afghanistan’s government." Again: WHY? Whose "musts" are these, anyway? (And we peace people are accused of being unrealistic!) Do they represent our requirements for staying in Afghanistan, or our requirements for leaving Afghanistan? Is there an "or else"?
While "must" is near the top of my list of overused verbs (along with "get" and "went"), I don't object when people use it about themselves:

... I must take care of my little sister (an acknowledged obligation, as in the chart above);

or when describing a neutral fact or situation:

... If she said so, it must be true.

... It must have happened just after I left.

No, the problem arises when someone is trying to tell someone else what he or she believes they (we!) must do.

Brett McCracken says, We must focus our time and energy on a particular local church rather than trying to fix The Church. I agree with him, remembering Shane Claiborne's line that "We're going to stop complaining about the church we've experienced and start working on the church we want." McCracken's emphasis is a refreshing corrective. Still, there is a place in our division of labor for those with a vision for what The Church could be.

McCracken provides an opening for this vision task with his very next "must" ... We must encounter, listen to and learn from other churches and other Christians. Here he reminds me of Justo González's article, "Of Fishes and Wishes" ... in which González has a "must" of his own:
We must learn how to trust the church — unfortunately, this is the weakest link in the chain. By this I mean the church universal that hungers with the dispossessed in Ethiopia and with the uprooted in El Salvador. What was happening in the Philippines was known and decried for over two decades by Christian leaders all over the world. Yet most church people did not come to believe it until they saw it in the network news. By then, thousands of Filipinos had died as a result of our disbelief! If we are to combat the causes of hunger in Mozambique, in Korea and in Chile, we have to begin by listening to our brothers and sisters in those countries who know what hunger is all about.
It just makes sense to me that some people will be more gifted and suited to this kind of alertness, and to the task of passing it along to the rest of us, while others are gifted and equipped to translate these wider imperatives into locally-focused discipleship. In God's economy, all of these tasks build the Body, locally and universally.

One more example from McCracken's post. We must give up the idea of a "dream church" and instead embrace and commit to a local church, even if it's awkward and uncomfortable. I agree with his criticism of the hyper-consumerist approach to selecting and changing churches, but I'm going to make a distinction. Unfortunately, abusive churches and leaders do exist, and if your church is not open to correction, then there is no "must" that should prevent you from leaving. The next church you select will not be perfect, either, of course. You and I will always have the challenge of applying the same critical examination to ourselves that we are applying to our church, but you and I are not trapped.

Really, all we must do is pay taxes and die. Everything else is negotiable -- or should be.

Oxford Dictionary blog on "must, should, ought."

"Something Is Missing from the Cultural Toolkit: Evangelical Congregations and Inadequate Responses to Poverty." A lecture at George Fox University on October 1. (For those who are allergic to Facebook, here's the notice on the George Fox calendar.)

Amy Peterson says farewell to the missionary hero.

Christians need to be more conservative, not less. (Thanks to Gil George the Younger for the link) ...

... And is this a case in point? -- a biblical argument for Bernie that emerged from Bernie Sanders' visit to Liberty University.

Hitler's world may not be so far away, according to Quaker historian Timothy Snyder.
Perhaps the experience of unprecedented storms, relentless droughts and the associated wars and south-to-north migrations will jar expectations about the security of resources and make Hitlerian politics more resonant. As Hitler demonstrated, humans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect the conflations Hitler pioneered: between nature and politics, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems otherwise insoluble can be blamed upon a specific group of human beings.
Answering the call to radical faithfulness at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania.

Selwyn Birchwood's guitar playing is not a strict imitation of B.B. King, but there are some tasty similarities. It's a worthy tribute. (From the B.B. King Blues Club, New York City.)

1 comment:

Daniel Wilcox said...

Ah, this article on the overuse of "must" does an old English teacher's soul good, like a...(wait a moment that old cigarette commercial also was weak grammar;-)
Like yeah, man.

Very "musty" if you ask me.

Sorry for all the corn from Nebraska, but I'm still trying to recover from reading about the Calvinistic Friends Meeting and other despairing news.