The Grammar of Faith – 2 Corinthians 3
Every year, at the end of a course called Advanced Grammar, I give my students an assignment I call a “grammar devotional”: analyze the grammar of a short Biblical passage to tap its spiritual teaching.
At first they’re leery, but it invariably ends up being their favorite assignment—mine too—because it legitimizes a rather arcane and pointless-seeming topic of study, one that’s hardly necessary to effective communication, by putting it to use in service of unarguably valuable tasks like reading the Bible and learning more about God. They’re proud of what they come up with, and, of all the essay piles on my desk, I read theirs with the greatest enthusiasm.
Another reason I like this assignment is that it addresses an important requirement I’m evaluated over at my Christian university: the integration of faith and learning. Students—and believers—being as diverse as they are, I’ve found it hard to get good ratings in this area because people are rarely in agreement about what such integration entails. I may have written numerous books on faith and bring up Biblical examples all the time and even pray in class on occasion, but all some students will remember at the end of the course is when I said something they thought inappropriate or required them to read a book that was, in their view, unChristian. Or that I took off ten points for every error in something they wrote—ten points a pop!—which hardly exhibits the grace we Christians ought to be showing one another.
This grammar devotional puts the burden on them, not me, to do the integrating—which, in my view, is how it should be. And afterward, having integrated faith and learning, they rate me higher in getting them to that point.
Before they embark on the assignment, I give them examples of how it might work.
“Consider that passage where Paul talks about how we’re turning into Jesus,” I say.
They look at me blankly. Awana training has equipped them to bookchapterverse me every imaginable topic, but they never seem to know the passage I’m looking for when I say stuff like that.
“You know, something about becoming more like Jesus?” I nudge.
“You mean Colossians 3:10?” Sidney says, then rattles it off: ‘Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him’?”
“No…though that’s sort of like it…but, oh you know, something about Jesus’ image? Who’s got a Bible?” They fish around in their backpacks. “Look up image.”
Eventually someone finds 2 Corinthians 3:18 and reads it aloud:
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (NIV).
“Yeah. That one. What’s the tense of the main verb there?”
I wait. It’s the end of the semester, and this is an easy question. Verb forms have plagued most of them all semester, though. And there are, after all, numerous verby-looking words in the sentence—unveiled, contemplate, are being transformed, ever-increasing, comes, is. No one wants to be laughed at (another of my unChristian classroom habits) for picking the wrong one.
Finally someone tries something out, gets it wrong, then another attempt, and eventually they’re all intoning it, sounding like the Catholic masses of my childhood: present tense perfect aspect passive voice.
“Right. So why that verb form?”
Again silence, this time longer. What kind of question is that? they’re thinking. It just is.
“That’s how Paul wrote it?” someone quips.
“Yeah, in Greek. And it’s the same form in English. But why’d he use it? Take it apart. Why’s it in present tense, not past?”
“’Cause it’s happening now?”
“Right. Not yesterday. Not when you were saved. Now. And why the progressive aspect—the -ing?” When no one says, I help them: “Because the transformation’s ongoing. A work in progress. And Crissy”—her head jerks up—why’s it in passive voice?”
I’ve pick Crissy because, having abused and overused passive all semester, she finally—because of that ten-points-a-pop business—figured out how it works and is now the class’s passive expert.
Crissy obliges: “Because we’re not the agents of the action, not doing the transforming. It’s being done to us.”
“Well,” Crissy begins, “the sentence doesn’t say so. I mean, there’s no prepositional phrase saying ‘by whom.’ But I’d say it’s God.”
“Exactly!” Crissy beams. “So now, someone tell me, what spiritual message do we get from analyzing that verb form, naming its parts?”
“Spiritual formations is, um, happening now. And it’s ongoing. And we can’t do it ourselves. God has to do it.”
image by permission – Kelli Campbell
Patty Kirk is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She and her husband Kris live in eastern Oklahoma and have two daughters, Charlotte and Lulu, who are in college. She is the author of five books, most recently The Easy Burden of Pleasing God and The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent. PattyKirk-Writer.Blogspot.com.