Grammar and the Gospel Message

Grammar and the Gospel Message

by Katie Gillett, Boethius Fellow

I have been fascinated with words from a very young age. As a child I would read anything I could get my hands on, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to the ingredients list on the cereal box. Soon I fell in love with the precision and clarity of well-ordered language. Unlike many of my classmates, I genuinely enjoyed diagramming sentences and delighted in the quiet thrill of middle school spelling bees, where just one letter out of place would trigger the dreaded bell. Throughout high school and my undergraduate studies in theatre, I began to concentrate on the power of language to communicate emotions and ideas. In retrospect, I can see the natural progression through Dorothy Sayers’ developmental conception of the liberal arts reflected in my own school years. Reading Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning” as a new teacher was one of my first formal exposures to the liberal arts tradition. Her essay led me to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of my own education. I did receive a strong foundation in English grammar, but I never studied a classical language in school, let alone logic or rhetoric. What was this trivium, and how could I learn more about it? The opportunity arrived in the form of the Boethius Fellowship. Although our goal is quite different from Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring, the resonance with Tolkien’s Fellowship was not lost on me. In fact, during our summer symposium on The Consolation of Philosophy, I often felt like Sam at the Council of Elrond! Despite wondering if I was in over my head, I was excited to begin our courses on the liberal arts.

The heart of our exploration of grammar has been reading the prologue of John’s Gospel in English, Latin, and Greek. For some Fellows, this foray into classical languages was a courageous headlong plunge into new territory. For others, it was an opportunity to dig deeper and see new relationships between the three languages. Our resident linguists found an eager audience as they shared the fruits of their many years of study with the less experienced. But for the veteran scholars and the newcomers alike, each return to the grammar of the text revealed insights into the mind and heart of St. John as he contemplates the Word of God, with Latin and Greek revealing relationships that are obscured in English. This theologically rich passage describes how the Word of God (verbum; λογος) orders all of creation overflowing from the bosom of the Trinity (vs 1-4); how the Word entered into creation at the Incarnation (vs 9-11, 14); and how Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, liberates us from slavery to sin and restores our dignity through divine adoption and participation in His own life (vs 12-13, 16-17).

The other core consideration of our work was the nature of grammar as an art. I see an analogy here with the three central mysteries described in John’s Prologue. As John meditates on the Word’s role in ordering creation, we studied grammar as a practical art: How are words ordered to create sentences? This is as far as most contemporary students of grammar will ever venture, but the Boethius Fellows were just getting warmed up… As John ponders the Incarnation, we dove into grammar as a speculative art: How do words help us enter into contact with created realities in their modes of being? How do their various modes of signifying reveal or “incarnate” our patterns of thought or modes of understanding? Finally, as John proclaims the Good News of our Redemption, we examined grammar as a liberal art: How does grammar make men free? How does the study of words enable us to enter more fully into our dignity as men and women created in the image of God who is the Word?

From preschoolers learning their ABCs (and Fellows learning their alpha-beta-gammas!) to the extensive etymologies and philosophical questions that animated our discussions, mastery of words and grammar are a critical foundation for liberal learning. Reading Aristotle’s Topics and Categories has made this abundantly clear as we begin our logic course. As we continue our pursuit of more authentic formation in the liberal arts tradition, I’m grateful to have found a group of fellow “word nerds” for the journey!

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