I suppose that producing a blog makes little sense unless it provides an opportunity to vent personal complaints about the universe and peeves concerning the behavior of people. My list of complaints about the universe gets longer every morning after perusal of The New York Times. I also have a number of very idiosyncratic peeves about the behavior of people in my environment. These peeves are admittedly trivial—they do not inspire passionate campaigns—and arguably irrational. These stipulations do not make the peeves go away.
I am irritated every time I venture outside by people talking on their mobile phones while walking—or worse, while driving a car (which, by the way, is now illegal in Massachusetts), or even while riding a bicycle. Why can’t they wait until they reach a place where they can sit down, and maybe make notes or look things up? Admittedly there are situations where one cannot wait: “I want you to be the first to know that I have just been informed of having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I’ll tell you more when I get to the lab.” There are only two explanations why non-Nobel-Prize winners engage in this behavior. They are intent on falsifying David Riesman’s famous theory about the lonely American (my wife Brigitte favors this hypothesis)—they cannot stand being alone for even one moment. Alternatively, they want to show others, and indeed themselves, how busy and therefore how important they are: “Look, I have to stop now. I must return the call from the White House.”
I also get irritated by the behavior of many waiters in the better class of restaurants: “My name is Ralph, and I will take care of you today.” What do you mean, “take care of me?” You will massage my arthritic knees? You will call the bank about that overdraft? And I’m not interested in your name—we are not going to establish a lifelong friendship—just let me see the menu. But Ralph is likely to irritate me further after he has served the food. He may say: “Enjoy!” before he disappears until returning with the check. What is this exclamation? A promise? A prediction? Perhaps a threat? “Ralph, I did not enjoy my lunch. You will notice that I have not added a tip.”
As a certified “godder”, I am prone to find connections with religion in improbable cases. I tried but failed in these two cases. But let me vent on a matter with indisputable religious connections: It has become conventional to put “Evangelical”, both as a noun and as an adjective, in lower case. Example: “It is difficult to give a precise figure of how many evangelicals there are in the United States, but it is clear that the evangelical community comprises many millions of people”—both the noun and the adjective in this sentence are put in lower case.
I remember when I learned English as a teenager. The teacher explained the difference between proper and common nouns, the former being used for the names of single entities, like “Peter”, in caps, the latter for generic entities, like “boys”, in lower case: “Peter is a boy.” Admittedly, there are borderline cases, like, for example, the designations of pharmaceutical products—“aspirin” is now usually put in lower case, as against “Lipitor” or “Viagra” in caps. And “Coca Cola” (caps) morphed into “coke” (lower case) through (literally) common usage. Still, most of the time the choice is clear.
Did those who downgraded Evangelicals not understand this simple orthographic point? Could bias be involved? Whoever started this—perhaps a senior editor in a prestigious newspaper or publishing house, who (like many intellectuals) disliked conservative Protestants and, consciously or unconsciously, wanted to degrade them: “There, you unwashed bigots—you are condemned to lower case.” I had to give up this idea—because there is no evidence of such a conspiracy—but also, more importantly, because Evangelicals themselves have adopted the lower-case convention, including Christianity Today, the masthead publication of Evangelical Protestantism.
Then perhaps it is the result of technology? Not an editor, but perhaps a software engineer started this, and then the spell-check programs in countless computers followed suit, and anyone wanted to use caps had to make the effort of correcting the spell-check intervention. Great idea, but unfortunately empirically incorrect (as with so many great ideas—I had already imagined a stirring post on the tyranny of technology). The software on my computer—the latest version of Windows, the most prestigious and authoritative—lets me type “Evangelical” in caps (like just now) without a murmur of protest. There is of course a general idea, greatly favored by the denizens of English departments, that our culture is becoming increasingly illiterate—a suspect idea, in my opinion. The origins of the Evangelical downgrade may be a worthy subject for some doctoral dissertation somewhere (in what department using what research methods?). In the meantime, the most probable explanation is thoughtlessness or stupidity, spreading like an infectious disease from its original location. (This, by the way, could well be at the center of a general theory of cultural history.)
Be this as it may, the convention makes no sense. Why are Evangelicals to be put in lower case, when no other religious group is? Christians are not, nor Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists… One reason might be that “Evangelical” is indeed a generic term, like “boys”. Evangelical churches cannot be found under that name in the Yellow Pages. Evangelicals are a diffuse group, spread across many denominations, none of which use that adjective in their name (except for Lutherans, but when their churches call themselves “Evangelical”, this is a translation from German or the Scandinavian languages, where the term—German evangelisch—simply means “Protestant,” not “Evangelical” in the American sense). But every one of the above-named faith communities also comes in different denominational versions. Depending on how you count, American Judaism is split into at least three denominations. There is indeed a single Roman Catholic Church, but there are also Greek Catholics (Uniats or Eastern Orthodox in communion with Rome), Anglo-Catholics (Episcopalians with a lot of incense, some of which now supervised by bishops from Africa), Old Catholics (who left the Roman church in protest against the doctrine of papal infallibility proclaimed by the First Vatican Council). Yet no one has suggested that Jews and Catholics should be put in lower case.
Ever since my teens I have had a love affair with the English language. There are some profound acts of linguistic violence in the area of religion. Example: The translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, one of the great monuments of the English language, into an allegedly more modern version, which not only resembles the text of a mail order catalogue, but which actually distorts the original meaning. Thus, in the Nicene Creed, “visible and invisible” is rendered as “seen and unseen”—two quite different meanings. When I am in Boston, New York is unseen, and angels are invisible in either locality. Underlying this unfortunate translation project is the absurd idea that the eradication of poetic beauty from the text will make it more plausible to modern people. I would think that the opposite is the case. Another example: The translation of all religious texts into so-called “inclusive language”—that is, language that excludes all who do not adhere to feminist ideology. This is not the place to delve further into this particular aberration. Suffice it to note that not even Biblical texts are immune to this linguistic assault—Jesus speaking in the syntax of a politically correct professor of sociology.
Clearly, putting Evangelicals in lower case does not raise profound philosophical or political issues. I would not go on the barricades to restore caps. But one is entitled to speak up for what one loves. I am not the only lover of English. This then is a call to all who share this love to use the language correctly and to advocate such usage, which for heuristic reasons I will violate by putting all the following groups into lower case—jews, christians, muslims—also hindus (there are Indian writers of superb English)—also buddhists, jains, even siberian shamans (if they speak English).
[Postscript: In all of the just-named groups my Windows spell-check kicked in and wanted me to use caps. I had to go back, word by word, in order to hold on to lower case. I can type “evangelical” in lower case, and Mr. Gates leaves me alone, as he does when I use caps. I take it that, when it comes to this subcategory of Protestants, he is orthographically and perhaps even theologically neutral. One should be thankful for small blessings. ]