Thursday, September 16, 2021

On religious shibboleths

I've always been really interested in religious shibboleths, and I informally collect them. (Of course the word "shibboleth" itself is religious in origin: in the book of Judges, the way that an army figures out who's on their side and who's the enemy is by forcing them to pronounce this word; if they pronounce it wrong, they get killed (which, according to the account, 2,040 of them were.))

Some favorites off the top of my head:

  • A person who refers to God as "Heavenly Father" without a determiner like "our" is almost definitely a Mormon.
  • Evangelicals refer to proselytizing as "evangelism," Catholics refer to it as "evangelization."
  • A person who refers to an evangelical Christian as an "evangelist" is probably not an evangelical.
  • A person who refers to the Bible as "Sacred Scripture" is almost definitely a Catholic.

There are many more. But I've been long haunted by one that hit me like a ton of bricks, and it's connected to another of my abiding interests, which is the seemingly mysterious and unknowable Something that makes marriage what it is. I have an extremely high view of marriage for a variety of personal, cultural, and religious reasons, but I've never really been able to understand what makes some marriages work and others fail, or what exactly it means to join yourself to another person when it's apparently extremely difficult to truly know another person well. 

Anyway, here's the story:

Some years ago I was out and about with my family one Sunday afternoon when I noticed a kid we knew from church was at the same park we were at. I looked around and eventually saw his father, who I didn't know well but who I knew was estranged from his wife, who I also knew (not super well) from church. I knew the guy didn't attend our church, but that was about it. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and then he said something like "so, are you guys just coming back from Mass?"

I was almost struck dumb by the amount of information I suddenly felt I knew about this guy. I literally didn't know what to say.

If you're an evangelical, there are literally no circumstances under which you would refer to any time you attend your church as Mass. Not a Sunday morning, not a wedding, not a funeral, not Easter, not Christmas, nothing. It's an utterly, utterly foreign word. It is not even remotely within the realm of possibility that his wife had ever referred to attending church as Mass in the entire time she would have known and been married this man.

So first of all, I knew that he was probably raised Catholic or was somehow exposed to enough Catholic culture that he thought of church attendance as "going to Mass."

Second, I felt I also knew -- and maybe this is an unfair judgement, but it struck me just the same -- that this guy barely knew his wife at all.

This is such a basic thing to get wrong about how evangelicals talk about church that I had to assume they'd never even spoken about her faith, which was presumably quite important to her, or he'd never taken enough notice to note that the linguistic habit he'd acquired of referring to church attendance as Mass was not a part of her life.

I can't overstate how enormous of a shibboleth this is. It would be like asking why an Italian restaurant didn't have any kimchi, or referring to the Beatles as a metal band, or saying "G'Day, mate" as a greeting to everyone you meet while you're in Ireland.

I don't really have a moral to this story. It's just that I don't think I've ever been struck with such a stark, sudden realization based on hearing the utterance of a single word. And the couple did, sadly and perhaps predictably, end up getting divorced.