Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Grammar and Grace


            In a postmodern world, teachers don't mark papers for bad grammar. Once red papers are now white as snow. The sins against grammar remain, but the emphasis on grammar does not. Gone are the red pens (Who knows how many pen companies went out of business?). My question is, "How did we get here?" My answer is: legalism. My question is: how do we get back to a healthy appreciation of grammar? My answer is: grace.
           Grammatical exactness started to wane as postmodernism started to wax. The literary movement which embodied postmodern ideals is called "Process Theory." Grammar was was associated with the authoritarian teacher-centered classroom (i.e. modernism). Process theorists desired a move toward a student centered classroom in which all have a 'voice.' Grammar evoked visions of a bleach white classroom, students cowed in fear, while a severe professor drilled students in subject-verb agreement. Grammar came to be associated with drudgery, authority, and voiceless students. To this day, grammar is conceived of as boring and burdensome.
          An authoritarian structure is one of the first signs of legalism. In such a climate, authority resides with those who have power to make the rules. In Jesus’ day, such authority rested with the Scribes and Pharisees. They were looked to for spiritual leadership, but abused that authority by making “heavy burdens, hard to bear."
            Before postmodernism hit the literary halls of academia, legalism was a major problem. Consider the insistence on adherence to “grammatical minutiae.” Grammars abounded in obtuse terminology, and seemed always to breed newer, more esoteric, rules. These rules confused and suffocated students. All the while, an elite few paraded around and turned their noses up to anyone who could not achieve works of grammar supererogation. For much of the 20th century, a small group of sometime self-righteous grammarians decreed heavy burdens on a beleaguered student body. This was the sad state grammar found itself in before the rise of Process. And who can wonder that students and teachers rebelled? But, what was it they rebelled against? They rebelled against legalism. Legalism: this is the word that best describes a burdensome set of superfluous rules that is mandated in an authoritarian culture.
            Since the demise of grammar is related to legalism, the rise of grammar in the academy and the world can be precipitated by grace: grace alone. Legalism denotes authoritarianism, rules, and burdensome detail in an atmosphere devoid of love. Grace denotes freedom in an atmosphere permeated with acceptance and love. 
           What would a grammar of grace look like?
            A grammar of grace begins with the teacher. Grammar legalism flourishes in an authoritarian culture where merit is attained by works. In short, if a student has poor grammar, they are chided and treated with indignity. How many students have learned to hate grammar because they felt a teachers’s vehement disapproval over a misplaced comma? A classroom of grace functions on, first of all, absolute acceptance. Students need to know that the teacher is for them.  The teacher has their best interest in mind, and values them no matter how bad their grammar is. There is a personal element in the teaching of grammar. If a student feels devalued, he will respond in one of two ways. First, after repeated failure, he will despair, and give up. Second, he may try harder in order to gain approval. The student who achieves grammar works of supererogation will not be the better for it, though, because he will inevitably develop a sense of grammar self-righteousness. Legalism leads inevitably to despair or self-righteousness. On the contrary, if a student begins with the principle of acceptance the natural outcome will be humble security. No matter how slowly their grammar progresses they will not fear approaching the teacher. No matter how good their grammar is, they will not become proud.
            Lastly, a grammar of grace emphasizes freedom within the law. Legalism leads people to think laws are binding and cumbersome. Grace points out that the right laws actually provide freedom. In the case of grammar, following rules of grammar usually leads to better communication. The person who understands laws of grammar finds it easier to be articulate and clear. So, we should emphasize the positives of grammar in the writing classroom. “Do you want to be a better writer? Do you want to be a better communicator? Learn grammar! Grammar gives you freedom to say what you want to say, how you want to say it.” It is an ironic fact that the person who jettison’s law entirely eventually makes himself a slave. This is true in almost any arena, and in my experience it is doubly true in grammar. The path to writing freedom is the law of grammar. And, the path to seeing the freedom of law is grace: grace alone.

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