An Anglican clergyman named William Spooner, who died in 1930 at the age of 86, was a nervous man who (allegedly) often had trouble getting his words to come out right. Spooner has given his name to a form of speech called “Spoonerisms,” the transposing of the initial sounds in two or more words.
For example, after joining a couple in holy matrimony, Rev. Spooner told the groom: “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.” In a funeral oration for a deceased clergy colleague, he praised the man as “a shoving leopard to his flock.” Once in a sermon, he warned his congregation that “there is no peace in a home where a dinner swells” [a sinner dwells]. My favorite quotation attributed to Spooner is: “Mardon me padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?” [Pardon me, madam, this pew is occupied. Can I show you to another seat?]
Not only do we clergy sometimes say the wrong things, but on occasion misprints occur, even on the pages of the Holy Writ. In a 1631 Bible the word “not” was omitted from the Seventh Commandment, thus reading “Thou shalt commit adultery.” That particular Bible became known as the Wicked Bible.
Church bulletins become a place for an occasional blooper. For instance: “Potluck supper: Prayer and medication [meditation] to follow.” And this one: “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of [in] our church and community.” And my two favorites: “The low self-esteem group will meet in the education building. Please use the back door.” “The weight-watchers group will meet downstairs. Please use the double-doors.”
Putting anything into words is challenging, and so I approach a sermon or a newspaper article with “fear and trembling.” I hope that I say the right words in the right way.
On top of that, interpreting scripture can be very challenging. We look at certain passages and wonder, literal or figurative? Compounding the problem is that we seem not to understand the meaning of something as simple as the word “literal.” A football player once said, after winning a big game, his team was “literally on cloud nine.” (I think that would require a NASA rocket.) A coach, after a huge upset victory said, “I was literally beside myself.” (Now that would look funny.) When someone says, “I am literally scared to death,” then call the funeral home. They’re a goner. What they mean is figuratively.
Much in the Bible is to be taken literally: “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them…” (Matthew 17:9). Much in the Bible is to taken figuratively: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom” (Matthew 19:24).
The bumper sticker that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” has never settled it for me. I must look at each passage seriously to determine, among other things, is it literal or is it figurative. The Bible is chock-full of poetry (about 1/3), prose, parables, hyperbole, riddles, etc. Each type of literature demands our careful attention and best hermeneutical (interpretive) skills, guided by God’s spirit.
Once we settle on what we think is a sound interpretation, then we must speak it clearly and humbly. And pray that the spirit of William Spooner doesn’t inhabit our vocal cords.