Of capitals, books and gods
Lee September 24, 2015

Occasionally I get paid to be a pedant.

That’s pedant, not pendant. It means I get paid to notice small errors and inconsistencies in language usage that others don’t notice or aren’t bothered by; a useful habit for an editor, but an annoying one in just about every other way. Just ask my kids. If I were a pendant, however, I would simply hang about and no one would pay me to do that.

Occasionally my inner pedant gets a little overwrought and I find myself shouting at the television or at something I’ve read, because somebody has used or spelled a word incorrectly. But really! How can people not know that you don’t flaunt convention or the rules, as if you were showing off an expensive new car? You can certainly flout them though. And whoever heard of a peeling bell?

Perhaps by now your eyes are glazing over and your attention is wandering—you sense an approaching rant. I confess. I do have a proverbial bee in my equally proverbial bonnet. However, I hope that the ensuing nitpick will not deter you from reading on. Because although it concerns one small detail—the use of a capital letter—I believe a weight of importance is attached to this seemingly unimportant thing.

The bee that buzzes so persistently in my bonnet is this: more and more Christians are writing the word ‘Bible’ with a lower case ‘b’—‘bible’. I’ve seen it not only in casual forms of communication like text messages, but also in formal church notices, newsletters and other updates, and even in online articles. I know this sounds trivial, but I believe it really matters.

I think it matters, for three reasons: first, it’s grammatically incorrect; second, it suggests a lack of attention or care among Christians; and third, it suggests to outsiders that Christians lack respect for God and his word.

First, grammar: Let’s look at the first reason—grammar. Nouns are naming words. Proper nouns always begin with capital letters because they identify individual people, particular places, and things or people with titles; the initial capital indicates that each person or thing is distinct and unique. (By the way, there are no degrees of uniqueness; you can’t be quite unique or even very unique. You’re either unique, or you’re not.) But I digress.

Personal names are proper nouns, so they always begin with a capital, because although there might be more than one Sasanqua Sillitoe in the world, each of them will be a unique individual. And although there are many towns and cities in the world called Springfield, each of them is a discrete (but probably not discreet) human settlement, even on television. Just ask The Simpsons.

Proper nouns differ from common nouns. Common nouns do not begin with a capital letter (except if they begin a sentence) and they refer to people, places and things that commonly occur. For example, in recent years Australia has had more prime ministers (common noun) than we would normally expect. But the latest one is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (proper noun).

Even if we only use his title, we must still use the proper noun form, because we are referring to Malcolm Turnbull in particular. Thus, “After a only week in the job, the Prime Minister has chosen his new Cabinet”. The upper case ‘c’ reassures us that he hasn’t merely selected a new piece of furniture; that would be a cabinet, and it would hardly be headline news.

The word ‘Bible’ is a proper noun that has come to us across time and geography, through Middle English and Medieval Latin, from the original Ancient Greek word biblos, meaning book. Because the assembled writings of the Old and New Testaments are considered to be the sacred book of the Christian faith, this biblos (or book) has for centuries been distinguished from other books by its title, a proper noun—Bible or Holy Bible.

Just as there has been a swift succession of prime ministers lately, there are many, many different physical copies of the Bible in the world today. But they are all copies of the only authoritative book of Christian Scriptures, so we still use the proper noun, Bible, or Holy Bible, to identify each copy. It’s the title of a unique book. But more than that, it’s a bit like saying The Book or the Book of books, as opposed to the book.

The only time the noun ‘Bible’ begins with a lower case ‘b’ is for the common noun form which refers to an authoritative text on any subject—‘bible’. So, a dictionary or style manual could be an editor’s bible, Greg Norman’s Instant Lessons might be a golfer’s bible and Huck Spalding’s Tattooing A to Z might even be a tattoo artist’s bible. Also, whenever you use the adjective or adverb form of the noun, each one should begin with a lower case ‘b’, as in ‘biblical’ or ‘biblically’.

Second, care: Now that we’ve covered the grammar, let’s think about the second reason—a possible lack of due attention or care among Christians. If I went through my home today to count the number of physical copies of the Bible—old ones, new ones, different translations—I suspect I would be embarrassed. Maybe even shocked.

I have easy access to numerous and varied copies of the Bible, and yet many Christians around the world can only hope that one day they might own one copy in a language they understand. Even those who have access to a Bible must often share one treasured copy with their families or even their churches; others live in constant danger simply because they own a copy.

In contrast, if I visit a Christian bookstore in Australia, either physically or online, the number and variety of Bibles available is mind-boggling. If I’m not content with one English translation, I can choose between twenty or so other translations. If I’m not keen on a hardback format, I can choose between spiral hardback, softcover, leather, leather-touch, leather look, imitation leather, premium imitation leather or paperback, or just go with an audio format.

Photo by Inbetween | Lightstock.com
Photo by Inbetween | Lightstock.com

But wait, there’s more! I can also choose between large, larger and giant print, between gift, award, worship, pew, church, super-value, economy, regular, single column, colour-coded, thin-line, ultra-slim, deluxe, premium-value or premium formats.

Of course, the covers come in many different colours and designs, including duo-tone and tru-tone, whatever they might be. And if I’m not a fan of a study Bible edition, I can get reference, personal reference, outreach, life recovery, adventure, devotional, application, transformation and Spirit-filled Bibles.

Then there are vest pocket, pocket, compact, popular compact, hand, personal and large sizes. And Bibles are produced for men, women, youth, teens, kids, children, boys, girls, early readers, new believers, discoverers and families. I’m sure I’ve missed some. Only a mathematician could calculate how many combinations are possible, and I haven’t even considered Bible apps.

The extraordinary range of options is almost unbelievable. It certainly seems excessive and begs the question: when we have easy access to an overabundant supply, do we value the Bible less? And in case you think I’m overreacting, I have seen spare Bibles used to prop up a wobbly barbecue at a church sausage sizzle. They were quickly removed once their inappropriate use was noticed, but my point remains.

Third, respect: Let’s look at the third reason—that Christians could communicate to outsiders a lack of respect for God’s word. We’ve already seen that failing to capitalise the ‘b’ in Bible converts it into a common noun, in effect, reducing the Bible to the status of any other book that’s regarded as an authoritative text.

Perhaps by now you’re itching to point out that language is dynamic, that it changes as we use it over time. And that’s true. What was once considered correct usage might have changed. But let’s be honest here. Would we write the koran or the torah? Would we refer to the upanishad or the sutra-pitaka? I don’t think we would.

Even in our secular postmodern society this would convey disrespect towards Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists for whom these are their respective sacred writings. As Christians we do not share their beliefs and practices, but we do follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbours. And we understand instinctively that to use common nouns for their sacred texts would imply that they are common things. And that would not be loving—it would be insulting.

So why don’t we show the same concern for the words of our God? Why don’t we use the proper noun when we refer to the Bible? Perhaps it is haste, ignorance, familiarity or even sheer laziness that causes us to drop the initial capital letter. Ultimately though, it makes no difference. The effect is the same. We risk communicating to outsiders a lack of respect and esteem for the very words we tell others we live by—the words of the God who has saved us and whom we love.

When we no longer seem to care enough about the Bible’s uniqueness and we assign it a common place among all the other bibles and books, we communicate a marked indifference towards The Book. Not only to outsiders, but to one another, and to God himself. Friends, they are his words. It is his book. Are we so nonchalant, so spoiled by choice and opportunity, so lacking in gratitude and appreciation that we no longer value the Book of books with the life-giving words of the one and only God?

Are we guilty of just fitting in with the world around us? This world shrugs its shoulders and dismisses the unique claims of Christianity. This world shakes its fist at the God of heaven and earth. This world regards God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as merely small ‘g’ gods among a host of gods, with no greater authority or significance than any other, and with names that are useful only as curses or exclamations.

Risk: The evidence suggests that we are yielding and not standing our ground. An equivalent trend is emerging among some Christians (including evangelicals) who use common nouns instead of the proper nouns that relate to God himself. So, for example, God is now the creator, Jesus is now our saviour and the Holy Spirit is now our helper, even in well-known contemporary Christian songs.

We risk losing something of immense importance if we omit just these three initial capitals. Whether this trend suggests a surrender to worldly pressure or the casual adoption of a worldly practice, either way, it represents a failure to insist on essential, stand-alone truths about God—the truth of God’s power and glory as Creator of all things, Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice as Saviour and the Holy Spirit’s singular enabling role as Helper.

Do we really want to relegate the Lord God Almighty to an equal footing with the creator of the latest phone app? Or give the Lord Jesus Christ a status comparable to the umbrella-sharing saviour of a damp pedestrian? Or grant the Holy Spirit the same significance as a helper at the local fete?

Friends, we are people of The Book, the Book of books. We serve the God of gods, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. We can show the world that we believe it by caring about small details, by valuing the abundant resources we enjoy and by giving due honour to the Lord our God.

Featured image: Photo by annarachel | Lightstock.com

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