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Readings from the pulpit

While driving from jury duty back to work, I heard a story on the radio about a 13-year-old boy who is leading prayers in Virginia. This isn’t such an unusual idea to me: children younger than that routinely read the lessons at my church. Those are precocious kids, certainly, but it barely raises eyebrows. Nobody’s calling NPR.

Why is it newsworthy that this boy is leading prayers? Because he’s Muslim, and apparently to lead this sort of prayer you have to have memorized the Koran. He studied in a special school from age seven to age ten to cram it all into his head, and now he regularly practices to keep it fresh. When he leads prayers, he must do it from memory—and in a language he does not understand.

This is fascinating to me. I remember friends going for their Ba{r,t,nai} Mitzvah fifteen years ago. They often learned to recite words in a language they didn’t quite understand. But I also remember seeing extensive instruction on what the law meant in general, and on the passage they’d be reading in particular. I imagine the quality of instruction varies. All children in this religion go through this rite.

My home church considered it proper to teach children approaching their confirmation, the analogous rite, a number of things. We learned from Luther’s small catechism. It reviews the Ten Commandmants, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, including Confession, and a review of daily prayers and the duties of citizens in the Church. That was a year. Then we spent a year on the life of the church, including community, worship, heresy, and superstition, and a year on the responsibilities of the theologically aware, including how to give a sermon and how to administer baptism and communion in emergency. I understand that sort of instruction is slightly atypical, but most mainstream Christian churches do something similar for a few years before Confirmation, and expect all children to be Confirmed. Adults typically get a shorter class when converting—varying from a month to a year of weekly meetings.

As I said, it’s only mildly unusual for children to read the lessons in a Christian church. The only requirement is that they understand the surface level of what they’re reading. After all, they’re reading it in the vernacular. So then everybody hears, or reads along, and the sermon discusses the readings. Afterwards, people talk about the readings and the sermon at coffee hour.

But how can this work if the readings are in a language nobody understands, and no vernacular translation is provided? This prodigy has memorized the sound of the Koran, and apparently whole churches pray in it, without understanding what they’re saying. In the older days of the Catholic Church services were conducted in Latin, and no effort was made to educate the populace or the junior priests. This is now recognized as a crucial error:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4–5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

We’ve still got a word talking about what a bad idea this was: mumpsimus. But now the mainstream Christian church has moved on. We made that error, and learned better—only really finishing that lesson within the last century. May we remember it and keep it learned! I wonder when mainstream Islam will learn the same lesson. There can’t really be a middle-class that knows its theology until this change happens.

Like old Catholicism, the priests of Islam mostly say that the text has to be kept in an archaic language to avoid translation errors. But as in old Catholicism, there’s still a need to preach policy and practical theology to the laity. Somebody has to translate this at some point. With public, well-regarded translations (e.g., KJV), junior priests and interested laity can engage in a protracted conversation. With a holy text kept separate from the common tongue, each congregation is at the mercy of their pastor’s prejudices. There’s no ability to engage with the sermon: the pastor says God wrote this, so we’re stuck with it.

I confess that I find memorization of sounds in ignorance of their meaning quite horrific. Memorizing Pi is okay: that’s random. But these are words, prayers, poems, and laws. To memorize them by rote sound is awful. It feels like blasphemy against the one who wrote their meaning.