The requirement of a 12-month seminary internship at Faith Lutheran Church, Arlington, Virginia, was ending. Across the Potomac River from D.C., more than a few parishioners were connected with government, the military and even the CIA and the FBI. Many were kind enough to send us with a farewell dinner for my wife and me.
One evening stood out for us, as we were welcomed into the home of a church member who happened to be the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger. Prior to the meal, the four of us sat in the spacious study of this Harvard graduate who had served under a number of White House administrations in varying capacities, including CIA Director and Secretary of Energy.
We were more than a bit intimidated by the massive bookshelves and a myriad of publications. Not an avid reader of current events or U.S. history, I was severely uncomfortable about the thought of participating in an intelligent conversation. That may help explain why Mr. Schlesinger did most of the talking.
Meanwhile, my wife and I kept exchanging nonverbal glances and confounded facial expressions that, if verbalized, would sound like, “duh,” or more politely, “Do you understand what he just said?” The response was similarly, “No, not the foggiest!”
Like many of my generation, I was first groomed on “Fun With Dick and Jane.” My aversion to engaging with printed matter for the better part of the next couple decades placed me in a verbal holding-pattern with a corresponding lexicon floundering in neutral. Inspired by a high school bookkeeping class, I determined to be a “number’s person” rather than a “word person” by pursing a business accounting degree. True to form, in college, CliffsNotes supplanted any textbook whenever possible.
It’s been reported that some fellow by the name of Shakespeare had a working vocabulary in the neighborhood of 54,000 words. I’m sure he can hold a lofty conversation. For quite some time, I am confident, my command of the English language languished in the low four-figures.
An irrevocable call into the ministry during my senior year in college placed me squarely behind the eight-ball. Every seminary classroom greeted me with its own lengthy “required,” “recommended,” and “suggested” reading lists.
Fulfilling the curriculum for a Master of Divinity, I ended up taking a course on the Old Testament book of Job. Each class period included an hour-long lecture accompanied by a rapid-fire outline flashed on a screen, one after another, via “transparencies” and an antiquated overhead projector. Students feverishly copied each screenshot before it was whisked away by the professor, who happened to also be a Roman Catholic priest.
There was nothing particularly novel about such a pedagogical strategy in the early 1980s.
What was unusual was how one garnered a passing grade in the class.
The creative cleric gave three options. He offered to gladly accommodate students who wanted a grade based on a cumulative final exam or an extensively researched term-paper. His preference, however, was to give an automatic “A” to each student who diligently attended the lectures and who would agree to meet individually with him five times throughout the semester to discuss what they’d been reading for the class.
Convinced I was taking the path of least resistance, the choice of option three was obvious! Traumatized by the thought of the two of us staring at each other for a half hour with me having nothing to say because I hadn’t cracked open a book, I found myself purchasing and pouring over nearly every volume from the aforementioned reading lists. We, I determined, would have much to talk about, and so we did!
What’s funny is that it turned out to be a supremely enjoyable class, where I learned more than I could ever have imagined. This assessment, I surmised, was because I read more than I ever imagined.
To be sure, I will always be awkwardly trudging up the learning curve of the English language. I took an online test the other day to see if I’ve made any measurable progress. It graded me somewhere around a “C+” and the 75th percentile. In the process I learned that a “cembalo” was a harpsichord, a “jennet” was a female donkey and that “laevorotation” was a counterclockwise movement. My personal lexicon ticked up ever so slightly.
It doesn’t take a genius to discovered that the curve is steep, illusive and in a constant state of flux. Just ask the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, who keep adding to the more than 171,476 entries currently listed. Case in point, in 2018, they’ve chosen to add 25 new words.
My working vocabulary struggles to keep up. Still, I choose never to be guilty of putting down a book because it was “TL;DR,” or “too long; didn’t read,” a recent addition. I’m going to strive to avoid a “force quit” where I give up on a book, another one of the 25. I may even read like I occasionally watch TV, or in away that is best described as “bingeable.” Look for it in your new edition, just before “bingo.”
Reading; an activity right near the top of my “fave” things. You know, favorite! It’s a new word, too. Just ask Oxford.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org