Passive Voice

a river runs through itWhen I was growing up, one of the favorite movies in my house was A River Runs through It.  Directed by Robert Redford, the film is the story of how the Maclean brothers grow up and grow apart in rural Montana during the 1920s.  The fabulous cast includes Tom Skerritt as their Presbyterian minister father, Craig Scheffer as the older, more reserved brother, and a young Brad Pitt as the rebellious, self destructive free spirit.  My family’s favorite scene in the movie was one in which the Reverend Maclean is teaching young Norman (played by a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) how to write “the American language.”  In the scene, Norman brings a manuscript that his father proceeds to systematically mark up with a red pencil.  The Reverend Maclean hands the paper back to his son, instructing him to make the essay “half as long.”  This occurs several times, until the merciless editor finally says, “Good.  Now throw it away.”  

I think this scene resonated in my household because this was my father’s approach to teaching his boys how to write.  My father would give us feedback on our writing assignments, and invariably his critique had to do with the efficiency of our language.  He would mark out extraneous words and put question marks next to sentences that repeated information.  But my father’s primary linguistic pet peeve was unquestionably our use of the passive voice, wherein the grammatical subject is the recipient (rather than the source) of the action of the verb.  When I was first learning how to write, the passive voice felt classy and sophisticated, and so I would write sentences like this: “It was hoped by the combatants that the truce would last.”  Of course, there is a far more efficient and far less clunky way to write this sentence: “The combatants hoped that the truce would last.”  And efficiency is not the only reason to use the active voice.  I was at the airport the other day, where my father would have mercilessly criticized the following public address announcement: “Any unattended bags should be reported immediately.”  Since this announcement is in the passive voice, it diffuses responsibility.  Surely, airport personnel want us to take responsibility for reporting unattended bags, but this announcement merely suggests that it is someone’s job.  The passive voice is not only inefficient, it can also lead us to pass the buck.

In Scripture, however, passive voice is used frequently.  In deference to the Jewish convention of not uttering the name of God, the New Testament writers would often refer to God in terms of God’s actions.  We saw this last week in the epistle that we read on Ash Wednesday.  In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul enjoins us to “be reconciled to God.”  In the New Testament, the verb for reconciliation only occurs in the passive voice.  This is not because Paul and others are trying to diffuse responsibility, it is because God is the only one who can be the subject of that verb.  It is God who reconciles us to himself and to one another.  And so when Paul tells us to “be reconciled to God,” we are responding to God’s action; we are allowing something God has already done to transform our lives and allow us to walk in newness of life.  This is important for us to remember, especially for those of us who have strained relationships and are struggling to reconcile with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  If we remember that it is God who reconciles, that it is God who renews our relationships, then our responsibility is to live out that reconciliation, to embrace what God has already done in our lives and in the lives of others.  During the next week, I will exploring the subject of reconciliation, but I hope we will remember that it is ultimately God who reconciles.  Lent is an opportunity for us to use the passive voice (sparingly), embrace the reconciliation offered through Jesus Christ, and affirm what God has already done in our lives.

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