On Words and Vocations

by Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto

1107vocationstory.jpgIn an age of politically correct terms, Christians should resist any willful deformation of their language because it inevitably creates a lie.

Not so long ago, when my clients allowed me to travel first class, I deeply offended a member of the cabin crew on an international flight by addressing him in the way I had addressed his colleagues ever since taking to the air 50 years ago.

“Steward,” I said, “may I have a Scotch, please?”

He mustered me reproachfully from top to toe, and then hissed: “Flight attendant, please!”

“Oh,” I replied, “so you are an attendant—like a parking-lot attendant, perhaps? Is that what you want to be called?”

He threw back his head in outrage and wafted down the aisle, never to return to my part of the cabin. Clearly a klutz, I wasn’t worthy of his service. Fortunately, a stewardess who did not mind being called a stewardess eventually took my order.

Now you might wonder why I would want to regale you with this anecdote in a Lutheran publication. I have two reasons:

1. To all intents and purposes, this “flight attendant” objected to his vocation as a steward, a perfectly noble and ancient job-description for one who serves—in fact, one who serves in a managerial position. Had he mastered his English mother tongue, he would have known that the most important officials in royal households are called stewards. Like all vocations in the secular realm, this one too is from God. Viewed from a Lutheran perspective, the apostle Paul’s admonition from 1 Cor. 7:20, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called,” applies to cabin crews as much as to anyone else.

2. Why have airlines abandoned this elegant title for the admirable people looking after passengers on planes—employees I have even seen perform surgery in a medical emergency high over the Arab Sea, men and women prepared to die in flames as they are trying to help travelers out of a crashed aircraft? Because “flight attendant” is gender inclusive, while “steward” is not. A steward is always male; his female counterpart is called a stewardess, and such a distinction is not politically permissible in a demented era when ideologues endeavor to undo the distinction between male and female, a wonderful gift that is part of God’s created order.

When ideologues set out to undo created order, they first destroy the beauty of a naturally grown language. Two decades ago, they created the absurd idiom “waitperson” in order to spare servers in restaurants from being verbally discriminated against as “waiters” or “waitresses.” Mercifully, the sanity of keeping these latter terms prevailed, so that we now still have waitresses and waiters in our midst, unless of course they invite you to address them by their first names, which reminds me of a marvelous cartoon in the New Yorker magazine decades ago.

It showed two men, one a waiter, the other a guest holding a long cigarette holder. Said the guest to the waiter, “I say, Bill, would you mind very much if I just called you ‘waiter’?” Based on the doctrine of vocation, I wonder whether the cartoonist might have been a Lutheran.

I suppose the destruction of the English language began when feminist ideologues fabricated the unpronounceable title “Ms.” This occurred at about the same time men of a certain sexual preferences hijacked the beautiful vocable “gay,” which still makes me angry. It precludes my professing the lovely sense of gaiety that overcomes me when, for example, I relax with my wife, savoring a bottle of wine and listening to a Mozart recording. Let it be known that I resent this theft.

My wife, by the way, has been heroically refusing to respond to “Ms.” for four decades. At first, she returned every letter addressed to “Ms. Siemon-Netto,” until nobody who knows her dared to address her that way. Those who have not encountered her obduracy ought to know that their mail winds up in the wastepaper basket, unopened. My wife, bless her, is an Englishwoman who loves her native language and will not allow ideologues to bastardize it with vowel-less sounds.

What troubles me about today’s politically correct neologisms is that they so much resemble the absurd new words created by murderous regimes. So grotesque was the distortion of job descriptions in Communist East Germany that the citizens of this now defunct state poked fun at this trend mercilessly, calling cleaning women “semicircle engineers,” to name one example.

But that’s harmless. Think of the inscription Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) above the Nazi extermination camps or the label Hygiene-Amt (office of hygiene) camouflaging the true task of a department at SS headquarters in Berlin, which was to find the most efficacious way to slaughter Jews, Gypsies, and others deemed “unworthy of living” by Hitler and cohorts.

It doesn’t take much imagination to draw a parallel between misnomers like these and those of some present-day institutions doing the exact opposite of what their names suggest. Planned Parenthood does not plan parenthood but assists people in becoming nonparents.

New Testament Greek has a word for such distortions: diaballo, literally, “throwing across.” It has given the devil his name.

That’s why Christians should beware. As a matter of fact, they should resist any willful deformation of their language because it inevitably creates a lie. This thought occurred to me when I recently visited a perfectly honorable corporation, which refers to its hundreds of thousands of employees as “associates.” But this is nonsense because it says precisely what they are not.

Associates are companions, partners, perhaps junior partners, but partners still. Associates are not people “human resources officers”—meaning folks from the personnel department—would ever frog-march off the premises when the “associates’” contracts are terminated. What’s wrong with calling a worker just what he is—a worker? As in the past, we would do no more than identify a worker by his Godgiven vocation until he rises in rank—to director, for instance.

Which reminds me: The title “director” has also fallen victim to our contemporary inclination to overstate our import. I come under this rubric. Officially, I am the director of the Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation. But whom do I actually direct? Myself and Aaron Franzen, a part-time graduate student, who assists me two hours per workday. In truth, I am just a retired old journalist put out to pasture at our seminary in St. Louis, charged with pondering a Lutheran doctrine I happen tofind extremely significant. So I’ll start with myself: What, I wonder, would be a good title for me if indeed I needed one?

I’ll let you know when I have found the answer. Please stay posted.

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