Gospel Euphemisms

KC Kern Mormon 11 Comments

Exodus 20:7:

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Euphemism:

1. the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt.

I’m not going to talk about gosh‘s, geez‘s,  holy cows, flips or fetches.  Rather, I’d like to discuss a prevalent tendency among Latter-day Saints to shy away from direct and even scriptural terms for appropriately referring to deity and instead use what has become a somewhat unique LDS vernacular.  Let me begin to illustrate with a story.

Jesus or Savior?

On my mission in Korea, one of our standard tricks of the trade was to offer English lessons in conjunction with the missionary lessons.  When possible, we would make our English lessons gospel-centered.  On one occasion, we decided to study the lyrics of English hymns with our investigators, so they could both get some legitimate reading comprehension as well as an enlightening message.  The first hymn we studied was “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”  We brought a recording of the hymn, and our investigator downloaded the lyrics off the internet.  But he hadn’t gotten them from lds.org/music, but rather had found them on some online Christian library.  I knew that many of our LDS hymns were borrowed from pre-existing sources, so I didn’t think to much of it.

We started going through the song line by line, looking up words as needed, and discussing meaning.  At length, we got to the fourth verse, where we were expecting to find the familiar line:

“He lives, my Savior, still the same.”

But that’s not what the line said.  What it actually said was:

“He lives, my Jesus, still the same.”  (see source)

Now Jesus, of course, is the Savior, so the meaning remains unchanged.  But it was blatantly apparent that in the process of including this song in the LDS hymn book, the word “Jesus” was changed to “Savior.”

On our way out of the appointment, I mentioned this change to my companion.  He noted that “my Savior still the same” is more comfortable to say and hear; “my Jesus, still the same” seems awkward and jarring to LDS ears.  I could relate fully with what he was saying.  But I couldn’t help but wonder why that was.  Suddenly, a scripture from the Book of Mormon came to mind.  2 Nephi 33:6

“I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.”

There it was, staring right at me.  The very wording that was removed from the hymn to make it LDS friendly is used freely by Nephi, a prophet unique to Latter-day theology, and recorded in the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture from the Restoration.  Nephi is 100% full-blooded LDS.  Why could he say “my Jesus,” but including it in a hymn would be inappropriate?

The Missing Verse

Another hymn we studied was “Did You Think To Pray,” another Christian cross-over.  I was surprised to find that an entire verse was omitted from the LDS version.  The missing verse reads:

When you met with great temptation,
Did you think to pray?
By His dying love and merit,
Did you claim the Holy Spirit
As your guide and stay? (see source)

I was moved by the poignancy of the message.  Yet I saw why it got the axe:  “His dying love and merit” are not green-lit terms in LDS Sunday School.  Even “Holy Spirit,” while borderline, is more readily replaced with “Holy Ghost” or simply “Spirit.”  Our Book of Mormon patriarch Lehi, however, unabashedly uses very similar language when speaking to Jacob in 2 Nephi 2:8:

“…save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit.”

I am fully cognizant of the discomfort that comes from using protestant-branded language in LDS settings.  But I wish I knew where this discomfort originated from.  It is clear to me that it certainly is not as a result of consulting the scriptures.

A Real Life Example

Again on my mission, a mission-wide Chritmas conference was coming up, and each zone was charged with coming up with a skit or musical number to perform.  Our zone leader, a well-meaning but perhaps culturally out-of-touch native Korean (who spoke decent English) faxed each companionship the sheet music to his proposed musical number.  He had taken the sheet music to “Santa Claus in Coming to Town,” whited out the lyrics, and replaced it with “God and Jesus Christ are Coming to Town.”

Needless to say, the plans quickly changed as soon as he was advised that such a number would be at best insensitive, and at worst heresy.  A replacement performance was planned, and the incident was by and large forgotten.

I did, however, overhear a casual conversation between an Elder and a Sister, the Elder asked “did you get that fax too?”  the Sister replied “oh, yeah, the ‘Heavenly Father and the Savior are Coming to Town’? I got it.”

Her word replacements stuck out like a sore thumb.  It was clear that she was uncomfortable saying “God” and “Jesus Christ,” and felt that euphemizing it with “Heavenly Father” and “the Savior” was more appropriate.

Possible Origins of the Phenomena

How did the kosher LDS lexicon develop?  I know that the early church had a strong theological rivalry with sectarians and evangelicals (I would argue more so than now).

Mormon missionaries sent to the South would challenge the ideas of salvation by grace and any semblance of trinitarianism despite quintessential LDS teachings that in some ways support those ideas.  More recently however, these teachings have been emphasized increasingly by folks like Robert Millet and Stephen E. Robinson, but seem absent from the pulse of the Church’s adolescence.

With an “us against them” agenda against the sectarians, it would seem natural that a church would distance itself from what its rivals hold most dear.  Thus, Evangelicals would downplay authority, revelation, and ordinances, while Mormons would downplay grace, oneness of God, intent/heart, and favor a just, dignified and majestic view of Christ over a compassionate merciful and shepherdly view of Jesus.  This of course, despite the fact that the holy texts of both sides contain ample support for almost every view held by their opponent.  In any case, these kinds of rivalrous doctrinal dynamics most certainly would spill over into contemporary language usage.  That’s one theory anyway.

Conclusions and Lingering Thoughts

It has been my experience that in LDS settings, “Jesus” is almost only used when referring to him in his earthly ministry (ie. “Jesus went to Capernaum.”)  “Christ” seems to be used in theological phrases (ie “Christ will reign for a thousand years.”) “The Savior” seems to be used in personal references (ie. “The Savior made it possible for me to return to Heavenly Father.”)  And “Jesus Christ” is used in more rote phrases (ie “God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith”, or “in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.”)

Interchanging those terms in the various contexts yields jarring results.  And throwing in “The Redeemer”, “Emmanuel,” or “the Anointed One” produce equal levels of awkwardness, despite their semantic equivalance.  Can anyone shed light as to why?  And is this a good thing / bad thing / or does it even matter at all?  What’s your take on gospel euphemisms?

Comments

comments

Comments 11

  1. For me, this is a fascinating case study of how the Church has used language to distinguish itself from other Protestant sects. Confucius would call this “the rectification of names.” In other words, we can’t just throw around terms for God w/o dealing with the consequences of those terms. Sloppy naming, it would be argued, leads to sloppy reasoning.

    On my mission, this was one of those timeless questions: how peculiar ought we to be? Should we let them slip by in using confused ideas/terminology (Ammon did, after all) or should we stand our ground, teach them the “proper” title for things, and if they don’t like it, consider it to be a planted seed and move on? I still remember Elder taking great umbrage when a man closed his testimony “in the name of God,” though we too accept that Jesus is of the same stature as the Father. For them, it was a test of his orthodoxy–had he learned the gospel lingo? Was he “one of us”?

    Neither of these things are necessarily wrong; if we don’t want to drown in postmodernism, then we must admit that giving a name to something has real ramifications for how the idea is perceived, even if those ramifications are sociocultural rather than inherent.

  2. I’d always thought that our heavy use of euphemisms stems from D&C 107:3-4:

    1 There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood.
    2 Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest.
    3 Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.
    4 But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.

    Maybe we began avoiding saying “Jesus” or “Jehovah” “out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name”? (Although it’s quite interesting that the term being avoided, “Son of God,” can itself be considered a euphemism.)

  3. I always thought that using “God” was too sacred for every day use, and that’s why we use Heavenly Father (kinda like how some people [I think it’s a Jewish thing, I’m not sure though…] use G*d).

    What was interesting to me is that when I was growing up, it seemed that Satan had that kind of Voldemort/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named effect. I remember my father saying that I should avoid using that name often or else I’d be giving him more power to control me, and instead I should use “The Adversary.”

    It seems really funny to me now.

  4. Andrew, I’ve never heard that – but it is funny to compare it to Harry Potter. It is ridiculous, but I can understand how the folklore could have developed.

  5. In the case of Satan’s name, it’s an old superstition: “naming (a thing) calls (that thing).” It’s passed into the vernacular as “Speak of the devil…”.

  6. Post
    Author

    Andrew, great example of “the Adversary” vs. “Satan,” I hadn’t considered that one, but it definitely falls in the same boat.

    About the usage of “God,” I think in addition to sanctity, it might also be avoided because it is an ambiguous term. As discussed previously on this blog, “God” can correctly refer to any or all members of the Godhead collectively or individually, depending on context. Using “Heavenly Father” leaves no question as to who is being referred to, while “God” even “Eternal Father” could in some cases correctly refer to Jesus (cf. Mosiah 16: 15, Alma 11: 38-39)

    Kuri, I have also thought about D&C 107:3-4, and there certainly is something to be drawn from that passage. But consider the insistence of many LDS people to avoid the abbreviation “X-mas.” The X actually is the greek letter “Chi,” and is the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek (as it appears in NT manuscripts). “X-mas” seems to be fully in line with the idea: “out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name.” Yet many Latter-day saint will shun it, out of some concept that X-mas takes the Christ out of Christmas.

    I see a contradiction here. On one hand, there is a sense for a need to preserve religion in its purity, but on the other hand there is also a sense to leave certain areas—even theologically crucial areas—untouched and unvisited. And somehow I don’t think that does any favors towards preserving religious purity.

  7. That is a great example, KC. There is an inherent conflict in the possible interpretations of X-mas, and it fits perfectly in this discussion.

  8. Ooh, getting on on the X-mas thing as mentioned in #6, I think that has a little bit to do with the discussion from a previous article here at MM…the one right before this one: “Are We Cross at the Cross”

    It seems to me that Chi, in all of its forms, seems to be avoided by people of the church like crosses are. So, if you ask lots of members if they would put a “fish” Chi on their car, (anecdote alert), many would say no, and have varying reasons (that’s something other denominations do, but isn’t an emphasis for us, etc.,).

    I don’t know if the LDS avoidance of Chi is similar to its avoidance of the cross.

  9. KC:

    Interesting post. I have no trouble at all using “Jesus” in a wide variety of contexts, not just those you list. I have no trouble using “God” and use it frequently, and again use it frequently in a wide variety of contexts, though I’ll disambiguate when I feel it’s necessary with “Heavenly Father”. I do tend to use “Holy Ghost” over “Holy Spirit”, though I plan (and had already planned) to use both in tomorrow’s Gospel Essentials lesson on the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    Note, by the way, that the phrase “Holy Spirit” appears far more frequently in both the Book of Mormon (16 times) and the Doctrine & Covenants (21 times, if you include “Holy Spirit of promise”; 14 times if you don’t) than it does in the New Testament (just 4 times, one of which is “Holy Spirit of promise”) or the Old Testament (just three times, all of which are “his holy Spirit”). Note also that there are verses in both the Book of Mormon (Jacob 6:8) and the D&C (121:16) that use “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” in the same verse. So your question is an excellent one: why do we seem to prefer “Holy Ghost” to “Holy Spirit.”

    Here, I think, is the answer: the phrase “gift of the Holy Spirit” appears nowhere in the scriptures, while “gift of the Holy Ghost” appears 16 times (in every volume except the OT). My observation is that we treat the formal ordinance of the gift of the Holy Ghost far more literally than do most other Christian religions, that we talk about “the gift of the Holy Ghost” far more often than do these other religions, and so we tend to prefer the phrase “the Holy Ghost” over “the Holy Spirit”, even though LDS scriptures make more use of “the Holy Spirit” than does the Bible.

    By contrast, while we do tend to say “the Holy Ghost” in the Church, we also tend to say “the Spirit” (vs. “the Ghost”; no, seriously). And I suspect we Mormons refer to “the Spirit” more often than we refer to “the Holy Ghost”, particularly while talking about promptings and inspiration.

    So I’m not convinced that these are euphemisms. Instead, I think they reflect doctrine (LDS concept of Godhead) and practices (ordinance of the gift of the Holy Ghost) more than an attempt to avoid Protestant or Catholic usage.

    Of course, you could ask why we use the phrase “Mary, Mother of God” in the Church that often. 🙂 ..bruce..

  10. I had a conversation with an Evangelical friend once about X-mas. She indeed said she didn’t like it because it was “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I told her it was actually the Greek abbreviation for Christ and has been used since ancient times. She said, “Oh. Well, that’s not so bad then.”

    I suspect most people who object to “X-mas” probably aren’t aware of its origin. The “X” seems more like an erasure than a euphemism to them. That’s how it seemed to me too, until someone explained it to me.

  11. “It has been my experience that in LDS settings, “Jesus” is almost only used when referring to him in his earthly ministry (ie. “Jesus went to Capernaum.”) “Christ” seems to be used in theological phrases (ie “Christ will reign for a thousand years.”)”

    KC interesting post. As I read it I wondered if your living in a ward that is established. Our ward members forget to use thee an thou and refer to Jesus as him or he.

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