In the TV drama series Lost, the so-called “others” on the island got capitalized — “Others” — and through that proper-ized nomenclature, their identity was given a sort of proper-noun significance. At first, they were a mysterious unknown, but, once they up’n got themselves capitalized, they became a psychological, as well as physical, “thing” to be reckoned with.
Capitalization can indicate a specific understanding of the nature or identity of the thing, or it can indicate a heightened significance. Or capitalization can be rather random.
Take, for instance, the Calvary Chapel denomination’s worship-leading band out of Ft. Lauderdale: its lyrics flash on the screen with every word — even “the” and “and” — capitalized. Through this practice, they show their unwillingness (or inability) to distinguish between proper nouns and common nouns . . . or even between first words of sentences and all the other words. Baffling.
Moreover, certain churches, for sincere reasons also perplexing to the language-sensitive, insist on decapitalizing the word “church” in their proper names. Capitalizing key words (other than articles and prepositions) in a proper-noun expression is the normal thing to do in English. See one or more of the following posts for more on this provincial view that leads churches to put lettering patterns such as “North Side church of Christ” on their signs and letterhead.
It’s interesting to me that capitalization convention in, for instance, the German language is different from capitalization in French or Italian or English. The general history of “cases” in lettering is something I hadn’t known much about, except that I did know capitals-only had been the standard practice in Greek from two millennia ago. In fact, the script was all capitals for quite some time. Centuries later, lower-case letters and mixed cases appeared.
Capitalization decisions for English Bibles are made, more or less, based on context and understanding of the sense of the thing. The word “spirit” is a rather famous example: it is often very difficult to determine when the word should be capitalized in English in order to denote the so-called “Holy Spirit.” Moreover, I wonder whether our senses of the “properness” of nouns is forced onto ancient texts, anyway. In other words, I’m not sure the distinction between spirit and Spirit is one that an ancient writer made with the same clarity that many Christianese-speakers would like to feel, in this era.
With that, I turn away from “church” and “spirit” toward another capitalization paradox. In several of the most common English Bibles, the word “Gentile” is capitalized. If we were to decapitalize this word, not only in our scripture translations and our articles, but in our thinking, we might understand the concept better.
If we think of non-Jews as Others — as capital-G Gentiles — it gives them a virtual identity that may cloud the concerns of the ancient texts that refer to them. If, on the other hand, we simply read gentiles as “non-Jews,” we might understand scriptural texts with a little more light.
[To be continued . . . ]