You may have heard the story of the old farmer who went to see his first Shakespeare play and said he didn’t like it because it was too full of quotations. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an English-speaker who didn’t know at least the first two lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy – "To be, or not to be, that is the question."
Well, we’ve just been to see Jonathan Slinger playing Hamlet at Stratford, and it was like hearing those words for the very first time. Oh I recognised them of course, but they seemed to have developed a whole new range of meanings, new depths. Not because he said them in a strange way or with peculiar emphases, but somehow he didn’t let the actor get in the way of the author’s words. Hamlet’s tortured soul was being laid bare on the stage, quietly and simply. It was quite an experience – actually it’s with me still. And I’ve taken it into my life of faith.
Are we blessed by wonderful religious language inherited from our forebears, or cursed? I don’t know. The Lord’s Prayer is a classic piece of religious prose known by most people, and I’m very aware that I can recite it without hearing a single word I’ve said.
But it’s a translation, not the actual words of the author, so an unfamiliar version can reveal new insights beneath the familiar phrases – this is J B Phillip’s translation from 1958:
Our Heavenly Father, may your name be honoured; May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day the bread we need. Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil. Amen