Despite my being a Christian, I managed to be seen as a heretic. Or at least, that is how it sometimes felt. When I came to the United States nearly over a decade ago, I noticed the number of distinctions between the way Americans and Nigerians practice Christianity. It became more and more apparent, especially with the swift reprimand I would get from saying a certain phrase.
“Oh my God,” I’d exclaim.
“Mary, don’t say that! Say ‘oh my gosh’ instead,” some friends would retort, occasionally with a gentle smack on the arm.
And so, I quickly learned that saying “oh my God” meant that you are taking the Lord’s name in vain. At least, that is what it means in America. In Nigeria, “gosh” does not exist.
Christian or non-Christian alike, it is a common thing for Nigerians to say “oh my God” in the face of an intense emotional experience. For the non-Christian, it is simply a saying. For the devout Christian, it is more personal, a way in which to exclaim that what they just heard or witnessed was so incredibly intense that they cannot help but exclaim their God’s name. It makes sense, really; since God is viewed in their eyes as the pinnacle of all that is good, He would be the name to call on in the face of a very negative experience that is beyond them or beyond what they can handle.
Deep down, this is what I knew to be true though I did not have all of the words to verbalize it. But I was told by American Christians, especially those of the conservative variety, that saying “God” was likening His name to a curse word. For the sake of blending into conservative American Christian culture, I made sure to say “gosh” in front of those who said “gosh” and said whatever word came first when I was in the company of those I felt the most comfortable. But as I have been able to find the words to verbalize my thoughts on the matter, I realize that maybe the American critique of what counts as the Lord’s name is superficial.
Let’s take, for instance, the guy who told me that God told him that I was to marry him when it was clear that his main motive was to sleep with me. Or those times that Christians condescendingly tell someone “I’ll pray for you” or “May God have mercy on you.” Or when God’s name is used as a convenient break up line and nothing more. Wouldn’t these motives make it clear that God’s name is being taken in vain?
Please understand that this post is not written to win some argument. This is just me trying to get to the heart of the matter. This is me trying to make sense of the different cultures I am immersed in that are opposite in many ways. When it comes to the cross-cultural interpretations of many things, they will differ and religion is no exception. But the motives and intent of an individual cannot be disputed when they are brought to the light. And in the event I do not know the motives of an individual, I won’t lose sleep. Rather, I will make sure my own motives are in check and live my life that are best reflective of the values and beliefs I profess.