Words, words, words

words wordsYears ago as a child, I tried, as a somewhat pointless exercise, repeating the word ‘tomato’ endless times. I can’t remember why I did it but I do remember that the repetition of the word had the effect of changing it from being a sound that pointed to a particular fruit to a sound with absolutely no content or meaning. Repetition of a word will always eventually destroy or remove its meaning. We can think that a word is always able to suggest a defined meaning but that link eventually breaks down in our minds when the word is repeated too much.

I was reminded of the tomato ‘experiment’ after listening to a sermon recently when the word ‘love’ was endlessly repeated. I don’t know how many times it was used but by the time I thought of actually counting the occurrences, the word had already drifted into the category of cliché so that no meaning was being shared by the preacher when he used the word. Perhaps this is the meaning of cliché, the repetition of a word so much that any possible impact from using the word is lost. During the recent election campaign, I wanted to shout at the television every time a politician came up with a well worn but largely meaningless slogan. The one in particular we heard repeatedly used was ‘hard-working families. I am sure my readers can think of several other examples.

In my last post, I mentioned the problem of using words so that they can have precisely the same meaning for both hearer and speaker. All too often this is not the case. I now want to refer to another problem that occurs even when speaker and hearer do know exactly what a particular word means. The problem, this time, is that the meaning that both sides extract from the word or expression is such that there is a kind of coded shorthand in operation. The common understanding of a particular word has become an unquestioning assumption of some ‘tribal’ commonplace. To use a slightly irreverent example, and thinking back to my time as a member of evangelical prayer groups, I noted the interjection of the word ‘just’ into many prayers offered to the Almighty. ‘We do just pray to you Father for the problems of the church overseas’. The word ‘just’ adds absolutely nothing to the meaning of the prayer, but it does have the effect of linking the prayer to other people either in the room or elsewhere who also pray in this way. In other words a word has become a kind of tribal marker for a particular style of expressing the Christian faith.

A word that is frequently used in certain circles to have a precise meaning for those who use it, is the word ‘saved’. The question ‘are you saved?’ may be said less often than in the past, but as an example of coded ‘in’ language, it has a very precise meaning. To offer a longer ‘translation’ for those not in the in the loop of this coded language, it might mean this: ‘Have you made an active acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal saviour? Have you accepted his death as the one atoning death for the sins of the world and do you believe that the Bible contains the inerrant word of God, possessing all that is needed for salvation?’ A Christian who lives in the world that is defined by such a statement of belief, will have large numbers of words defined for them by their church. These will have only a single way of being understood. The permitted interpretations of these words will be endlessly repeated in sermons. This tight definition of particular words like ‘faith’, ‘salvation’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’ will fit in with a philosophical idea which is found in conservative churches, the notion of propositionalism. This is another way of saying that truth can always be rendered accurately and precisely in words. After all, the argument goes, the Bible, God’s Word, come to us in the form of actual words. If God reveals his truth in words, who are we to demand anything beyond the same words?

The great fallacy of this position is that it is untrue to say that God only reveals himself to us in words. Words have a built-in limitation. After a while they can become meaningless when they are misused or repeated too much. Human beings are also not just cerebral creatures, They respond to truth in a variety of forms. They respond to symbol, colour and visual experiences of all kinds. Above all they respond to other people. God, in his wisdom, has chosen to reveal himself, not in propositions or philosophies defined by words, but in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. The encounter with a person, getting to know someone, requires a quite different set of human skills to that of understanding particular words. The encounter with God in Christ is at the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. But annoyingly for those who want to create a single pattern of encounter, using approved words, the range of possible ways that this encounter is realised has many manifestations. Some encounters will use words to describe the experience. Others will be far more sparing in the way that language is used. Some encounters with God in Christ may even wish not to use words at all. A word that I use frequently is the word ‘mystery’. It is a word that at its heart has the meaning of keeping silent before what is unknowable, least of all through the medium of words.

St Francis of Assisi had some fitting words to say on the topic of evangelism. He said: ‘ Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.’ Perhaps Francis had a deep recognition for the limitation of words in our communication of the Christian faith. He saw how eventually they, in the words of T.S. Elliot, ‘strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension…’ Words will always be an important part of our culture and our faith. But perhaps we need a new reformation where Christianity is rediscovered using a minimum of words. The task of presenting the faith should be handed over to the artists, the musicians and those who understand best how human beings form relationships to each other. Through this new reformation we would start to see an end to the dry cerebral dominance of verbal presentations of our faith. In its place we would learn better to glimpse the heart of God, who is best understood as transcendent beauty and mystery.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “Words, words, words

    1. It is here that a knowledge of the original languages is useful in understanding what John was actually saying in chapter 1. The word ‘word’ is a dynamic idea. God creates with his ‘word’ and accomplishes his purposes with it. The English word is limp and weak compared to the sheer power of the Hebrew concept. ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.’ You don’t create in this way by just speaking. When God speaks, things happen! There is a tremendous power involved.

      1. Stephen, thanks. True. I sometimes imagine a picture of a cartoon bubble coming out of the mouth of God containing speech. In the Beano and the Dandy, such speech is seldom weighty, but anything proceeding from the mouth of God is life-giving by contrast (Matt 4:4, but not Luke 4:4 and absent from Mark and John. Interesting . . .).

  1. A very wise priest, now in his 90s said to me recently. “There is only one form of evangelism- it is called Friendship”. These are very wise words and stop us treating people as objects or pew fodder or people to be exploited.

  2. Thanks Robert,

    Yes Friendship, that’s is the hardest bit. It’s easy saying, “Are you saved brother?” Some one once said that, ‘A friend is someone who comes in when the world goes out’. In my case, after I dropped out of bible school and my breakdown shredded my nervous system, it came in the form of friend Dave, at the time Dave was way outside the law, nevertheless he was there, and of course my wife Mary. (Absolutely of course)
    I include this account to show that God did not send me a ‘Born again Christian’ with all the theoretical correctness of ‘words’.
    If He had done that, it would surely not have been long before someone from the ‘Correctness School’ had tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You should not be fraternising with known criminals’?

    A friend of mine way back in the 1960’s wrote a song with these words in it: “Don’t walk too fast you might put one foot in the wrong direction, don’t look behind you may not see the joke!” These days I do have a sense of humour.

    Peace Chris

  3. When I was having a bad time at University, I did indeed have an approach from some “born again” Christians. In this case the Scripture Union. I hasten to say that I would consider myself born again! But these were of a particularly earnest persuasion. They didn’t do me any particular harm, other than considerable irritation. But they didn’t help the situation, either. Reciting tracts is just not helpful in any circumstances. And a good deal of the guff people talk when they do this simply betrays the fact that they have never thought critically about their faith or the things they were taught at Sunday School since they were eight years old. No use at all to a thoughtful and questioning adult.

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