Years 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.