There is a story on the BBC website recently about a teacher in Italy, Cesare Cata, who set his pupils some unusual homework for the summer break. Among other things, they were instructed to ‘wander beside the sea in the morning’ and ‘dance shamelessly when the mood strikes’. It was not these unconventional instructions from a teacher that caught my attention but what he said about reading. His recommendations struck a chord with some of the issues around words that I have been talking about over the past months. He told the pupils to read widely and use all of the new terms they learned in the last year. His comment went on to say ‘the more things you can say, the more things you can think; and the more things you can think, the freer you are’.
I immediately warmed to this idea about the use of words. We have in this blog touched on the profound social disability and disempowerment that arises from illiteracy in our society. The number of words that are used in conversation is only a fraction of those used in writing, even by ordinary people. The writing of classical authors will use far more words again. To access these major classics one has to be able to recognise the rarer words that are in use. The reason why authors who win awards and recognition for their work have such a large vocabulary is a simple one. The more words you have at your disposal, the wider and deeper can be the way you express the huge of human experiences that are explored by great literature. Cesare was aware of this in his instructions to his pupils to read. He knew that the more that they understood, the greater would be their ability to understand what we summarise as the culture of the written word.
How does this all relate to our theme? It relates to our concerns because Christians are among those who sometimes reduce deep and complex matters to formulae and even slogans. I have had reason to question an expression like ‘giving your heart to Jesus’ because it sounds like a shorthand for an experience. There is no means of knowing from the words used whether the experience is a shallow one or something profound and life-changing. Those people, like myself, who don’t like the expression, want to find out from the person using it to discover what it, in fact, means. It is not always easy to discover what lies behind such formulaic language because it has become a slogan. A limited grasp of language may here have come to involve a inability to communicate. The culture that surrounded the individual when he/she converted has failed to provide the tools of language and expression through which to reflect on it and communicate to others.
I am one of those people who has been around long enough in the church to believe that charismatic and conversion experiences are sometimes real and transformative. People do also sometimes receive profound healing. For me the problem is that the whole culture of the charismatic is also imbued with tendency to use language and expression in a somewhat banal way so that the inner reality seldom communicates itself to people outside. Banal is also a good adjective to describe the lyrics of many ‘worship songs’. People who respect the power of language cannot easily enter a culture that they feel is using language in a superficial and shallow way. It is no coincidence that there are divisions in the church that are defined, in part, by class and educational background. A preference for the ‘traditional’ in terms of hymnody and biblical translation may reflect the educational background of the individual.
The power of language to free us to understand and express ourselves as well as communicate with the ‘greats’ of the past is well understood. The opposite is also true. A limited language is one which restricts our experience and our ability to understand cultures and people different from ourselves. The problem, that I am identifying, is that church communities sometimes want to push people into a small cultural space where communication among them is conducted with a desperately restricted vocabulary. The people in that space, because the words and concepts that are allowed to them is limited, cannot experience certain things that a wider tradition would afford to them. For someone like myself, with a reasonable theological education behind me, I am filled with a frustration at my inability to communicate what I understand of both Christian spirituality but also the entire Christian tradition. I can say the words, but the words may not connect with the strictly defined boundaries of language in the audience. This has been laid down by the culture they inhabit and the teachers within that culture. As a matter of record, I frequently use visual symbols or picture in my preaching to articulate what I think Jesus was on about in his teaching. But, I fear, that my avoidance of the many Christian slogans and expressions – words like salvation and substitutionary atonement – will alienate me from many Christian audiences. It is not that the words have no value or meaning; it is rather that they need to be understood with enormous care and removed from the category of slogan and cliché, which is the place they occupy in many preacher’s armouries.
To return to the efforts of Cesare in Italy. He is seeking to help his pupils to find freedom through a greater command of language and ideas. They would then be able to think more things and break out of the tramlines of other people’s restricted vocabulary and culture. They would glimpse the uplands of being their own people, rather than individuals who can only think thoughts dictated by others. The person I meet in the New Testament was also, in a different way, encouraging us to break out of boxes of convention and custom. The particular boxes were then the Jewish law and the restrictions that that law placed on everyone. Jesus encourages each of us to meet God and, in meeting him, meet ourselves in a new way. The ‘life in all its abundance’ that is to be ours, will come gradually apparent over a whole lifetime. It is not wrapped in a box, able to be opened after a moment of ‘conversion’. No, it is revealed gradually over time as experience and, yes, new words help us to identify through people and events the fullness that is God. Each person will travel the journey in their own way, but they will be the sort of people that will be open to receive assistance in making the journey in many ways. Let no one ever say to you, here you have arrived because you belong to this or that church. That will be a kind of prison every bit as limiting as only having a vocabulary of 2,000 words.