Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 16

The Humiliation of the Word in Our Day

Richard Foster

“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” 1 Peter1:23, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.” Jacques Ellul

01.  Introduction

At the beginning of time the debar Yahweh, the Word of the Lord, brought the universe crashing into existence. God said, “Let there be light,” and the Big Bang occurred. This ever-living, ever-speaking, ever-creating Word of God is “quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the di-viding asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thought and intents of the heart.”Hebrews 4:12, KJV. Scriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible. As Dallas Willard has put it, God is “our communicating Cosmos.”

Yahweh is the Word of God spoken.

There is more: Jesus is the eternal Logos of God. “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”John 1:1, 14, KJV. Jesus Christ is alive and active among us today. Teaching. Guiding. Correcting. Encouraging. Comforting. Here. Now. His voice is not hard to hear. His vocabulary is not difficult to understand.

Jesus is the Word of God Living.

There is more still: we are people of the Book, the Bible, hay biblos. God not only originated the Bible through human authorship; God remains with it always. It is God’s book. No one owns it but God. And God has so superintended the writing of the Bible that it serves as a most reliable guide for our own spiritual formation. In it we discover the character of God, the purposes of God, and the ways of God with human beings.

The Bible is the Word of God written.

Therefore, of all people, we who seek to walk in “the Jesus Way” value the Word. The Word spoken . . . the Word living . . . the Word written. The Word is precious to us beyond all telling.

In his book The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson has helped us to see Moses above everything else as a minister of the Word. He reminds us, “More words in our Holy Scriptures are ascribed to Moses than to any other single speaker or writer.”

So for us living in 2009, Moses is a crucial model, a paradigm, for conjugating all the verbs of human communication. How wonderful and how like God to take a person who was “slow of speech and slow of tongue” and turn him into the pristine model of power-filled, life-giving language. Eugene Peterson has rightly observed, “Moses looms still as the architect of the huge, sprawling house of language—assembled and constructed by the many voices, the many pens and much parchment—that is Torah, the Five Books, the founding document for the faith of Israel and the Christian gospel: Torah—the revelation of God written for the people of God, Jew and Christian alike.”Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 63. So Moses can be a great help to us in our thinking today about the place of words in the context of contemporary culture.

02.  This Is No Trivial Pursuit

Words matter. Words matter because they are the best carrier of ideas, and ideas rule the world. Film may be the medium with the greatest impact; radio may be the medium that is the most pervasive; but the written word is the medium with the greatest permanence and precision, and when done correctly, it can control what happens in all media.

Also, words matter to us personally. Truth that is poorly expressed demeans us, and we become spiritually impoverished as a result. Amy Carmichael observed, “It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat. We are what we think about. Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow one loses fiber and becomes flabby in spirit.”

You see, if we give our attention to tabloid thinking and the peddlers of gossip, we become small, petty souls. But when we give sustained attention to the great themes of the human spirit—life and death, transcendence, the problem of evil, the human predicament, the goodness of rightness, and so much more—the windows of the soul will open to the invigorating breezes of splendor and valor and courtesy and magnanimity. So when Eugene Peterson introduces Moses to us as a wordsmith of the first order, he is talking to us about an issue of immense consequence to our own spiritual growth and development.

03.  Understanding the Contemporary Context

Now, it is vital at the outset that we understand the place of words in the contemporary context. We face formidable challenges here. When Jacques Ellul writes, “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word,” we instinctively understand the problem he is addressing.

To begin with, we live in a visual culture. To be blunt about it, words in our day have been overshadowed by the visual. Film and television and all that goes with them are perhaps the greatest molder of modern culture today. These things can shape us for good or for ill, but few would question their huge impact upon contemporary society.

For people today, the “eyegate” is more important than the “eargate.” For example, the high point for many a modern movie now is the chase scene. More and more, the dialogue has become only window dressing to set us up for the chase scene. Think of the long-running series of James Bond 007 films. If you have followed these movies over the years, you have seen dialogue recede into the background and action increasingly take center stage. The latest 007 movie, Quantum of Solace, is the twenty-second film in the James Bond franchise, and if you have seen it, you no doubt noticed the complete dominance of action over dialogue. In our day the visual has clearly overshadowed the verbal.

04.  Words Trivialized by the Blogosphere

The second reality we need to understand is how the word has become trivialized in con-temporary society. Talk radio is a first-class example of this trivialization. Anyone can say almost anything today on talk radio. It does not matter how ill-informed or even inane it is. People today feel they have a right, even an obligation, to say whatever pops into their heads.

Books are not necessarily a safeguard here. Today, the fact people have absolutely nothing of value to say does not stop them from writing books. And writing is gravitating to the lowest common denominator so completely that the great themes of majesty, nobility, and felicity are made to appear trite, puny, and pedestrian. The wise old writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he wearily observed, “Of making many books there is no end.”Ecclesiastes 12:12.

I once thought blogs might just be a place where substantive conversation could emerge. In some places I am sure this is the case. However, those who do postings in response to the original blog are often people who have not thought at all about the issue discussed in the blog itself. Many of them say in essence, “Oh, that reminds me of . . .” and away they go, enjoying seeing themselves in print and doing absolutely nothing to advance the original issue under discussion. More often than not, it all ends up being little beyond silly chatter. Words have been trivialized in our day.

05.  Words Corrupted by Doublespeak

But there is more. Not only are words overshadowed by the visual and trivialized by the blogosphere, but words today are also being seriously corrupted. In his book 1984, George Orwell introduced the terms “doublethink” and “newspeak.” In 1984, when Big Brother and the Party say “peace,” they mean “war”; when they say “love,” they mean “hate”; and when they say “freedom,” they mean “slavery.”

Then in 1987, William Lutz wrote his book, Doublespeak: From Revenue Enhancements” to “Terminal Living”: How Government, Business, Advertisers, and Others Use Language to Deceive You. Now this term “doublespeak” is a good summary word for all that Orwell intended when he spoke of doublethink and newspeak. Doublespeak is a deliberate misuse of language to deceive and mislead. We misrepresent. We distort. We falsify. We hoodwink. When we do this, we corrupt words and turn them against themselves.

You will remember that Jesus teaches us to make our “Yes, yes” and our “No, no”—a simple, plain, direct sharing of what is actually the case. Jesus adds, “Anything more than this comes from the evil one.”Matthew 5:37, NRSVUE. Indeed, it does. It is doublespeak and it corrupts language.
And so today our words are overshadowed by the visual; our words are trivialized by the blogosphere; our words are corrupted by doublespeak. When these things happen to our words, we have descended into Pandemonium: the confusion of Babel.

But Jesus, the eternal Logos of God, catapults us out of the chaos of Babel and leads us into the green pastures of Pentecost, where we can understand each other fully, freely, and simply. So as students of “the Jesus way,” we respond in faith and hope to the contemporary cacophony of words. There are myriads of things we can do.

06.  Words That Are Grounded in Silence

We can begin by allowing our words to be grounded in silence and grow out of silence. You see, distraction is one of the deepest problems we face today. Blaise Pascal once observed that we could solve the world’s problems if we would simply learn to sit in our rooms quietly. But for us, the visual stimuli, the chatter of the blogosphere, and the confusion of doublespeak keep us perpetually distracted. So our work is cut out for us if we hope to regain silence. Here are a few simple suggestions:

Let’s turn off the car radio and relish a few moments of solitude on our way to work.

Let’s take one day a week and unplug ourselves from the cell phone, the iPod and the WiFi, and experience freedom from our nagging need to be always in touch. Let’s sit prayerfully in perfect silence, learning this mute language that says so much. Let’s walk in the woods or in the park and quietly listen to the sounds of water and wind, hawk and sparrow, squirrel and chipmunk. Whenever I am engaged in a writing project, I allow space each day for a one- or two-hour hike in a canyon near our home. I am accompanied only by my carved redwood walking stick and a water bottle. In the winter, earth tones dominate the landscape. Even the ponderosa pine is darker in winter, blending in with the browns of gamble oak and mountain mahogany. But in the springtime this canyon is ablaze with the sights and smells of columbine and larkspur, golden banner and Indian paintbrush. And so, whether winter or spring, summer or fall, I will walk alone in the canyon and I will listen—silent and still. Gerard Manley Hopkins exclaimed, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and in the silence of the canyon I enter into something of this “grandeur.” Out of the silence, I write.

Remember, silence is a spiritual discipline, and we need this discipline to unplug us from the inane babble of modern culture. Today, the din of noise and hurry and crowds close out the silence that would open us to the voice of the Spirit that groans within us in ways we do not fully control. In our day we have to learn to be still. To wait. To hold our tongue. To think. To observe. To ponder. “To act is so easy,” said Goethe; “to think is so hard.”

Silence cultivates the soil of our lives so that lifegiving words are allowed to germinate and take root. Then when the time comes for speaking, our words flow like water from a silent spring.

07.  Words That Are Significant in Content

Second may I urge words that are significant in content. In writing especially, but also in ordinary conversation, we do well to give attention to the great universal themes in life: themes like the reality of evil—moral, cosmic, personal will against the purposes of God. The nature of evil can be studied as C. S. Lewis did in The Problem of Pain. Evil can be seen as the tempter, as Milton did in Paradise Lost, or evil can be seen as the destroyer, as Tolkien developed so well in The Lord of the Rings with the Black Riders, Orcs, Saruman, Sauron, and above all, the evil ring.

Or there is the theme of the reality of ultimate good—God and his angels, light and life and hope. I have always been struck by how C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia was able to personify ultimate good in the character of Aslan the great Lion.

Then there is the theme of the human condition and the human personality, dealing with the human predicament, in which sin has been incarnated into the very structures of society. Think of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which he perceives the entanglements of human life because sin has found its way into the very warp and woof of the social fabric.

When we are able to connect the human condition with the social milieu of contemporary society, we have dynamite.

08.  Words That Are Crisp and Clear and Imaginative

Third, I urge upon us words that are crisp and clear and imaginative. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug! We need to love God all the way down to our nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Oh, do you love words? Do you love their sound? Do you love their meaning? Do you love their history? Do you love their rhythm?

Oh, that our words would be animated with love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other glorious emotions that make our lives dangerous and great and bearable! It was the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who said, “Out of words come the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fund of the earth.”

The old Hebrew prophets cared enough about the debar Yahweh, the Word of the Lord, to deliver it often in the form of poetry. Oh, may we enter new heights of the crisp, the clear, and the imaginative!

Of course, more is involved than simply our own words. I urge upon us lively conversations that are imaginative and clear. We are told that when St. Francis and St. Clare came together for conversation, the house where they met glowed like fire. May our conversations generate heat and light and spiritual energy. Think of Luther’s Table Talk or Samuel Johnson’s gatherings in the London pubs. Conversations filled with wit and wisdom and beauty and hilarity.

Oh, and I commend storytelling. We really do need stories to replenish the wellsprings of our imaginations and to feed our spirits. May we tell stories to one another, read stories, embellish stories, and resist the lure of Netflix once in a while and content ourselves with words and imaginings.

Then, too, we need whole lines of thinking and reasoning in which we follow an issue all the way to its logical conclusion. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries delighted so many because of the meticulous logic of his reasoning. There is something simply wonderful in a well-reasoned argument. If you want a contemporary experience of this, get Dallas Willard’s new book, Knowing Christ Today. As I was reading this book, I found myself deeply appreciative of well-reasoned argument and found such joy in following the thread of his argument over a sustained period, all the way to its logical conclusion. A well-reasoned argument is a thing of beauty. And beauty is one of the great transcendentals—the good, the true, the beautiful. Can I say beauty, real beauty, enlarges the soul? And words can be supremely beautiful.

Let me pause on this matter of the beauty of words. You know, we almost lost to the Christian cause one of the greatest theological thinkers of all time because of a clumsy use of words. I’ m thinking of Aurelius Augustine, the great fifth-century Bishop of Hippo. Early in his search for truth, Augustine discovered the writings of Cicero, and he says these writings inflamed him with “a passionate zeal to love and seek and obtain and embrace and hold fast to wisdom itself, wherever it might be.” Cicero, of course, was not a Christian, but his penetrating questions on life actually turned Augustine to the Bible to see what answers he could find there. Unfortunately, the only Bible available to him at the time was a badly flawed Latin translation with a crude style. So Augustine turned away from the Bible, declaring, “To me the Scriptures seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero.”

Fortunately, he later encountered Ambrose, the famous Bishop of Milan who was known for his oratorical skills. Augustine, by now a professor of rhetoric, tells us he had no interest in Ambrose’s preaching, but went to hear him only to study his “polished speech and eloquence.” In time, the beauty of Ambrose’s words drew Augustine into the deeper beauty of the truths of Christian faith and practice. Wonderfully, the beauty of language and the beauty of truth worked together in creative symbiosis, and Augustine was won over to the Jesus way, the Jesus truth, and the Jesus life.

09.  Turning Back to Moses

We made this excursion into words and language because of Eugene Peterson’s excellent chapter on Moses and his discussion of Moses as a master wordsmith. Let me close by turning our attention back to Moses with a teaching from Moses in his own words: words which point us to an even greater Teacher than Moses himself.

The teaching is from Deuteronomy 18:17–18. This passage, over time, became one of those strands of messianic hope for the Hebrew people. Moses declared,

“Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of Yahweh your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of Yahweh my God any more or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then Yahweh replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.’ ”Deuteronomy 18:15–17, NRSVUE.

Now this magnificent vision of God raising up a prophet like Moses has been fulfilled. In the book of Acts both Peter and Stephen declare that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet like Moses.See Acts 3:22, 7:37. He is the eschatological Prophet, superseding all other prophets. Jesus is the Prophet who is here to teach his people himself. Jesus is our Prophet, our Priest, our King. Here. Now. Jesus is our Savior to forgive us, our Teacher to instruct us, our Lord to rule us, and our Friend to come alongside us. He is our Shepherd to feed us, our Bishop to oversee us, our King to protect us, and our Counselor to guide us.

When we enter “the Jesus way,” we come into a community of which Christ is the living, present ruler and governor and orderer. Christ has come to teach us what is right and what is wrong, to give us the power to do the right and reject the wrong, and to gather us into a loving community that learns together, obeys together, and suffers together. Without Christ as our heavenly Teacher and Prophet, we do not have this kind of community, and we do not have this kind of moral strength and certainty. But we do have Christ as our heavenly Teacher and Prophet, and we are learning to draw strength from him for all things and to obey him in all things. This is the good news of the Gospel.

So let the Word go forth with words that are crisp and clear and imaginative. Let the Word go forth with metaphors and stories that sing and dance and play. Let the Word go forth with words that bless and encourage and heal.

10.  A Conversation with Richard Foster on Conversation

Emilie Griffin: I notice you mention conversation as a “good way with words.” Can you give us some thoughts on conversation as a way of holiness?
Richard Foster: I think that conversation affirms another human being, and it draws that person into the circle. And when we’re into that conversation with God, it draws another person into the circle of nearness. You know the way Roger Fredrikson does it; he just draws another person in close. Take that sermon of his at the service before the Renovaré conference [in San Antonio]. He was preaching, but it was so much like a conversation. You just like to travel with him wherever he is going.

EG: And people don’t always know where he is going.
RF: That’s right. Yet he is affirming each person who is listening to him. When it’s a three-way conversation, God and two or more of us.

EG: Does it need to be a set aside conversation?
RF: No, this kind of conversation is usually about ordinary things: the kitchen sink, the leaky faucet. It’s not so much what you are talking about. It’s the listening. Listening to the “feeling tones” in people as well as the words that they say.
Thomas Merton tells the story about the Russian spiritual director who spent a lot of time talking to a certain woman about her turkeys. . . . And he was criticized for it. And he said, “But her whole life is in those turkeys.” That was the right thing to talk about.

EG: I notice that, in conferences, you often arrange to have a conversation on the platform.
RF: Yes. There’s a reason for that. The reason we seek to have a conversation on the platform is that we are drawing the people in the audience into the conversation. We unpack the themes in the talk. And then we try, I try, to ask the questions that those in the audience would be asking. Nobody’s an expert then.
Another part of the conversation—you can’t plan this but often it just happens—is humor. Hilarity. Holy Hilarity.

EG: There was an instance of that in the closing session of the latest Renovaré conference, The Jesus Way, with you and Chris Webb and others on the platform. And Chris was wearing his Franciscan habit. And you said . . .
RF: He said, “What are we going to take home from this conference?” And then I went over to him and said, “I want to take home your Obi-Wan Kenobi outfit.” I thought I had him. And he came straight back and said, “But your powers are weak, old man. . . .”

EG: And people roared. You gave him this opening, this gag line, and he came back like a tennis champion. And that was it— holy hilarity—you and Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard and John Ortberg and Chris Webb on the platform, and after the applause died down, this bit of humor, holy hilarity.
RF: Let me give you an illustration . . . of what I think can happen in conversation. It was way back with Dallas and me when I was a young pastor. And I went to a conference. And I made a decision at this conference. It was important, but I can’t remember it now. What I remember is that I was going to tell Dallas the decision I had made, and he stopped me. He said, “No, that isn’t my business—to straighten you out.” He said he had to give me the Word of God and let that lead me. And it was so freeing. He was honoring the soul’s freedom. I didn’t have to please him. He was honoring and affirming the freedom in another person.

One other point. I think we need to know and respect the limits of conversation. Sometimes I invite another person to go with me when I go hiking. But usually that’s a person who knows when to talk and when to keep quiet. People who talk too much, especially on a hiking trail, well, they don’t understand. The other day I was on my hike and heard a group, way up ahead, jabbering— interrupting the silence. And I was thinking, as you sometimes say to children, “Use your inside voice . . . not so loud.” Being silent together extends the conversation.


Richard J. Foster is best known as an author. he has written six acclaimed books, including Celebration of Discipline, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, and streams of living water, and is the editor of The RENOVARÉ Spiritual Formation Bible. Richard founded RenovaRé, an effort working for the renewal of the church of Jesus Christ in all her multifaceted expressions. RenovaRé holds national and international conferences and retreats, bringing together Christians across denominational lines for renewal.