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.
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.
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.
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.
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.