Speaking of phrases I don’t like, this one tops my list. Recently, I had an interaction on Facebook where I posted my thoughts about language – particularly my annoyance at gender-exclusive language (using “he” and “man” for a generic person, and “mankind” instead of “humankind.”) I was told – by strangers – essentially to “get off my soapbox” (talk about a trump-card/shut-down phrase I detest!) and “we need to agree to disagree.” I was told that the sexism and gender issues I raised were not germane to the topic…of poverty and community development. I was informed that my issues with language, which were reduced in this discussion to “grammar lessons” and “semantics” were best directed at the author of the book and were a “waste of time” compared to helping the poor. My friend and I have since had a conversation about this and worked things out. I admire her commitment to helping street youth and really do feel there is a lot I can learn from her.
But should I have to apologize for caring deeply about language? Are people who are actively involved in helping street youth objectively better than writers and poets? Obviously, I’m on the side of doing what we can with our money, our talents and our time to alleviate poverty. The Church is called to remember the orphan and the widow; God’s concern for the poor is all over Scripture. I actually really admire this friend for her steadfast compassion for street youth and find it inspiring. But let us also remember what Scripture is: a book. Actually, it the Bible is a library, containing, as Karl Barth says, “a hundred theologies” and probably all possible literary genres. I think words are important to God, too.
Jesus was The Word made flesh. The Bible is the word(s) of God. Our universe is one spoken sentence: that is, God said, “let there be light,” and big-bang! There was light. Five of the nine spiritual gifts Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians, 12:4-11 have to do with speech and/or language. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul lists “equipping” ministries: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. Words, whether spoken or written, surely are a part of the work of each of these ministries, which Paul says are for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. The Lord gifted the prophet Isaiah with “The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word” (Isaiah 50:4, emphasis mine). Isn’t that a beautiful ministry, sustaining the weary with a word? As a dear professor and friend of mine said during our meeting last week, “We need poets because I think a true, beautiful, finely crafted sentence is perhaps the closest thing a human can get to what it was like for God to create something out of nothing.” As he said to me yesterday, when I was lamenting that my gifting does not seem to be useful, ” We need poets because people are forgetting that the world going to hell is actually a BAD thing.”
When I say that words matter, I’m not talking about semantics. When I talk about precise language, I am not talking about grammar. Though I do have to resist grammar-Nazi tendencies, I myself make grammar mistakes all the time (you may have noticed a few in these posts!) and if there’s one thing being a transcriptionist has taught me, it’s that no one speaks grammatically correctly all the time. When I express concern for language, I’m talking about that finely crafted sentence – the one that brought the universe into being and the ones I feel compelled to write. When I say that words matter, I’m talking about the power of the tongue: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). The third chapter of James puts it a bit more harshly in verses 5-11 (emphasis mine):
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
With our words, we can curse fellow image bearers of God. We can, without intending to, elevate our ministries and our concerns above those of another and then turn around and praise God. We can love and serve a stranger but discourage and ridicule our friend. These things ought not to be so indeed. And they don’t have to be. Whether you’re ladling soup into a bowl at a homeless shelter, finding folks to give sleeping bags to or shaping sentences, words matter.