It is uncanny how much attention is paid in the Bible to the weight and power of words. It is a recurrent theme, beginning in Genesis with God speaking the world into existence, and culminating with the good news that the Word himself became flesh and walked among us. The reader is cautioned that the spoken word has the power to heal or destroy, encouraged that “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” and warned not to distort the smallest word or punctuation mark. It is hard to escape the conclusion that words have weight and power, even the power of life or death.
As the inimitable Eugene Peterson wrote in The Jesus Way:
"Words are holy – all words. But words are also vulnerable to corruption, debased into blasphemies, trivialized into gossip…. Everywhere and always as Christians follow Jesus we use words that were first used by God in bringing us and the world around us into being. Our language is derivative (as everything about us is!) from the language of God. Our common speech is in continuity with the language of God. Words are essential and words are holy wherever and whenever we used them.…
We do well to reverence them, to be careful in our use of them, to be alarmed at their desecration, to rake responsibility for using them accurately and prayerfully. Christian followers of Jesus have an urgent mandate to care for language – spoken, heard, or written – as a means by which God reveals himself to us, by which we express the truth and allegiance of our lives, and by which we give witness to the Word made flesh."
But it is safe to say, as Peterson later does, that “reverence for language is not conspicuous among us, in or out of the Christian community.”
In the next week, we’ll release our fall Trinity Forum Reading featuring George Orwell’s remarkable essay “Politics and the English Language.” First published 70 years ago, Orwell’s observations on the connection between language and thought, and the ways in which language can be corrupted – or redeemed – is particularly trenchant for our time.
In the midst of a presidential campaign characterized by hackneyed insults, obvious falsehoods, and invective, and against a popular entertainment culture that grabs eyeballs with violence and spectacle, a movement to cultivate precision, clarity, truth and beauty in our use of language would be truly counter-cultural – and wonderfully appealing.
Orwell acknowledges that our tendency towards sloppiness and ambiguity in our language may well be innocent in motivation. But the results of such intellectual laziness are dangerous, as it enables confusion in our thought process both individually and corporately. And that confusion in turn provides fertile ground for the growth of would-be strong men, who offer glib answers, easy scapegoats, and tough talk to reassure and make sense of the world for those muddled in their thinking. Orwell offers simple, straightforward suggestions for sharpening and refining one’s thinking and writing – and holds out hope that doing so makes possible a more free and flourishing society.
While Orwell was not a person of faith, his considered regard for words and their power parallels Eugene Peterson’s admonition: that we have a mandate to care for words, that they call out and call forth both good and evil, truth and lies, freedom and tyranny, that using them wisely and well is both a daunting obligation and an invitation to creativity. The weight and power of our words shapes our world, reflecting in microcosm the way worlds were called forth by the Word himself.
- Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, Eerdmann’s Publishing Company, 2007.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2016.
*Order your copy of "Politics and the English Language" here.