The Weight of Words Cherie Harder

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Words are weighty things. The Bible begins with God speaking the world into existence, and culminates with the Word himself becoming flesh. The reader is cautioned that our words have the power to wound, poison, and destroy, as well as heal—“a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Our words, we are told, have substance, value, and power.

Eugene Peterson put it this way: “Words are holy—all words… We do well to reverence them, to be careful in our use of them, to be alarmed at their desecration, to take 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.”

On Friday, we’ll host an Online Conversation with author Laura Fabrycky on her luminous book Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus, a memoir of her time spent as a docent to the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin. In it, she tells of encountering a seemingly mundane bureaucratic memo in the exhibition catalogue, puzzled by its inclusion. Only after several readings did the memo’s “meaning coalesce with nauseating clarity. It concerned vehicles…that the Nazis designed to kill people—Jewish people, mostly. These mobile units killed through asphyxiation. Nazis loaded Jewish people into them, filled the vehicles with carbon monoxide, and then emptied the dead from the killing machines. Whoever wrote the memo, however, used language to tap dance, delicately, almost soothingly around the subject at hand to obscure the heavy murderous footfall of its horrific realities…The quicksand sentences swallowed more than they said; these ear-ticklers softened the blow that plain and direct speech would easily level on human conscience.”

It led her to reflect on “how even language has a morality, or immorality, in whether it discloses or seals off facts and responsible thought, in whether it serves the truth of lies…language often does our thinking for us. We take in words and phrases like air, and this ambient language forms our thoughts without ever stimulating our minds to interrogate them.”

In the midst of one of the most polarized, tribalized, and angry periods of recent American history, our ambient public rhetoric is, to understate, less than ideal. It is increasingly commonplace to see words used to obfuscate, rather than clarify; provoke, rather than persuade; distort, rather than define—even to the point of dehumanizing those whom we dislike or with whom we disagree. Our social media structures and algorithms reinforce and reward silliness, snark, and verbal savagery with likes, retweets, comments, and attention. It has all become so widespread, so seemingly normal as to make it easy to forget how dangerous and destructive it is—to our soul, self, and society. And so it is bracing to be confronted with the reminder, in the form of Bonhoeffer’s own story and struggles, of our mandate to steward our words and care for language, in reverence of the power of words to shape our thinking and world, and in witness to the Word made flesh.


This Friday, June 19th we will welcome author Laura Fabrycky to discuss her luminous book Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Hausand how Bonhoeffer’s sense of civic and political “housekeeping” began in his home. Fabrycky invites readers to experience Bonhoeffer’s story afresh and to think beyond his example, and into our own lives, homes, and civic responsibilities.

Register Here for our Online Conversation

Recommended Reading and Resources
As we navigate these uncertain times together, we recommend the related resources
below as both an encouragement and catalyst for reflection.