Words Matter

A few weeks ago I listened to an NPR story about words…specifically vocabulary words on the SAT.  Apparently, the college board decided it is time to revise the vocabulary portion of the test.  Rather than having lengthy sections with synonyms, antonyms, and everyone’s favorite–analogies–filled with pedantic words, the test will focus on more practical vocabulary.  In part this revision is to accept the reality that test-taking tools, rather than a robust vocabulary, are better keys for unlocking the mystery of the SAT.  Part of the revision is an attempt to better assess words students are more likely to utilize and to admit that truly grasping the nuances of language cannot be measured through a multiple choice test.  Though I see the point to all of this, I believe that I, like Jerome Shostak, am in mourning for the loss of the love of words.

As someone who has spent a lifetime and a career with words, I believe that words matter.  What we say, what words we choose to express ourselves matter.  Whether it be in an intimate conversation with a friend or partner or preaching a sermon, words matter.  I know there are people who rail against the pervasive plug for politically correct language.  I agree that simply to change your words to sound smart, acceptable, or popular does not capture the power and beauty of language.  I agree that our language will always fall short of capturing what it means to be human and dare I say how to even begin to describe God.  Even though our words may simply point to a deeper reality, I believe there is something in the practice of trying to find the best semantics and syntax to communicate a thought.  Imagine if the only image in the Bible for God was an old white man with a beard.  The Psalms would not be nearly as rich, powerful, or profound with only one word.

Recently, I heard a leader in the church say that theology, or the words we use for our faith and our understanding of God, don’t matter.  I can’t imagine a time or context where the words we use in church matter more.  In a culture that depicts the Bible as a bludgeon or as superfluous historical narrative, surely what we say and how we say it matters.  The words we choose; the words we don’t choose.  Carefully choosing words is not about being erudite or esoteric.   Carefully choosing words is one way of making meaning of our world and an attempt to share that meaning with another.  What could matter more?

You Have to Be Carefully Taught

If you’ve been following the lectionary, you might have noticed we’ve had three weeks of learning.  It’s Jesus’ “last lecture” to the disciples.  His last chance to impart wisdom.  Give his ‘”two cents.”  Remind them who they are and whose they are.  He even uses words we, 21st century post-moderns, shy away from.  Words like commandments, sacrifice, and sanctify.  Sancti-what?  Needless to say, Jesus uses some 50 cent words that for today’s society come with baggage.  Baggage you’d probably have to pay extra money for if you were catching a flight.

Although these words are interesting, I frankly am tired of unpacking them.  It only seems to give more weight to folks who use them as “clobber” words.  It only seems to spend time talking about what I don’t think is important.  Matters I don’t hear God calling us to explore.  So, I’m not going there.

Instead, what strikes me about the last lecture is its emphasis on community.  We abide in the vine.  We are to love one another.  We are given what is Jesus’.  This may seem trite.  Like a “so what” or no kidding.  Except when you take into consideration how we live.  I mean really live.

Last week on NPR I listened to a story about politics and voters.  Specifically, young adult voters–18-34, and what political party they support.  This may not come as a shocker.  But do you know their number one party–the Libertarian Party.  In many senses, this is not a shocker–they support same-sex unions and rights, would prefer to make marijuana legal, desire bringing the troops back home, and seek a fiscally conservative government.  Less is more if you will.  And when asked if they believe they will have access to social security, the three young people interviewed laughed.  I think that would be a no.

What really struck me as I listened is how the generation commonly called the “me” generation seems to also define themselves that way.  Libertarianism is a philosophy of freedom and independence.  It is a lone-wolf, pull your self up by the boot straps kind of a thing.  Not so much about abiding in the vine and being in community.

Now, I’m not saying that deep down there isn’t that desire or hope among them.  What I’m saying is, when you teach someone, there’s the content you’re sending, and the message they receive.  This story lets us know the message a generation has received.  They have been carefully taught.  So, if we don’t like the reception, perhaps we need to examine how we practice what we preach.