Sunday, January 21, 2007

Standing by Words

Wendell Berry, in his book, Standing By Words, argues that we need to reestablish the connection between the signified and the signifiers. He uses the medium of poetry criticism to do so, in his wonderful winsome way (although it must be said that this book is the hardest to read that I've yet found). The consequences of not "standing by words" is collapse of meaning, with all the attendant social and personal consequences.

What about religious language? If there is one thing that the evangelical community (myself included) is guilty of, it is of making our specific language into a joke. One just has to watch the movie Saved to see that. This may be a reason why Christianity is dying a slow and painful death in America: the Word means nothing to us. Since Christianity is based on both the written word and the incarnate Word, language should be of utmost important to us.

For example, have you ever had someone tell you that some Old Testament promise has been fulfilled "spiritually" in Christ? Stop for a minute and think what exactly "spiritual" means. After years of being disturbished by this term, I still don't have a grasp on its meaning other than "ethereal", "unexplainable", "mystical". In other words, it is a worthless term. If, perhaps, we were to recourse to the Bible's use of the term, which is solely speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit, then we have at least a place to start: it is not ethereal or unexplainable or mystical, but rather the concrete work of God in the actual historical world. Jesus says that he cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead by the Spirit of God--if that is the meaning being used for "spiritual" then I am all for it. However, mostly it seems to be used to perpetuate a psychological Christianity (even in stolid Reformed circles) where it concretely means "we feel that these things must be true, so it makes us feel good." What does it mean that the promise of the land of Canaan was "spiritually" fulfilled in Christ? Matthew 5 would lead us to believe that it means that Christians, if they follow in the footsteps of Jesus, hold rightful title to the entire, actual, tangible Creation of God. The implications of this, though, might lead us to be mature individuals working together as the mature body of Christ, continuing his work in this time in our places. Mostly, though, it signifies little more that an implied Marcionism--"spiritual" means the promise is no more, since it was before Christ. It allows those in "spiritual" power to set the terms for themselves, freed from any meaningful and normative relationship to Scripture.

It is time, for myself and I hope the Church, to reclaim its language and the power that comes with it.

1 comment:

Big Al said...

First I want to say, I'm glad your posting about Wendell Berry.

Second, the best way to really debunk our "christan wordage" is to sit with someone who from another country who knows nothing about Christianity and is asking. That will really cause you to question, rethink, and reword everything word that comes out of your mouth. Yet I'm afraid to say that at Geneva that is hard to find.

It is humbling to recognize that the concretes you are talking about, tend to lack in my speech (my definitions fail at times to be based on more than my own thoughts)

How do we reclaim this?