Many years ago now I was part of a year-of-your life missions program and truth be told I loved the classroom bit the best. Studying Theology was a dream come true for the 23 year old student that I was then. The lecturer took us through a course called ‘Apples of gold’. Many years later and I don’t remember the content of the course however I remember the verse that the course was named for – Proverbs 25: 11: “The right word at the right time is like apples of gold in settings of silver”.
It is said that comedy is really about timing when delivering the punchline. There’s nothing that says that a punchline always has to be funny. A word correctly spoken at the right time is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
It should come as no surprise that God’s timing is always perfect and His words are always full of meaning, purpose and power. Right in the beginning Scripture says that God created the heavens and the earth merely by speaking (Genesis 1). Not being a theologian I’m not acquainted with all that that means but I do know power and awesomeness when I see it, and that’s impressive.
The best I can do is give instructions to my kids and requests to my wife. It very seldom has the desired effect. However nothing of what God has ever said has ever failed to perform precisely what He has intended. I like that, because that means when He makes a promise, its better than money in the bank. Its solid.
From the point of view of the New Testament, Jesus is the Word in the beginning who was active in creation:
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,*
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.*
John 1: 1 – 5
At the beginning, God gave instructions to Adam and Adam categorised and named all the animals (as an aside, did you ever wonder what language God, Adam and Eve spoke with each other? Something which we may perhaps learn in eternity where all things are known). It is clear from a basic reading of Scripture that God communicates all the time and this holds true for the people He has created. Language and communication is a gift and life would in fact be incomprehensible without it. God is communicating all the time.
In the days of Peleg, Scripture records that people were united in rebellion against God and were building the Tower of Babel. Language can unite but it can also divide and be an impediment, and on purpose God caused the people on the plain of Shinar to have different languages. The lesson there I think is that language as an organising principle for sinful endeavour is bad. And it was appropriate for sinful people to be confused and scattered.
People are always trying to explain the mechanics and purpose of language, like Marshall McLuhan, a contemporary Canadian who theorised that ‘the medium is the message’ which is a little silly. Lots of people try to be edgy and unique, like McLuhan who suggested among other things that Western society emerged from chaos because the medium of the written word arranged in lines from left to right caused society to seek a similar order in their world. With respect, my personal belief from years of observance is that ‘the message is the message’, not the medium.
An idiom doesn’t mean idiom because it is an idiom. See what I mean?
Scripture is replete with meaning because whatever is going on, whether judgement or creation or revelation, motivation, prophecy or praise there is communication. God is relational. With God there is no tech in between. Picture a group of millennials out at a social event, sitting on a couch but not in real conversion with each other, all on smart phones, staring down at screens and messaging each other like they’ve forgotten how to converse. You know, with their mouths. Well, God isn’t like that; there is no technological barrier between us and God. In fact God’s communion with us involves the totality of language but even goes beyond it. When praying and we don’t know what to pray for, Scripture says the following:
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.
Romans 8: 26
That kind of understanding is beyond language because sometimes we do not even know to express longings to Him.
Language is a gift but can also be a tool for corruption, unfortunately. The shadow of the tower of Bable thus casts it’s influence in the areas of religion, commerce, national discourse and entertainment.
In the Middle East and generally in the world today, Islam has claims against Christianity and its spread. The Muslim is obliged to read the Qur’an in Arabic instead of the vernacular, rendering it extremely difficult to access unless of course you speak Arabic. Would God insist on Arabic and reveal a text like the following random excerpt from the Qur’an?:
“He is the One who created you from mud, then predetermined your life span, a life span that is known only to Him. Yet, you continue to doubt. He is the one GOD in the heavens and the earth. He knows your secrets and your declarations, and He knows everything you earn.
No matter what kind of proof comes to them from their Lord, they turn away from it, in aversion. Since they rejected the truth when it came to them, they have incurred the consequences of their heedlessness. Have they not seen how many generations before them we have annihilated? We established them on earth more than we did for you, and we showered them with blessings, generously, and we provided them with flowing streams. We then annihilated them because of their sins, and we substituted another generation in their place.
Even if we sent down to them a physical book, written on paper, and they touched it with their hands, those who disbelieved would have said, “This is no more than clever magic.” They also said, “If only an angel could come down with him!” Had we sent an angel, the whole matter would have been terminated, and they would no longer be respited.”
That’s a random sample from the sixth chapter of the Qur’an. I know you may think I’m being a little unkind and I certainly haven’t gone out of my way to find the most poetic passage from the book, however from the excerpts I have seen the prose is basically like that all the way through. Not exactly a page-turner for someone who has grown up with the Bible with it’s poetry, theology soaring like buttresses in cathedrals, figures of speech and salty, flawed characters who speak in idioms or rowdy market-place Greek.
Trying to figure out pronoun-heavy text in the Qur’an and its applicability seems to me like doing an Afrikaans comprehension exam. Whilst on my second glass of merlot. With my brain tied behind my back. What I’m basically saying is that coming from revelation in the Bible I find it difficult to appreciate the holy book of Muslims.
Many of the chapters and verses of the Qur’an are difficult to understand and apart from it’s claim to be a divine revelation, many people might never make an effort to read it. Because of it’s claims of divine origin some do read it. It may not surprise you to learn that many Muslims do not read it regularly.
When I consider the beauty of Isaiah 40, one of my favourite passages of Scripture and compare with other sacred books the world over, (I know it’s subjective but) the cadences and turns of phrase are familiar and uplifting:
He gives power to the weak
and strength to the powerless.
30 Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
31 But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.
Couldn’t the Holy Spirit communicate the truth and see to it that the human writer rocks the artistry of it as well? It’s a rhetorical question. Of course He could and did.
As recorded in Acts chapter 2 when the Holy Spirit fell on the church that was gathered, the Christians spoke to the crowd in many tongues. God’s idea for man was to have many languages and He speaks to them thus. It’s not merely as if God does not mind communicating with people in a way they can understand. He seems to go out of His way to do so. There’s nothing quite like hearing the warmth of the gospel in the language closest to your heart and heritage. And crucially, the church maintains a brotherhood where language is not that much of a barrier. I have been to Mozambique and fellowshipped with Christians who only speak Portuguese or a local dialect. In Revelations 21 which refers to people gathered in heaven before God, verse 24 speaks of the nations (ethnos – everyone in their distinctive people groupings, encompassing different languages) who walk in His light.
In business there is a particularly heavy emphasis on obfuscatory language, which basically means writing or speaking in a way that actually makes it difficult to understand. Why would someone do that you ask? Great question. I suppose people in the corporate world enjoy playing word games. Maybe they’re compulsive crossword puzzlers too. In the corporate world today its all about branding and having hegemony over how the employee uses language. A good example is the use of the concept of the ‘Employee Value Proposition’, or EVP. Not content to merely pay staff a salary, the EVP is communication imperative by the company to do 2 things; (1) use the communication about their remuneration policy towards the employee as a branding opportunity, and (2) manage the experience of the employee. So the employee has no context to discuss what he thinks of the salary, he can only listen to the company’s view of what they pay him or her, and use their language to describe in what way he agrees with their philosophy. There are tons of things that companies do all the time like this that hinder communication because it’s oh so lovely to control your employees.
Countries use propaganda all the time to stifle debate and frame actions taken by the State as virtuous. It’s an example from fiction but the principle is the same: in the dystopian novel ‘1984’, the State bombards its population with messages through the ‘Ministry of Truth’ which is clearly no such thing.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Such self-contradictory thoughts are quite common in the way governments function and particularly how politicians speak with the ‘common rabble’.
In the entertainment world typified by Hollywood there is no such thing as pure art for its own sake. The story is always used as a vehicle for communication. Sometimes it’s descriptive but most often the director or studio doesn’t only tell us a story, they also tell us what to think about it. I suppose they have the money and/or the artistic vision and they are entitled to do with the story what they want and the public is not obliged to buy into that but usually its just way too slick to resist.
The X-Men movies are a message about mutation, a romantic notion of evolution. The Marvel universe of movies is a message about modern myths. Disaster movies are a message that doom is inevitable on a vast scale but that the indomitable human spirit will see to it that some will always survive. The Twilight films and ’50 Shades of grey’ are about how the forbidden is exciting. There is a message, an agenda in everything produced by the entertainment industry.
Language and speech is a gift that can be used for good or selfish gain. I like very much the attitude expressed by the songwriter of the ‘Big Daddy Weave’ track, ‘My Story’: “If I should speak, then let it be…of the grace that is greater than all my sin…” (There’s more to the song but that is the idea in a nutshell). I recommend you look up the track on YouTube.
The highest subject of study is God, there’s nothing greater, but in the context of language the highest endeavour we can put our efforts towards is to praise God and to spread the message as far and effectively as we can.