Lesson 5: Words

God speaksEven the ancients understood the essential role language plays for humanity. Genesis 1 acknowledges a rather sophisticated grasp of this when it portrays God using speech to create all things. It appears to build on the realization that speaking is always an act of creation and defines this action as naming and creating order out of chaos. Notice in this myth, God does not create from nothing but progressively separates and arrange a formless void.

This first chapter of the Bible maintains that just as language is the primary way by which humans relate to each other, so too it is the primary way that God and humanity interact. Words and narratives make common sense enabling the two parties to communicate. From this perspective to be the image of God is to be a speaking being.

Creation, then, is the beginning of the divine -human conversation. Augustine referred to this back in the fourth century when he wrote that God created time and space to make room for humans to engage in the conversation between the persons of the Trinity.

Obviously humans have found it difficult to discern God’s Word. Throughout much of our history, we have argued about what the divine is saying, sometimes even going to war over it. The Hebrews used the Tower of Babel myth to explain that humanity’s sin lay at of the bottom of this inability to communicate adequately with other people as well as God.

From this perspective, the plot running through the Bible reports God’s efforts to resume the conversation. One of the first stories, Genesis 18, acknowledges there is still a lot of ambiguity. The speaker of the divine word changes throughout the chapter from 3 men to 3 angels to God himself. Just as fascinating is the way the chapter characterizes the free interaction between the divine and human. When Abraham hears that God is preparing to destroy Sodom, he advises against this. The negotiating that takes place indicates a lot about the power of prayer.

In the plot, it is usually other people through whom God speaks. The prophets make no bones about this when they declare, “Thus says the Lord”; neither does Jesus or his followers. In fact, at Pentecost, which surely represents the healing of divine-human conversation, Peter promises eventually everyone will prophecy, even slaves.

The importance of words comes out in many other ways throughout the scripture. The heavens declare God’s glory. Balaam’s ass speaks to save one of God’s people. God even speaks through a talking burning bush. But perhaps most telling is the “Word of God” means God himself throughout the Bible. And, of course, we Christians especially associate that with Jesus as so clearly proclaimed in John 1. Finally, many of the visions of the promised future emphasize it will be a time when God speaks face to face with his people.

This very quick look at how words function in Christianity makes plan what Jacques Ellul meant when he wrote, “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.” The present abuse of language that unabashedly uses words to deceive and provoke violence threatens the health of both our culture and religion. As Harry Frankfurt maintains, it has diminished language to bullshit, meaning we use words to get what we want without any regard for truth. Undoubtedly the electronic media have some role to play in this. Next, we’ll examine how they have affected Christian words.

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