Reforming Language

Dear Readers, as a matter of course I do not post sermons, but I am going to make an exception this week.  I was asked to provide a 3 minute reflection on the Reformation and Language in chapel today, and thought some might be interested in reading my speaking.  Allen

In John 8:31 Jesus says:
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

This word “word” was of such importance to John and his community, and was of incredible importance to the Reformers studying John. The Greek word for word, logos, means word but so much more. It can also mean speech, subject matter, an accounting or reckoning as well as reason or motive. While all of these words have different nuances they all point to a linguistic common denominator. Language is at the heart of being human. God spoke the world into being and we are made in the image of God, so speaking – or more broadly – communicating is being human.

Communicating was a big deal for Martin Luther. Some years ago a group of us traveled to Eisenach in the former East Germany and visited the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the New Testament into German. We were told that, at that time, the German lands each had a dialect. Luther’s translation of the Bible was an important step in developing standard German, which he used to great benefit in communicating the Gospel: the good news, that Jesus is God’s word to us of grace; Jesus speaks to us of the unconditional love of God; Jesus is God’s unconditional love for us. This word was at the heart of the reformation.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for us to reduce this word to an idea, an idea that we can master – rather like the times tables. But the gospel is not an idea; the gospel is an event, a happening, something that cannot be orchestrated, nor manipulated. The gospel is all about God, and where God is at work, anything is possible. God cannot be put in a box, and God’s word cannot be manhandled. This is why Luther insisted that the Church was not a Federhaus, a pen house, or a house of writing, but instead a Mundhaus, a mouth house. Scholars will sometimes translate Mundhaus as house of speaking, but I like mouth house. It sounds more problematic, perhaps a little cheeky, and besides, it is very sensual.

Mouths, after all, are the loci of taking in and spitting out. They are the location of our ingestation as well as our protestation; they are the place of the kiss, and the curse; they are the smile, the frown, they are language incarnate; language in flesh. The church is a fleshy place and a mouth house is a house that is bodily in nature. Debbie Lou has spoken often to the choir of the role the body plays in singing. Of course, the same is true in speaking. Communication is a bodily event. And so, when we think about language, we think about bodies: my body, your body, the body we call the body of Christ, the body we call the cosmos, the earth, the universe; the bodies – all of these bodies – that God loves intimately.

The church is a mouth house, but I would be amiss to neglect to point out that a mouth that never stops speaking is cacophanous; sounds begin to screech and our ears weary from too many words, from too much sound. A motor mouth church wears its hearers down; bombarding them with cliches, with half truths, with pollyanna-like pious, plastic language. It is enough to make you want to shout “Enough!”

Language, like music, depends upon silence. The space between the notes, the consonants, the sounds makes hearing them possible, makes ingesting them pleasurable, makes repeating them desireable. Language without silence is noise, and we all have enough noise in our lives.

There is a certain freedom in knowing that sometimes, sometimes we can be like God can be: quiet, and that this quietness is not a betrayal of the gospel, but intrinsic to its nature. Sometimes, sometimes, what needs to be said, for now, is nothing….

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4 thoughts on “Reforming Language

  1. Marie Taylor says:

    There is an old Chinese saying, ‘to understand a man, seek what he fills his mouth with.’ Ingesting, digesting, orating – the mouth is a portal and connection. I liked you mention of silence also – it is the bed upon which sound lies.

  2. shoreacres says:

    Well, since I listed the Gospel of John among my ten most influential “books”, you know how much I enjoyed this.

    Did you ever bump up against a prof from PLTS named Robert Goeser? He was famous for communicating the power of The Word by using the words of masterpieces like “Moby Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Absalom, Absalom.” I’ll go to my grave remembering his characterization of Ahab as a man with “an infinite grudge against the universe.” Oh, haven’t we known a few of those!

    Anyway, in one of my posts, I included this:

    “He hated nothing more than those who refused to claim their words. A retreat into false objectivity, so acceptable in academia, drove him crazy. It was an unfortunate student who used any of the phrases: One would think… There are those who… It has been suggested that… Critics say… Using those or similar phrases in writing or speech would land him in front of you, breathing heavily and saying, “Your words are beautiful. Your words are elegant. But are they true? What about you? What do you think?”

    I need to pull that out and repost it.

    And then there’s the wonderful quotation from Wittgenstein, that so aptly supports the point you make about language being at the heart of our humanity: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

    Great meditation, and a thought-provoking one, too.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for the reminder of Wittgenstein, one of my favourites! I am not familiar with Goeser, but he sounds like a man worth knowing. What I am more likely to hear from students is “I feel that Paul is …” I think it is a way of trying to say something without really committing themselves to it. It is almost as if what they say is beyond reproach if it is a “feeling” since these are supposed incorrigible. Eventually they learn that it is okay to think, and make mistakes, and wager an opinion! Glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed preaching it!

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