On The Good Use of Words
The world is so full of words these days.
My world is usually full of words no matter how the larger world is operating. Whether I’m at my day job shuffling words around on the page, or coming home to the incessant chatter of life with five little ones, or heaving myself into my office chair to pound out a few scant lines before bed—I work with words. I write them and edit them and stare blankly at them until I know which one comes next.
But these days the words are flying fast and thick as clouds of arrows on a battlefield, often poison-tipped, often friendly fire, sometimes breaking off and leaving the arrowhead in the wound. I’m tense whenever I have a conversation, praying I’ll say the most necessary and careful l thing I can say in the space of a few seconds or lines. And in the end, after wringing out every last urgent letter, I find myself empty, weary, and wondering…
What use are all these words?
This question was rattling around my brain before we went on family vacation. In the midst of trying to get everything done before we shuffled up to our little getaway cabin for a week, I was wrestling with trying to put into words why it mattered to put things into words.
The night before we left, right around midnight, nothing was coming together. I had no answers. So I shelved the fragments I had and left for the lake.
I brought several books with me on vacation, determining to finish at least one if not all of them. One was Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, a book that made everything make sense for me as a Christ-following artist several years back, as if Madeleine had found me stumbling over furniture in the dark and said, gently, “Silly boy, there’s the light switch. Let me help you.” I‘d been waiting for a good time to reread in-depth, and this was it.
As luck would have it, she had things to say about words, like this prescient passage:
“Because I am a storyteller I live by words. Perhaps music is a purer art form. It may be that when we communicate with life on another planet, it will be through music, not through language or words.
But I am a storyteller, and that involves language, for me the English language, that wonderfully rich, complex, and ofttimes confusing tongue. When language is limited, I am thereby diminished, too.
In time of war language always dwindles, vocabulary is lost; and we live in a century of war….
We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than “the way things are.”
…I might even go to the extreme of declaring that the deliberate diminution of vocabulary by a dictator, or an advertising copywriter, is anti-Christian.”
Distant as I was from both my home and social media accounts, I found this section illuminating. We do live in a century of war, and our language and public discourse has dwindled. We say a shopworn word or a phrase, and it rebounds back from minds and hearts due to its context, or general human passions. We talk, and we talk, and we talk some more. We share articles and we dismantle arguments, using gentility and intellect to kick someone’s legs out from under them. In many ways, we have forged our language into weaponry for an ongoing ideological war, and the wounding goes deeper than we realize—in our own hearts and the hearts of those around us.
Does wielding words like weapons change hearts? In the face of so much grief,confusion, fear, and pride, what use are all these words? Is there any use? If not, why keep writing and speaking as if there is?
I also brought along Helena Sorensen’s The Door on Half-Bald Hill. This one I finished in two days.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to read an enduring literary classic right when it came out, and now I know. This is a story that feels ancient and timeless, yet totally relevant to our current moment. It’s a masterclass on balance and building tension, without losing any of the meticulous world-building and character development needed to drive the plot forward. But beyond the technical prowess of Sorensen’s storytelling, this story took hold of me and would not let me go.
Here I found a world scarily like our own—riddled with pestilence, rich in pagan rituals, given over to fear and despair. And in the midst of it is a young bard, Idris. As Keeper of the Sacred Word, Idris has seen the wisdom of the Druid fall short, and the healing powers of the Ovate given up in the face of death. He feels tremendous responsibility to bring his people a Word that would provide hope, a reason to keep going. But omen after omen makes him wonder: what use are words in the face of death?
Idris is a storyteller, an artist, a keeper of memory and history. He uses words as tools to bring about good things in the lives of the people he loves. But his words have run dry, like all other sources of hope in his land. If you’re an artist of any sort, maybe this feeling rings true to you right now. It certainly rang true to me.
But then, Idris encounters a Word he has never known. And his experience of this Light sparks a journey to understand what it means to be the Keeper of a Word too spectacular for words. I found myself again with the conundrum: what use are all these words? But Idris’s journey provided me with an answer.
My initial question is insufficient to the task because it assumes that words are capable of encapsulating eternity into useful sentences and paragraphs, when at best they are signposts pointing in the direction of the Word Himself. Their “use” can only be understood in light of the Word they reflect, a Word that is more than just language, but a Body, Soul, and Spirit—a Word that has come to dwell with us.
So our words must be incarnational, spoken by actual tongues and lips, in actual places, to physical people. Our words must be embodied by our hands and our feet. The power of our words, online or in-person, rests on the back of our actions. And those actions are tied, intrinsically, to the needs and nature of the communities in which we live and move and have our being.
This is not to say that dis-embodied communication has no effect. I only mean that we must be in-place doers, as well as writers and article-sharers.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
Idris didn’t need the most righteous or powerful words, words that would bring about salvation for his people by their potency or clarity. He needed to embody the Word in real time, and in real community.
As the third act of the book draws toward its climax, Idris gathers the courage to accept this responsibility, not by recalling ancient stories, but by collecting physical icons of those he loves from around his village. He carries these with him on his fateful journey to Half-Bald Hill, as tangible reminders of the love that drives both his words and his actions.
May we do and be the same, reaching out in word and deed to display the love of God to our communities. And may our feeble words and actions be transformed by the Spirit into transformative icons of the true and living God. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a prayer for such a time as this.
I do not “do” well.
I am more comfortable
curating my thoughts, then
facing a fellow human
I am fearful, and proud,
and ambitious, and selfish –
And I am a child of God,
made in a brighter image, Named:
I am a Light in the darkness,
a Word in the silence.
The Spirit moves in me
to do His will.
May my thoughts
be Your thoughts,
and my ways
and the meditation of my heart
pleasing to You.