Language Illusions

Written by Douglas Jones

Language is bizarre.  Babies can use it, and yet it involves mysteries which even the most profound scholars haven't untied.  It looks so simple, but it can turn the world inside out. 

We're so used to language that we can pass over it with a yawn, especially in education.  We tend to think that language is just another handy tool, like a multiplication table or a pen.  But language pulls together so many parts of life in powerful ways.  It is far more than a simple tool.  And Scripture puts language right at the center of so much.

God created the world by speaking.  The Fall came through false speech.  The Law came in "ten words." Redemption came through the Word made flesh.  The Holy Spirit was poured out through the tongues of many nations.  And in the end, we will be judged "by every idle word" we speak.

What is it about language that makes it so central?  Perhaps we get some hint of this from the Incarnation itself.  In the Incarnation, the invisible was made visible.  The second person of the Godhead took on flesh and bone.  Something like this happens every time we speak or write.  The invisible world of our personality takes on physical features, whether through these material squiggles of ink or voice sounds.  In every case, hidden things are revealed.  

But something more is going on too.  It's not just a revealing of the invisible, as mysterious as that is.  It's change too.  The world changes.  When God spoke the creation exploded into existence.  When the Word took on flesh, history was reversed.  The invisible redirected the visible in new ways.  In both of these cases, the "subjunctive"—that which could be—shaped the "what is."  Divine imagination redraws things within language and then changes them in the material world—He "calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (Rom.  4:17).

As creatures, we can create change in a similar way.  Imagination-through-language gets us to picture a different world from that which surrounds us.  This imaginary world often turns things around, so we can see more clearly where change is needed.  One of the best Scriptural examples of this is Nathan's rebuke of David.  In order to have Bathsheba, David set her husband up to be killed.  When God sent Nathan the prophet to rebuke David, the Lord had him tell David a story about a poor man and his lamb.  In other words, God had Nathan use an imaginary world of language to change the actual world.  David was enraged by the injustice in Nathan's "world."  Imagination was able to reorder the world and break through a wall of sin.

But it even goes deeper than this.  It's not just that we can depict imaginary worlds by means of language.  Even the most ordinary pieces of language demand imagination.  For example, we speak of personal difficulties as if they were actual heavy things (burdens) and goals as if they were targets ("I'm hunting for a job").  We speak of beauty as a physical force ("She knocked me out") and the mind as a machine ("I'm a little rusty").   In Scripture, grace produces "fruit," faith is a "substance," and Christ is a "lion."  In all these cases, we are imagining one thing in the shadow of something else; we are renaming one bit of creation in light of another.  This happens almost all the time in everyday speech, but it's so common we tend to only notice the flashy acts of language found in stories or poems. 

Language, then, not only reveals the invisible, it allows us to rename the world and change it.  Of course, one can rename faithfully ("Christ is a lamb") or rebelliously ("Christ is a mosquito").  Not all naming produces the right kind of change.  Much of it can mislead us and allow non-Christian imaginations to dictate Christian living.  That's why we have to watch our language and examine the images we so commonly invoke in the midst of Christian living. 

But if we try to speak and name faithfully, then language can help us transform the world for the better.  When God renamed various saints in Scripture, he was starting them on a new course, a new creation.  Properly identifying compassion, justice, tyranny, and celebration in contrast to popular lies brings the Christian imagination into contact with the real world.  Our language helps redirect our imaginations, and our imaginations redirect the world by God's hand. 

More positively, we use language not only to change the bad but to create the beautiful.  All the arts begin with imagination and language.  And they allow us to see things in other ways, in creative ways.  They redraw the world and can wake us out of our laziness.  They can remind us to love the beautiful and despise the evil.  Similarly, our laughter comes from using our language-led imaginations to line up the world in odd ways that don't fit.  Our laughter says "no, that's not the way it's supposed to go."  Creativity, delight, and laughter all involve imagining one part of the world in terms of another.

But all of these parts of our sanctification—storytelling, ruling, creating, delighting—require that we pay attention to the language arts.  Whether we are opening up other worlds through foreign or ancient languages or learning to write poetry or modeling creation imaginatively for the sciences, we have to be intimately familiar with the subtleties and images that permeate our language.  We have to master the basics of grammar and vocabulary and figurative language before we can effectively reflect God's creative use of language.  Any education that minimizes language and imagination is desperately seeking failure.