Language is Bloody

Language is Bloody September 8, 2014

There is a recent hour long YouTube video making the rounds in certain groups that shows a Jewish rabbi saying that God created the Hebrew Language and then by that language created the universe. It is an interesting and some might even say “inspirational” video.

It teaches an old rabbinic doctrine that the creation of the alphabet gives rise to Torah and that through Torah (or the Hebrew alphabet) all things were created. The rabbi’s even concocted the story of how the first letter Aleph was disgruntled because Genesis begins with a Bet (the letter B) and God has to remind Aleph not to be jealous inasmuch as the Israel’s Great Confession begins with an Aleph.

Some in Jesus’ day (though not all) believed in the complete and total inspiration of the consonants of the Hebrew biblical text. They spent countless hours pouring over every possible nuance of letters and words seeking to discern thereby what God’s will might be. Language in this way of viewing things is of divine origin. It is this view of language which also undergirds many conservative Protestant theories of inspiration. And it is this view of language which is taken to task by the writer of the Fourth Gospel

The Logos of John 1, while hearkening back to Genesis 1, is a critique of those who held this view. Every statement in John 1 regarding the Logos has its parallels in some quarter of rabbinic thought (as C.H. Dodd has shown). For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, the Logos is not a text but became flesh (John 1:14). The text (Torah) is given through Moses, but “grace and truth” (hesed/charis and emeth/aletheia) come through Jesus. Jesus alone is the definitive Logos of divinity; this Logos alone can exegete for us the father’s heart. Many are those who “study Scripture” (John 5:39) but unless they perceive its witness to Jesus, they study blindly.

What if language is not divine? What if language is a purely human phenomenon? What if language is not neutral, but is a bent, broken and distorted means of communication? Is it not the case that we are constantly being misinterpreted or that we find ourselves explaining ourselves to others in simple conversations? Language is not straightforward is it?

I contend that theories of inspiration that ultimately depend upon God finding and using the ‘perfect’ human language are failures. I have argued in my book The Jesus Driven Life that we must find an alternative to this by developing an understanding of the authority of Scripture (within the Christian community) apart from a theory of inspiration of the text. One of the major reasons I have sought to do this is that, following René Girard, I think it is possible to speak of another origin of human language, one that is far darker than we might imagine.

We humans have been able to teach certain great apes human vocabularies. One gorilla even learned a 900+ word vocabulary. But the one thing that gorilla could not do was symbolize. A-P-P-L-E meant the shiny red fruit. However, what it could not do was understand the phrase “apple of my eye.” It was incapable of having an ‘excess’ of meaning. Those who argue for God’s (verbal) inspiration of Scripture are caught up in this problem as well. They go searching for ‘original’ meanings in words or do (disastrous) word studies, as though word = thing. That is, they have a “simian hermeneutics.”

Girard, looking at the human process of scapegoating, argues that the victim of scapegoating is the originary matrix out of which language is born. The victim is the pre-historical symbol. First blamed for the woes of the community, then ritually killed (and eaten), then divinized by that very same community which sought to account for the ‘blessings’ of peace, concord, and cooperation, the victim is thus both demon and god, bane and blessing. The victim is the first “thing” with a double meaning; the victim is what gives rise to our communication abilities as a species. The victim is the ground of our linguistic capacity and ability to symbolize and thus be able to say ‘the apple of my eye.’ Or as Paul Ricoeur might say, the victim is the first ‘polyvalent symbol.’

Language is bloody. It is not clean. It did not then, originate in some heaven of heavens but in the abyss of false accusation, death and cannibalism. Human language is full of lies and deception. It masks. Language is therefore not the best medium to bring divine communication. It took the real act of the death of Jesus and his pronouncement of forgiveness to overturn language. His bloody cross spoke truth to language in language. His resurrection vindicated his truthfulness to language by language.

Language is bloody; we ought not to trust it completely. This is how we got to this post-modern state we are in where many experience everything as relative. The hermeneutics of suspicion (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Feuerbach) grounds all modern discourse. Foucault and Habermas have shown how power agendas take our language and use it. George Orwell wrote (1984) about this capacity for ‘doublespeak.’ In other words, our current condition of deconstructing human communication, recognizing its dark side and its power grabs is essential if we are going to move past the pre-modern emphasis on the purity of language (represented by certain rabbinic traditions and certain Jewish, Muslim and Christian theories of the inspiration of sacred texts).

If you find yourself a post-modern Christian but still feel you have to hold onto pre-modern views of the Bible, know this: Language is bloody, deceptive and manipulative because human symbolic communication is corrupted by our scapegoating tendencies. Yet, just as God did in the dying Jesus, God is able to ‘speak’ to us a redemptive word, a word that heals and brings peace. As Karl Barth puts it “revelation is a gain to language.’ God’s self-revelation at the heart of the victimage mechanism is also redemptive, we call this at-one-ment. In the cross God has also brought truthfulness back to language. But language can only be true if it bears this cruciform character, if it speaks honestly about the ‘other’, if it speaks forthrightly about its persecutory character.

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