By Leslie Leyland Fields
This is not the worst lie I ever told, but it’s the most memorable. I had just turned twelve. I was going to a movie theatre with my best friend. I had only been to two other movies in my life, so this was a big deal. And it was costing all the money I had in the world—-a dollar I held excitedly in my pocket. But there was a problem. As I stood in line, my heart sank. The placard read, “11 and under: 1$. 12 and up: $2.” I had a moral dilemma. I couldn’t ask my friend for more money; she didn’t have any. There was only one way out of this. I stood in front of the glass window and squeaked out “One ticket, under 12.” My face burned red, my hands shook as I handed her the dollar. She glanced at me, unseeing. I took the ticket and walked through the door, expecting the earth to swallow me up. What was the movie I HAD to see? What movie did I lie to get into? Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston. For real. In the moment of that lie, something within me hardened. Look at how I can manipulate people, rules, truth to get what I want! I learned that day.
I thought of this moment this week when Trump defended his language about sexual assaulting women as simply “locker room talk.” I thought of it again when friends wrote to me explaining, “those are just words.”
After reading the transcript from Sunday night’s debate (I couldn’t bear to watch it) I am adding one more thing to grieve in this election season. Let us grieve for language.
I don’t mean “Let us grieve over childish vocabulary.” I don’t mean “let us mourn nonsequitous sentences,” which have become the norm. I don’t even mean, let us grieve for the loss of civil language which is certainly the case and is itself worthy of lament.
And in this post I don’t even mean, “Let us grieve the victims of such vile language, the many women—and I am among them—who have been sexually exploited and assaulted by predatory men.“
I mean something even more primary and essential. I mean, “Let us grieve for Language itself, God’s great gift to humankind.”
You know how it began, how God chose words to birth everything good and beautiful. Jesus, himself the logos, the Word, “created all things.” God’s own words after creation. “It is VERY good!” confirmed the rightness and perfection of this world. Word and world were gloriously and perfectly united. God brought Adam in on it too, asking him to name the creatures of the world.
But that covenant, that perfect correspondence between name and object, between words spoken and the reality they reflected, was broken. The evil one twisted God’s loving words into accusations. Words became a weapon, spoken to destroy rather than create. The covenant between word and deed, between word and reality had been severed.
Since then, we have blithely used language to recreate reality in our own image rather than in God’s. Its been going on a long time. But it’s increasingly acceptable and increasingly alarming, even to those not professing Christian faith. Neil Postman, in his prescient book The End of Education recognized twenty years ago the unraveling our public speech.The profligate use of language is not merely a social offence, but a threat to the ways in which we have constructed our notions of good and bad, permissible and impermissible. To use language to defend the indefensible . . . to use language to transform certain human beings into nonpersons, to use language to lie and to blur distinctions, to say more than you know or can know, to take the name of the truth in vain—these are offences against a moral order, and they can, incidentally, be committed with excellent pronunciation or with impeccable grammar and spelling. Our engagement with language almost always has a moral dimension, a point that has been emphasized by every great philosopher from Confucius and Socrates to Bertrand Russell and John Dewey.
Everyone reading this believes that words matter. Else you wouldn’t be here. We know that our words have the power to unleash into the world goodness or wickedness, truth or falsehood, life or death. Frederick Buechner writes
“In Hebrew the term dabar means both “word” and “deed.” Thus to say something is to do something. “I love you.” “I hate you.” “I forgive you.” “I am afraid of you.” Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly. —Wishful Thinking
We’re all experiencing the chaos and destruction from both candidates’ “stones.”
But this last week, with the airing of the video, the concentric rings turned into cyclonic waves. One friend, a stalwart supporter who will not change her vote, confessed to me, “I don’t like this side of him. ”
I don’t like this side of him. How have we done this? Do we see what we’re doing to language? Somehow, even as Christians, we have so rent and parsed ourselves as human beings that our words no longer measure our character. Degrading words are merely distasteful distractions. Somehow we have so riven and compartmentalized the world that violent words are allowed in certain settings. We’ve wrongly distinguished between private and public, creating separate moralities for each. The crime is only being caught. Somehow we have so degraded language itself that we require mostly that it feeds our vision of the world and that it entertains us.
We believe differently. We know better.
I knew better when I lied to get into that movie. I repented in my 12 year old heart, sitting in the dark theatre, hearing God’s own words to me, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” booming out in Heston’s magnificent voice. We must repent as well, requiring that language bear true witness to the world. And that our own language speaks life to all. In Eugene Peterson’s words, “Our relationship to the Word requires us to use words. Our vocation is not only to do what the Word told us to do but also to say what the Word told us to say, until the whole world is transformed by the news.”
This is what language is for.