Westmont Magazine The Humiliation of the Word in Our Day
2010 Commencement Address by Richard J. Foster Author and Founder of Renovaré
At the beginning of time the debar Yahweh, the Word of the Lord, brought the universe crashing into existence. God said, “Let there be light,” and the Big Bang occurred. Yahweh is the Word of God spoken.
There is more: Jesus is the eternal Logos of God. “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”(John 1:1, 14). Jesus is the Word of God living.
There is still more: we are people of the Book, the Bible, hay biblos. God not only originated the Bible through human authorship; God remains with it always. It is God’s book. No one owns it but God. And God has so superintended the writing of the Bible that it serves as a most reliable guide for our own spiritual formation. The Bible is the Word of God written. Therefore, of all people, Christians value the Word. The Word spoken. The Word living. The Word written. The Word is precious to us beyond all telling.
So too are human words. Words matter. Words matter because they are the best carrier of ideas, and ideas rule the world.
Also, words matter to us personally. Truth that is poorly expressed demeans us, and we become spiritually impoverished as a result. Amy Carmichael observed, “It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat. We are what we think about. Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow (we) lose fiber and become flabby in spirit.”
You see, when we give our attention to tabloid thinking and the peddlers of gossip, we become small, petty souls. But when we give sustained attention to the great themes of the human spirit, the windows of the soul will open to the invigorating breezes of splendor and valor and courtesy and magnanimity.
Eugene Peterson put it this way; “Our language is derivative… from the language of God. Words are essential and words are holy wherever and whenever we use them… We do well to reverence (words), to be careful in our use of them, to be alarmed at their desecration, (and) to take responsibility for using them accurately and prayerfully.” (The Jesus Way, pp.66-67)
But words are under massive attack today. Jacques Ellul wrote, “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.” And we, in our WiFi-based, Twitter-infested world, instinctively understand the problem he is addressing. Today,
Words are being overshadowed by the visual.
Words are being trivialized by the blogosphere.
Words are being corrupted by doublespeak.
And when these things happen to our words we descend into the confused pandemonium of Babel.
But you, the class of 2010, can do something about our contemporary quandary. You have a liberal arts education, and that gives you the ability to make a difference. You can help to overcome the contemporary humiliation of the word. So, I challenge you, first of all:
1. Words that are Crisp and Clear and Imaginative
Discover words that are crisp and clear and imaginative. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug! And when we discover precisely the right word, believe me, that word is worth a thousand pictures.
Oh, do you love words? Do you love their sound? Do you love their meaning? Do you love their history? Do you love their rhythm?
Take a word: “grief.” How do you say the word “grief?” Do you amass charts and statistics on the epidemic increase of depression and suicide in modern society? Or do you draw us in close to the raw nerve of grief?
Tiny Julie Marie died this evening, as the sun lay like a brooding sorrow on the hill.
Only three months old, a temple scarcely built.
The doctor talks about “crib death.”
The pastor talks about “the problem of evil.”
I don’t talk: I just cry.
She was so tiny, so delicate. It was awesome to watch the miracle of bright blue eyes seeing forms and discovering objects, tiny hands that vainly grasped for toys, miniature feet that found no reason for existence.
But tonight Julie Marie lay dead. Why, God? Where is your design in taking Julie Marie from us? Am I blind? Or is it that I can see only the back side of life’s tapestry—just the tangled threads? Must I wait to be on the other side before I can see a design?
O Christ, if faith’s only certainty is the cross, help me through my forsaken Garden of Gethsemane.
Now — now say the word “grief.”
Then too I urge upon you lively conversations that are crisp and clear and imaginative. We are told that when St. Francis and St. Clare came together for conversation that the house where they met glowed like fire. Oh, may our conversations generate heat and light and spiritual energy. Conversations filled with wit and wisdom and beauty and hilarity.
Oh, and storytelling. We really do need stories to replenish the wellspring of our imagination and to feed our spirit. May we tell stories to each other, read stories, embellish stories. Can we resist the lure of Netflix once in a while and simply revel in the expansive world of words?
2. Words that are Significant in Content
Then, second, I challenge you, the class of 2010, to focus your energies upon words that are significant in content. William Faulkner, when he received the Nobel prize for literature, said, “We no longer deal with the problems of the spirit. The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
In writing especially, but also in ordinary conversation, we would do well to give attention to the great universal themes in life. Themes like the reality of evil—moral, cosmic, personal will against the purposes of God. Evil can be seen as the tempter as Milton did in Paradise Lost or evil can be seen as the destroyer as Tolkien developed so well in The Lord of the Rings with the black riders and the orks and Saruman and Saron and, above all,
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
Or there is the theme of the reality of ultimate good—God and his angels, light and life and hope. I have always been struck by how C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia was able to personify ultimate good in the character of Aslan the great lion, something which very few writers have ever dared to do.
Then there is the theme of the human condition and the human personality. Think of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov where he perceives the entanglements of human life because sin has woven its way into the very warp and woof of the social fabric.
3. Ethical and Moral Bearings
Third, I challenge you, the class of 2010, to inform your words with ethical and moral bearings. You have a distinct advantage. Not only do you have a liberal arts education but you have a liberal arts education that has been forged on the anvil of a Christ centered worldview. This gives you ethical and moral bearings that others simply do not have. Therefore you are in a unique position to discern when words are being misused and abused.
You can discern when your Facebook page is a valuable means of social networking and when it has become a means of narcissistic self-promotion.
You have the linguistic background and the ethical backbone to spot a non sequitur or an ad hominem argument a mile away.
You have the moral insight to see when leaders are embezzling monies and ripping off consumers, and you have the intellectual training to do something about it.
You have the historical perspective to distinguish a genuinely just war from a blasphemous self-serving militarism. And you have the ethical courage to call for truth and justice and equity toward all peoples of the earth.
4. Words that are Grounded in Silence
Fourth, and finally, I urge you, the class of 2010, to allow your words to be grounded in silence. Remember T. S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday” when he asked,
Where shall the word be found
where will the word
Not here, there is not enough silence.
You see, distraction is one of the deepest problems we face today. All of the visual stimuli, all of the chatter of the blogosphere, all of the confusion of doublespeak keep us perpetually distracted.
Richard Foster co-authored 'Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion' with Westmont President Gayle D. Beebe in 2009.
Remember, silence is a spiritual discipline, and we need this discipline to unplug us from the inane babble of modern culture. Today, as a result of e-mailing and texting, (wonderful technological inventions in themselves) we are saying more and more about less and less. For many this has become a genuine addiction. The din of noisy words tossed out so casually, so superficially, so carelessly snuff out the silence that would open us to the voice of the Spirit that groans within us. So in our day we must learn to be still. To wait. To hold our tongue. To observe. To ponder. To wonder.
Silence cultivates the soil of our hearts so that life-giving words are allowed to germinate and take root. Then when the time comes for speaking our words will flow like water from a silent spring.
And so, let the Word go forth…
Let the Word go forth by means of words that are crisp and clear and imaginative.
Let the Word go forth by means of words that are significant in content.
Let the Word go forth by means of words that are informed by ethical and moral bearings.
Let the Word go forth by means of words that are grounded in silence.
Let the eternal Word of God go forth.