Musings on the importance of Words

So I’ve been thinking about the power and importance of language and words.  Metaphysically speaking, there are “things”.  And then there are words that describe “things”.  The problem is that our language and words always fall short of accurately describing or truly representing the thing in it’s entirety.  Said differently, words cannot access the thing itself and represent it truly.
Words are like a cloak that we put over something to help give it shape and meaning.

Here’s why this matters to people of faith and particularly me as a church planter.
Is it possible that we use words, cloaks to give something meaning and shape, that don’t actually represent what we are intending?  Is it possible that words have a shelf life?  At one point in time, in a particular place and context, a particular word did just fine to describe the “thing” that was attempting to be accessed.  But now, 10, 20, 100 years later, those words don’t actually help to define what it is were trying to get at, in fact they may hinder us.

A few examples:

Church Service_at point in time this may have been helpful to refer to a gathering of God’s people on a rhythmic  schedule.  In our day and in our culture when you say “service” you’re tapping into a stream of influence that deals with capitalism, consumerism and Starbucks.  Not really all that helpful when the “thing” you’re trying to describe is actually nothing like any of those things and may in fact even stand in opposition to them in principle. May I offer another option?  One that we are choosing to use with intentionality at Awaken is “Gathering”.

“Going to Church”_again, at one point in time this may very well have been a helpful way to describe God’s people gathered in the world.  When there were no “church buildings” and what was being referred to was a group of people gathered in the name of Jesus…then fine, say ‘I’m going to church’.  But in a world where there’s a “church” building on multiple corners of any given intersection, we have a problem.  When I say I’m going to church, my referent is now a geographical location that includes bricks, mortar, windows and doors.  The problem is that this has nothing to do with the “church” the Bible speaks of.  The “church” as the New Testament describes it is a living and breathing organism that is made up of people who follow Jesus.  May I offer an alternative?  What if we said “I’m going to a gathering of the church?”  Or how about “I’m going to a gathering where the church will be?”

Just a few thoughts on words.  Anyone else have any ideas on this topic?



5 thoughts on “Musings on the importance of Words

  1. micah, i appreciate your suggestion of words as having a shelf-life. it implies that as context and culture change, we must engage the creative process of re-discovering what we’re actually talking about.

    words carry baggage. often we use the same redundant phrases, as if there was only one dimension to something that is in fact multi-faceted and complex. instead of the same tired phrases, creativity and thoughtfulness are required to paint and re-paint a picture that points to some “thing.”

    great post bro. interested to hear other perspectives.

    • This is such an interesting concept…and such a true one, too. That’s the paradox with language: it brings something to life and distorts it at the same time.

      Because the truth is, there is hardly a word out there that doesn’t bear some sort of contextual connotation for the listener. Certain words mean different things to different people…not to mention different cultures. And sometimes its hard for me to stomach (especially as writer) that I will never people to accurately convey my thoughts or experiences to another human being. We simply don’t have words for the things that we experience–especially the things that we experience of God.

      That is why LIVING out God’s love is so much more impactful than simply talking about God’s love. If you live it, then people can experience it through you. That way, instead of having your calculated translation of what it is to experience God, they can have the actual conceptual experience floating around in their own mind.

      I think you guys are both right…instead of grabbing onto expected and recycled terminology that we know will bring some level of comprehension to the listeners, I think we are called to creatively paint pictures and cultivate experiences.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. The metaphysics of things… shelf life of words…

    I once heard a great man say, “words can mean a lot of things”

    And a slightly greater man say, “put new wine in new wineskins”

    And a fella named Marshall once said something to the effect that the medium in which a message is delivered is in fact the message itself

    So if we are to be faithful communicators of this thing called ‘the Kingdom’, ought we not attempt to use words that are (already) steeped in rich meaning for those hearing and in a way that reflects the subversive/upside-down nature of what it is we are pointing towards?

  3. We often hear about “internalizing” things. The type of reasoning associated with words doesn’t necessarily require an internalization of the actual thing that I’m describing. Computers and robots can use words.

    But they can’t speak in the language of the heart. As Leanne Payne says, “The language of the heart is symbol.” As humans, we receive things at both levels.

    Scripture is filled with both languages. Symbols such as God as “Father,” “King,” “Shepherd.” Water as cleansing, baptismal. “Son,” “Lamb” “Passover.” It all speaks to the entire person.

    But Jesus even told us that the language of the Kingdom is known by the heart of a child. I’d say that if I can’t explain it to a 4 year old, I probably don’t know it myself.

    • Nathan
      Good thoughts. I wonder if there’s anything to this idea of words and symbol and the importance of communion and baptism? I’ve had some discussions about this with some friends lately and I’m thinking I like this aspect of symbol.
      Had coffee today with some friends who heard me talking about sin in relational terms instead of some of the previous law/court metaphors that typically go with discussions on sin. Highlighted for me again the importance of language and the power of words.

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