In the Beginning Were Words
Back when I was in Grade 6, we had to do lessons from a little booklet called ‘Words are Important.’
At the time I didn’t love those lessons, because it was all about trying out new vocabulary in our sentences and learning to spell difficult words like “occasion” and “liaison.” But I have come to appreciate how true it is: words are important.
A Life Without Words
Imagine life as a child of God without a proper supply of words, and without a knowledge of how to use them. What if we didn’t have the words to pray, to convey our burdens to the Father, or words to confess our sins, or to request his help?
What if we couldn’t read Scripture in a meaningful way, because we weren’t able to stay focused long enough, or because many of the bigger words were lost to us? Terrible to ponder.
Or imagine not being able to express our mind to other people. We have a fresh insight or a compassionate thought, but because we lack the words, we can’t communicate it. And so we stay silent. Think of how many good ideas would be lost, steps of progress never made, or fitting things never spoken, because we didn’t have the right words.
Consider not being able to evaluate an argument, unable to sort out rhetoric from the truth. If we can’t cut through fine-sounding language in a discerning way, imagine how easily we’d be led astray. We would be susceptible if someone was bent on spreading conspiracy theories, a godless agenda, or false teaching.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine such things. But reading is a vital skill with wide reaching consequences. You’ve surely heard it before, or even said it yourself, “I am not a reader.” To some extent, we need to banish that way of thinking. Reading is for all people. Granted, it can be a challenge. But we should see the truth that language is used by everyone and that it is essential for everyone, and maybe especially for the children of God.
Our emphasis on reading has a backstory. You will know that Christians are called “people of the book” because our faith assumes and builds upon the priority of the Word. It begins with God himself, for our God is a speaking God. Think of the opening words of the Bible, “And God said…” (Gen 1:3).
From that first creative moment, God has continued to speak. He has always used powerful words to fulfill his plans and to communicate his grace to mankind. All of Scripture is described as ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16), for they are words uttered by the Lord himself. In his grace, God is a speaking God.
So it’s little wonder that another name for God the Son is the Word (see John 1: “The Word became flesh”). Christ is the ultimate revelation of God’s will. It says in Hebrews 1:1-2, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
The entire Word of God has its climax in the God who is the Word.
Opening the Word and flipping through its pages feels very natural to us, yet we tend to forget just how explosive this book really is. Listen to what the LORD says in Jeremiah 23:29, “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” God’s Word is like a fire, like a hammer, with a mighty power. This ancient book is God’s living Word, and He uses it to accomplish his perfect purposes.
And Scripture is a written word. It’s not just a collection of oral histories, but words that have been written down thoughtfully in a wide variety of genres and styles. A person who opens Scripture will encounter poetry, narrative, epic, tragedy, satire, proverbs, legal material, parables, prophecy, epistles, oratory, apocalypse, and more. We embark on a fascinating journey whenever we read and begin to interpret the literary forms through which God has revealed himself.
Threats to Our Reading
Now let’s contrast our word-speaking God and his word-shaped people with the circumstances in which we live today. I came across a recent survey which “revealed that 25 percent of Americans admit to not having read a single book, in part or in whole, in the past year.”[i] And it may be only slightly better in the church.
Are people reading books at all?
It has been said that our contemporary culture has become aliterate—not illiterate, but aliterate—for it is not that we cannot read, but we do not read.[ii] For we live in the age of the Internet. It’s the world of hyper-fast media, where sounds and images come at high rates of speed, leaving an impact but affording little time to evaluate. Instead of reading books, people spend vast amounts of time on the Internet.
The result is that a culture formerly dominated by words has become a culture dominated by images. And this has a pronounced impact on our schools, on our homes, and our churches, on ways of thinking, social structures, and cultural habits.
An important question is about how this has new kind of media environment is shaping the ways we think and speak. Nicholas Carr wrote a fascinating book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He says that “the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”[iii] In this Internet age, “We become acclimated to distraction, multitasking, giving part of our attention to many things at once, while almost never devoting the entire attention of the entire soul to anything.”[iv]
This is how one author puts it, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”[v] A life spent ‘zipping along the surface’ results in us being familiar only with scattered thoughts and disconnected ideas.
Good communication requires unity, an intent to be instructive, a commitment to one or two main ideas, a forward movement and sense of order. And many of us are losing these skills.
Losses and a Look to the Future
As we lose our ability in reading, ponder what else we lose. Exposed to an entire universe of interesting rabbit trails to explore online, we become less well-informed about what is truly important. We become less patient for listening to others, because we’re used to the Internet’s rapid flow of information. We become less independent-minded, shaped by the viral trends and opinions encountered online.
As we said, we also struggle to communicate clearly and well—just think of how many of us habitually use emojis to express ourselves because we don’t have the words. Instead of searching for the right word to communicate or describe, we’re searching for the right emoji :(
Maybe someone says, “Well, that’s just the way the world is going. There is not a whole lot we can do about it—adapt or perish.” But we have to recognize that even if many people choose to be aliterate, reading and using language will remain powerful. Words will always have a massive impact wherever and whenever they’re spoken or written.
As Leland Ryken observes, “Even if literacy continues to decline in Western civilization as the electronic media progressively dominate culture, it is obvious that someone will control what the media say. The people with mastery of words will continue to hold the greatest influence over the masses of people. If the right people do not possess the power of words, the wrong people will.”[vi]
So are we still keeping up our training in words? Are we getting ready to read and write and speak in this world? Will we use our words for the glory of God and the advance of Christ’s gospel?
God is a speaking God, which requires us to be a speaking people.
More on this in the next post, God willing.
[i] Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 137.
[ii] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 37.
[iii] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011), 10.
[iv] Gordon, Why Johnny, 50.
[v] Carr, The Shallows, 6-7.
[vi] Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 23.