I remember watching an episode of “Swamp People” one evening a few years ago and there was a short, maybe 5 minute, section where the show was focused on two Alligator hunters who had particularly strong Cajun accents. I remember distinctly, sitting on my couch trying my best to focus on what was being said by these two guys on the television and as the minutes passed, I began to feel some anxiety. I began wondering if there was something wrong with my hearing or maybe my mind was finally starting to lose its cognitive abilities. I simply could not understand anything that was being said. I listened intently through the remainder of that segment and realized as the show went to commercial that I had not understood a single word spoken in those five minutes. Still a little concerned, I turned to my wife who was sitting next to me on the couch and I asked her if she understood any of what had been said. She looked at me and laughed. No, she had not understood any of it either. We were dumbfounded. How could we just have watched an entire segment of two Americans speaking to each other and not understood one word? We spoke the same language, or did we really? Or was it the same language in name only?
That night reminds me of an earlier moment where a radio program I often listened to was describing an interview that their station had conducted with a witness at the scene of a shooting in their city of Atlanta. They marveled at the fact that as far as they could tell, the young lady was speaking English but they could not make out what she was saying in the least. Fortunately the engineer of the program was able to understand what this lady was saying and was able to translate it for the host and the rest of the listening audience. The result was very humorous. You can listen to it here.
Often, the inability to understand each other, though frustrating, results in hilarity. John Cleese in an interview about the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, explains that one thing he finds very humorous is the confusion that arises through miscommunication. The dialogues between Cleese’s British and English speaking character, Basil, and his hired valet, Manuel, who speaks Spanish are classic.
Language is a strange thing, a unique thing, a powerful thing. It is something that unites us and can divide us as we can see in the story of the tower of Babel. Many people fear the end results of what our language is becoming. With the poor state of our public education system and the advent of texting and Twitter, they are concerned that our language may cease to exist as we know it. And they may be right. In fact, if our world survives long enough into the future, I am positive they are. But that is the reality of language. All language at all times is constantly evolving, being molded by the new and parts forgotten like the old. It is a natural path.
Stan Carey writes in his blogpost Language Correctness, Corruption, and Doom;
“It’s an understandable conceit of each generation to claim special status for its own era: never more chaotic, never more exceptional, never more imperiled. The Austrian writer Hans Weigel exemplified this paradoxical position in his book Die Leiden der jungen Wörter (The Sorrows of Young Words): Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before."
Stan goes on to make the point that there is really nothing for us to worry about. Language changes and it is perfectly natural and no harm will come because of it.
Granted, the subject of Stan’s post was narrow in its scope and does not address what I intend to address in this post. But it is a good place to start. I am not bringing up this issue of proper language or lack thereof in today’s culture to sound the death knell of English as we know it. The world changes and people’s experiences and environments change and language adapts to the needs of the people using it. Nothing is more an evidence of this than the phrase uttered by a reporter as he was describing the crash of the Hindenburg on live radio. He practically screams the phrase, “Oh, the humanity!” At the time, those who heard it must have shuddered in absolute terror at the event unfolding that they could only imagine through his anguished words. Yet, today, the meaning of those words has been lost for the majority of us. I can imagine what they might have meant but in truth, even I do not really understand the reason for that specific phrase. So now we see the phrase used as a phrase uttered for comedic effect. What brought such horror to those who first heard it now brings laughter. Are we being insensitive to the tragedy that unfolded that day? I don’t really think so. It is simply that this phrase spoken all those years ago has lost its meaning in our current culture and has become something we find humorous because of our complete lack of understanding what he was referring to. Language changes, even in highly educated societies. There is no arguing that. But is the change always natural or is it sometimes manufactured deliberately? Is it always harmless or does it have the capability to cause great and irreparable damage to unwitting people in a society? Is Stan’s point the be all and end all of a language in flux? I would like to suggest to you that it is not. In every era, it seems there has been concerted efforts of groups of people to pervert language for their own gain.
In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden says;
“There is one evil...which should never be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, and that is the corruption of the language..."
This quote may seem extreme but when you realize he isn’t speaking of the use of dialects or slang as corruption of the language but rather of that deliberate perverting of words and meanings in order to manipulate people I think we can conclude that his statement is not unwarrented in the least. We all have seen and heard examples of this in our culture today. Most evident is the language associated with politics. We call it “spin”. Bill O’Reilly based an entire political television show off of this word called “The No Spin Zone”. His catch phrase was “The spin stops here.” In the past we would have used the word propaganda. But this word in itself has fallen prey to the corruption of language and has lost its power. It is fascinating.
Caleb Johnson in Philosophy and the Corruption of Language explains the significant danger that this corruption poses;
"Such language (political propaganda) is not meant to engender consideration of the issues, but rather to free them from the burden of consideration."
That is a profound statement. The language of propaganda sounds like it is a discussion of the issues at hand but really are a mechanism to avoid all real consideration of same issues. Those who employ such language appear as someone who genuinely wants and desires and seeks after substantive discussion of the issues but all the time are perverting the language to skirt the issue so that we feel as though we have sufficiently vetted it while never even having come to an understanding of it.
You might say, “Well, that is politics isn’t it? It has always been that way and it always will.” And you would have a valid point. Yet there are those in politics that speak straight and what Auden says certainly holds true when considering our government. And if politics were the only place this phenomenon took place, the warning may not be as dire as it sounds. But I am afraid that politics is not the only platform that this perversion has reared it’s ugly head. We are seeing it begin to prevail within our churches, even traditionally conservative and highly orthodox denominations as the Church of the Nazarene of which I am a member.
To fully understand the gravity of the situation and the reason the word Auden uses to describe it, “evil”, is not an overstatement or sensationalizing it in any sense I want to touch on one idea of the origin of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson posits the idea that all language is derived from words as symbols of observable nature. When man sees a truth evident in nature, he creates a word to describe it. He then takes that word and applies it to his human thought thus creating an idea that this word expresses. It now can be shared with others who have that same commonality of observable nature. Emerson explains it this way;
“That which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge, — a new weapon in the magazine of power.”
So Emerson theorizes that words have meaning and the ability to express that meaning because of their connection to an observable truth in nature. But in the phrase above “that which was unconscious truth” Emerson is alluding to a further revelation of language, that is, the observable truths found in nature are themselves symbols of spiritual truths. And those put in place by God, Himself. Let that sink in for a moment.
Truth is set into place in this world by God via nature which is observed by man who then creates a symbol of that truth (a word) with which he is able to communicate said truth to others. Then the purpose of language is to communicate truth. That is staggering. It is frightening, honestly. This makes the corruption of language significantly more important than one could ever imagine.
Here is Emerson’s description of the problem of the corruption of language;
“A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections.”
Wow. It sounds like the destiny of a person’s very soul is reflected in his language. There is so much to pull from this quote but I want to touch on two phrases. The first, “The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.” Emerson is clearly speaking of how it is now. Now, as in how this world currently is. Of course this world was not always like it is now. It once was perfect. It once was a place where humans lived in perfect peace and harmony and daily communed directly with God. I can imagine that God even introduced the very first words, those symbols of His truth, to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Can you imagine? The very first mention of words spoken by Adam are found in Genesis 2:19-20 where God was creating animals and bringing them to Adam to be named. Just as Emerson suggests, these first words of Adam were symbols of the animals that God had created. What an amazingly intimate connection between Adam and God, His creation and Adam’s language. And then we see something absolutely stunning when considered within the context of language. In verse 22 God creates Eve from Adam’s rib and brings her to Adam and the first words recorded that Adam speaks are to name Eve as “woman” specifically to relate the truth of her being “taken from man”. What a fantastic expose of the creation of language and the purpose of it in God’s providential plan for humankind.
However, in the very next chapter of Genesis we see that in this world of Adam and Eve, this prefect Garden of Eden where humans communed with God uncorrupted unlike the humans of Emerson's world, a serpent enters the Garden and from his corruption comes the first corruption of language ever recorded. He questions God, and Eve for some reason in her response adds to what God actually said by stating that He told them they were not to even touch the tree or they would die. Immediately the serpent jumps on the falsehood and the first “spin” is spun. And the rest, as they say, is history. So in the beginning it was the corruption of Satan which spawned the initial corruption of language which lead to the Fall of Adam and Eve with its deadly effects rippling through history to this very day. So now, when a person is corrupted and the truth is not the driving force in their lives, the result is a corruption of language. The second phrase, “and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not;” brings me to the crux of this post. There has developed within many churches and specifically within my Denomination, a group of people who have become experts of the corruption of which I have been writing. They go by many names because that is the nature of their discourse, nothing is concrete, everything is fluid including how they refer to themselves. Liberal, Progressive, Postmodern, Emerging, Emergent and one the of the latest, Historical Nazarenes, are all names that they have used for themselves and have been used of them. These people have taken as their weapon in their “magazine of power” not the acquisition of an “unconscious truth” as Emerson mentions but rather the propaganda spoke of by Caleb Johnson. They have taken words that previously had unquestioned meanings to the members of our Denomination such as “gospel”, “missions”, “the Word”, “holiness” and much more language and added to them, twisted them or poured completely new meanings into them. Coming to our people and our leaders and presenting a new idea would be one thing but that is not what these people have done. They have presented a new and entirely foreign idea wrapped in old language. And as the meanings of words we once knew become warped into something we have never believed or taught, the people are being deceived into believing a lie, just like Eve in the Garden. The Gospel has become a “social gospel” where salvation is determined by our actions and attitudes. Missions has become a “missional lifestyle” of attending to the physical needs of others while ignoring the spiritual death suffocating them. Heaven has become the Kingdom on Earth. And Scriptures have become a mostly human “narrative” and the Word something that can only be properly experienced in “community”. The words we thought we knew no longer exist. And the beliefs we thought we held so firmly, we are told we have never believed since the beginning. This is not an overnight corruption, this is a poisoning of language that has taken decades. So long so that those who are using these words today and espousing the ideas hiding in their shadows and the spaces between the lines actually believe what they are saying. To them it is not a lie, but truth. Of course this is not new. C.S. Lewis in “The Death of Words” wrote;
“When you have killed a word you have also, in so far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that the word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”
What better description of what is happening in the leadership of the Nazarene Church could there be? And those who are still holding on to a fragment of the truth doubt more each day if that truth ever even existed. There is no language left within our denomination to express the reality of the Truths we were founded on. It is a battle for the very soul of our church and the souls of each member. According to James Strauss, Lewis “fought the corruption of language, the attempts to use words to confuse and blind others, to make some actions possible either by making the necessary thoughts thinkable or by making clear thought impossible. Yet Lewis also knew that the problem, the danger, was not only or even mainly one of corrupted language but of corrupted souls.” Emerson would concur.
What does this then mean? Those of us yet uncorrupted by this poison being pumped through nearly every vein of our church and those of you in other similarly infected churches must stand against this corruption of language every time it is used. It is not just new phraseology or a new way the say the same thing. It is the vehicle of the cancer of humanism to be delivered into our churches. It is the skin of the truth stuffed with a lie. When your pastor uses it, when it is in your Sunday School material, when its in the songs you sing, or the publications you promote or the videos shown in your church, confront it. Demand an answer to what your leadership truly believes. And explain why this corrupted language cannot stand in our assembly. If it is allowed to stand, the Truth and our Church will be what falls. One or the other. And it is not just the souls of those who pervert the language of the Church that are corrupted, it is the hearers of the words as well. Which makes C. S. Lewis’ concern even greater for us today.
James Strauss explains how Lewis sees these people bringing about this corruption, “the method is to force people to think certain thoughts by giving them the words to think them and by destroying the words in which they might think other thoughts,” This is exactly the method used within our church for the past 20 years.
This flies in the face of how Lewis and Emerson saw Christianity. In “Man or Rabbit?” Lewis writes;
“Christianity claims to give an account of facts . . . to tell you what the real universe is like,” and if Christianity is true, “it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don’t should be equally well equipped for leading a good life.”
So then, what hope is there for people who are lead to believe they are Christians while being taught just the opposite? That Christianity and Scripture is not an “account(ing) of facts” but a “story”, a “narrative” to model our lives after?
Still, merely standing against the encroachment of this corrupted language is not enough. According to Strauss from his study of Lewis “The exposing of the corruption of language is not enough, it is imperative to “see” correctly that we must be holy (I John 3.2,11) Language is best purified...by holiness.”
1 John 3:2 tells us that ultimately we will be like God because we will see Him as He is. So being holy and seeing God clearly and reflecting the truth of God in our language are all tightly woven together on purpose by God from the beginning and through the end. And in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul makes it clear that Christians are to speak clearly with language that can be known. “v9 In the same way, unless you use your tongue for intelligible speech, how will what is spoken be known?” Though the context of this passage is in regards to speaking in tongues, the message is clear, there is something that needs to be known and we need to speak it clearly.
Lewis’ sentiment is echoed by Emerson when he adds “But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God.”
Hearkening to the motto of the Church of the Nazarene may be the best way to understand how the remnant in the Nazarene church can begin to “pierce this rotten diction”, that is, “Called Unto Holiness.”
It stands to reason that if “the corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language” then the sanctification of the language of truth can only be brought about by men and women of holiness “in alliance with truth and God.”
I want to be that man. A man of holiness of life and language. And I am praying daily for others who would rise to that call to holiness. Let us continually be adding new weapons in the magazine of our power. Our old words have been perverted and killed. We need new ones. May God grant us wisdom and His direction through the Holy Spirit.
“So let it be”.