Just words

Death Sentence.jpgA good little letter by David Hall published in this month’s Crosslight newspaper alerted me to Don Watson’s old book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, and to the wonderful words in its Introduction:

PUBLIC LANGUAGE CONFRONTS MOST of us every day of our lives, but rarely when we are with friends or family. Not yet, at least. It is not the language in which we address lovers, postmen, children or pets. So far.

True, in the households of young professionals they will say sometimes that the new dog adds alpha to their lifestyle; that they need closure with their orthodontist or mother; that they are empowered by their Nikes. There is seepage from the public to the private. But that’s all it is. At this point in time.

Public language is the language of public life: the language of political and business leaders and civil servants – official, formal, sometimes elevated language. It is the language of leaders more than the led, the managers rather than the managed. It takes very different forms: from shapely rhetoric to shapeless, enervating sludge; but in every case it is the language of power and influence. What our duties are, for whom we should vote, which mobile phone plan we should take up: in all these places the public language rules. As power and influence are pervasive so is the language: we hear and read it at the highest levels and the lowest. And while it begins with the powerful, the weak are often obliged to speak it, imitate it. ‘Even politicians speak / truths of value to the weak’, Auden said. Believing as they do that everyone needs something even if they don’t know it, marketing people would agree.

The influence of marketing shows itself in advertising and commerce, where we would expect to find it, and in politics and war, where its presence might surprise us. Marketing goes wherever the media goes and the media goes pretty well everywhere. Naturally the language goes too, which is why all kinds of institutions cannot pass on the simplest information about their services without also telling us that they are contemporary, innovative and forward-looking and committed to continuous improvement, as if the decision to raise their rates or change their phone number can only be grasped in this context-sensitive way. To help us all get going in the same direction they might give the context a name, like Growing Victoria Together or Business Line Plus, or Operation Decapitation where the service is a military one.

Managerialism, a name for various doctrines of business organisation, also comes with a language of its own, and to such unlikely places as politics and education. Even if the organisational principles of management or marketing were so widely appropriate, it is by no means certain that their language is. Marketing, for instance, has no particular concern with truth. Management concerns are relatively narrow – relative, that is, to life, knowledge and possibility. This alone makes marketing and managerial language less than ideal for a democracy or a college. In addition their language lacks almost everything needed to put in words an opinion or an emotion; to explain the complex, paradoxical or uncertain; to tell a joke. If those who propagate this muck really believed in being context-sensitive, they would understand that in the context of ordinary human need and sensibility their language is extraordinarily insensitive. It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless.

Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another. In all societies, ‘To take power is to win speech’. Whatever its appearance, intimidation and manipulation come as naturally to public language as polite instruction, information and enlightenment. That is why vigilance is needed: an argument concerning the public language is an argument concerning liberty.

To Levi’s list of obfuscating types we could add many sociologists and deconstructionists, including some who design school curricula and courses with the word ‘Studies’ in them. The politically correct might have a case to answer for years of philistine abuse (often, strangely, in the name of cultures), had the Prime Minister not abolished them. We are now all free, he says, to speak our minds; but the language continues to decay, which rather lets political correctness off the hook. Political correctness and its equally irritating twin, anti-political correctness; economic rationalism; dope-smoking; Knowledge Management – wherever cults exist the language inclines to the arcane or inscrutable. This is no bad thing of itself, but obnoxious in a democratic or educational environment. Among Druids, Masons or economists we expect the language to be unfathomable or at least unclear or strange. They speak in code. This can only be because they do not want us to understand, or do not themselves understand, or are so in the habit of speaking this way they have lost the ability to communicate normally. When we hear this sort of language it is, therefore, common sense to assume there is a cult, or something like a cult, in the vicinity. And be alert, if not alarmed.

While English spreads across the globe, the language itself is shrinking. Vast numbers of new words enter it every year, but our children’s and leaders’ vocabularies are getting smaller. Latin and Greek have been squeezed out of most journalists’ English and ‘obscure’ words are forbidden unless they qualify as economic or business jargon. You write for your audience and your audience knows fewer words than it used to and hasn’t time to look up unfamiliar ones. The language of politics is tuned to the same audience and uses the same media to reach it, so it too diminishes year by year. Downsized, business would say. Business language is a desert. Like a public company, the public language is being trimmed of excess and subtlety; what it doesn’t need is shed, what is useful is reorganised, prioritised and attached either to new words or to old ones stripped of meaning. In business, language is now productivity-driven.

What of the media whose words we read and hear every day? The code of conduct of the International Federation of Journalists is categorical: ‘Respect for the truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.’ There can be no respect for the truth without respect for the language. Only when language is alive does truth have a chance. As the powerful in legend turn the weak or the vanquished into stone, they turn us to stone through language. This is the essential function of a cliché, and of cant and jargon; to neutralise expression and ‘vanish memory’. They are dead words. They will not do for truth.

Therefore, to live according to their code, journalists must choose their own words carefully and skilfully and insist that others do the same. The proper relationship of journalists to the public language is that of unrelenting critics. It is their duty to see through it. But we cannot rely on them. Norman Mailer once wrote on behalf of writers like himself that ‘the average reporter could not get a sentence straight if it were phrased more subtly than his own mind could make phrases’. They munched nuances ‘like peanuts’, he said. True, it happens and it’s maddening, but inadequate prose is still journalism and roughly meets the requirements of the code. It is something else, however, when journalists ignore abuses of the public language by people of influence and power, and reproduce without comment words that are intended to deceive and manipulate. When this happens journalism ceases to be journalism and becomes a kind of propaganda; or a reflection of what Simone Weil called ‘the superb indifference that the powerful have for the weak’.

The war in Iraq provided a case in point. The military provided brand names – Shock and Awe, for instance – and much of the media could see nothing but to use them. Each day of the campaign the media were briefed in the language of the Pentagon’s media relations people, whereupon very often the journalists briefed their audiences in the same language. The media centre in Doha was always on message, and so was the media. When the military said they had degraded by 70 per cent a body of Iraqi soldiers, this was what the media reported. Few said ‘killed’ and only the Iraqi Minister for Information in his daily self-satire said ‘slaughtered’, which was a more honest word but a blatant lie because he said it of American soldiers, not Iraqi ones. One journalist, who knew something about the effects of Daisy Cutter bombs, said ‘pureed’. And no one showed any pictures of the bodies. To be embedded with the Coalition forces was to be embedded in their language and their message. It turned out that embedded just meant ‘in bed with’ in the old language. If they said they had attrited an enemy force, generally that was what the media conveyed, and it was the same if they said deconflicted. All this was a sad retreat from both the journalists’ code of conduct and the noble achievements of twentieth-century war reporting. Just as significant was the way these words spoke for the willingness of journalists to join the military in denying the common humanity of ordinary soldiers – especially the largely conscripted cannon fodder – on the opposing side. Here was another retreat: from war reporting standards going back to Homer.

The public language will only lift in tone and clarity when those who write and speak it take words seriously again. They need to tune their ears to it. Awareness is the only defence against the creeping plague of which this is a microscopic specimen. The inquiry may allow for relevant businesses or industries to be identified and for investigation into the possibility that certain regional or rural areas of the state would be more affected than others. No doubt in the place from which these words came they were judged competent. But they are not competent in the world at large. They are not competent as language. They represent an example of what George Orwell described as anaesthetic writing. You cannot read it without losing some degree of consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You are getting sleepy again. Read aloud, in a speech for instance, an audience hears the words as they might hear a plane passing overhead or a television in another room. We can easily make it sound less like a distant aeroplane by the simple expedient of saying it as if we mean it: The inquiry will decide which businesses are relevant and which parts of the state will be badly affected. In fact, to guess at the intended meaning, it might come down to the Inquiry deciding which businesses and which parts of the state will be most affected.

Of course, it’s just one sentence. But we have to begin somewhere.

We must keep it in perspective of course. The decay or near death of language is not life threatening. It can be an aid to crime and tragedy; it can give us the reasons for unreasoning behaviour, including war and genocide and even famine. Words are deadly. Words are bullets. But a word is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a jihad, or unhappiness. Like a rock, it is not a weapon (or a grinding stone) until someone picks it up and uses it as one. We should not get cranky or obsessive about words. You can’t eat them, or buy things with them, or protect your borders with them, and it will not do to make a great display of your concern. There are more important things to think about than what we say or how we say it.

In any case resistance is probably futile: as futile as the Luddites’ resistance was futile. Managerial language may well be to the information age what the machine and the assembly line were to the industrial. It is mechanised language. Like a machine, it removes the need for thinking: this essential and uniquely human faculty is suspended along with all memory of what feeling, need or notion inspired the thing in the first place. To the extent that it is moulded and constrained by opinion polls and media spin, modern political language is the cousin of the managerial and just as alienating. To speak or be spoken to in either variety is to be ‘not in this world’.

Bear in mind just the same that if we deface the War Memorial or rampage through St Paul’s with a sledgehammer we will be locked up as criminals or lunatics. We can expect the same treatment if we release some noxious weed or insect into the natural environment. It is right that the culture and environment should be so respected. Yet every day we vandalise the language, which is the foundation, the frame and joinery of the culture, if not its greatest glory, and there is no penalty and no way to impose one. We can only be indignant. And we should resist.

‘This is my truth. Tell me yours’: A Sermon on 2 Timothy 2.8–19

A guest post by Jono Ryan.

What do you believe to be true? About the meaning of your life? About the meaning of death? About the existence of God, and the relationship of this God to our fragile world? What do we believe to be true? For most of the generations that have preceded us in faith, questions and statements of belief were of great importance—worth dying for, or even worth killing for. On occasion, we may wonder whether our Christian forebears took these questions too seriously, but it seems that in our day, we have gone to the other extreme. For within the church these days, the question of “what it is that we believe” can seem an arbitrary and ambivalent one.

About ten years ago, a British indie rock band named the ‘Manic Street Preachers’ released an album entitled: “This is my truth. Tell me yours.” The album title wasn’t so much provocative as it was ironic, and captures well our engagement with questions of truth within the church. Sometimes I think we approach the question of “what we believe” like the pick-n-mix section of the supermarket: we wander along the aisle with our bag and little scoop, maybe passing over this passage of scripture, and that teaching of Jesus but taking a little of that one, and a little of this one until we find a personal, customized blend that meets our appetite for the day. The world is created by God? One scoop. This God is good and loving? Two scoops. This God was revealed in Jesus Christ? Half a scoop? Jesus Christ was crucified, and resurrected on the third day? Christ will one day return, bringing creation to completion? Perhaps I’ll pass on those ones … but I’ve found something that works for me. The question of what is true is based upon what we find intellectually plausible, or emotionally appealing—whatever works for us. This is my truth. Tell me yours.

This album title may capture well our attitude to truth, but I think it’s fair to say, however, that the apostle Paul doesn’t have the Manics on his iPod as he is writing to Timothy here. We recall from last week that this is a pastoral letter: Paul is writing to encourage Timothy, to challenge and to coach him in his personal life of discipleship and ministry. And central to this pastoral care is the question of belief—of what it is that Timothy  believes, and what he subsequently teaches to others. It’s clear that Paul is taking quite a different tack here. The word of truth, Paul insists, must be “rightly explained.” And he claims that to “swerve from the truth,” as some church leaders like Hymenaeus and Philetus have, will instead produce gangrenous effects throughout the community, a rotting away of the body of Christ. It seems that Paul cannot say, “this is my truth, tell me yours,” for the truth of which Paul speaks is clearly something more than pick’n’mix personal preference; this is a truth grounded in something more substantial; it stands firm.

At this point, we might be inclined to simply dismiss Paul as being a closed-minded conservative, but let’s not forget that, while once he was certainly a narrow-minded dogmatic, since being confronted by Christ on the Damascus Road, his whole belief system has been blown apart. In Christ, he has discovered a truth that required his understanding to be rebuilt, piece by piece, as he learnt anew what it means to live rightly before God. And as part of this renewing of Paul’s mind, Paul has been challenging others to broaden their horizons, Jews and Christians alike.

But for all this broadening of horizons, here Paul is directing Timothy to the centre, to the fundamental truths so central to Christian identity. It would be easy for us to think that, in giving this teaching, Paul is saying “here is the truth,” “here is the correct statement”, as if the truth was something that could be learned by rote. But this would suggest that “the truth” was simply a matter of words—precisely what Paul is opposed to, when he warns us to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good, but only ruins those who are listening.” Words and statements of belief are important—indeed, Paul has devoted much of his life to them—but in the Christian tradition, truth is a person, not a statement. “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life,” Jesus said. To be a Christian is to confess firstly that in Jesus Christ, God is revealed; that in Jesus Christ, we see what is truly true: about God, ourselves, and about the world God has created. For Christians, the truth or falsity of anything else we might say or do is revealed in relation to Jesus Christ.

Perhaps we can appreciate then, why Paul urges Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ.” Paul would not undergo suffering for a doctrinal statement. He wouldn’t become a prisoner for a good idea. But for the person of Jesus Christ, for the truth Paul has encountered in Jesus Christ, he will willingly undergo hardship, even the injustice of being locked away for his faith.

The teaching Paul gives then, directs Timothy towards the person, the truth of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he quotes a statement of faith—“this saying is sure” he says. But like any statement of faith, it is sure, not because of its theological rigour, but because of its faithfulness in directing us toward Jesus Christ, the one in whom we can be sure. And this is certainly true of the saying Paul quotes, for in every phrase, we are linked up with Jesus Christ:

“If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful
—for he cannot deny himself.”

This saying is an important encouragement for Timothy’s own life of discipleship. However, this “word of truth” is also of vital importance for those around him too: this word of truth must be “rightly explained” to others, Paul urges, for those whose teaching has “swerved from the truth” has upset the faith of many in Timothy’s community. Paul’s concern is not to get everyone to conform, to tow the party line, but rather a pastoral one, because he can see that this misleading teaching has “upset the faith” of many, and is becoming like gangrene, eating away at the body of Christ. We need only consider the effect of the “health and wealth” gospel, or the way the gospel has been used to oppress women, to be reminded of the negative impact of untruthful teaching in the church. Drawing this community back to the truth of Christ, then, is not so much an exercise in doctrine as it is an important exercise of pastoral care, something we see in each of these four lines Paul quotes from this “sure saying”.

Firstly, “If we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” Pastorally, there may be those who think that the Christian life is solely about sacrifice and dying to self, leading them to the point of despair. Alternatively, there may be those who are all about “new life in Christ,” but have no idea that following Christ will always be a costly decision. Here, then, we are reminded of the central truth of our Christian identity: that in baptism, our lives are woven into the life of Jesus Christ, the one who suffered death, and was resurrected to new life. For some of us, there is a challenge here: “if we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” For in following Jesus, all of us are required to shoulder a cross, to be willing to die to our own ambition and self-interest. But there is also a great encouragement, for these moments of dying to self-interest, and of physical death itself, are all bound up in the cross of Christ, and if we have participated in this death, how much more will we participate in this life of Christ. Whatever it may have cost us, we have much to be hopeful for.

Second line: “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” Pastorally, perhaps Timothy or others around him were finding the Christian life too hard, discouraged by opposition or distractions. Or perhaps also there were those who didn’t find it hard enough—who assumed that the Christian life was one of ease and comfort. Paul reminds him, “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” We know from the gospels that Jesus, the King of kings, did not receive much by way of royal treatment. Rather, in embracing the frailty of human life, Christ’s journey was a difficult one, requiring endurance, even to the point of death. However, it was by walking this path that the power and authority of Christ was displayed. For us, perseverance is required in the Christian journey. It is a long road, and it will sometimes be difficult, but we are encouraged to persevere, because “if we endure, we also will reign with Christ”.

Third line: “If we deny Christ, Christ will also deny us.” This might trouble us, but the pastoral relevance of this teaching becomes clearer when we consider the trouble that the likes of Hymenaeus and Philetus are stirring up with their dodgy teaching. The truth of Christ we are reminded of here is that, despite our attempts to create a huggy sort of Jesus, Jesus did not shy away from confronting his opponents. “Whoever denies me before others,” he said, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” It is a matter of some consequence whether we decide to seek the truth, or swerve from the truth, and particularly when, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, we have been charged with responsibility and leadership for others in the faith. Those who are outspoken in their opposition to the lordship of Christ will be confronted.

We need to weigh this warning, however, against the closing line, which breaks with the pattern of the first three lines. For until now, these lines have started with our actions, and moved to their consequence. But here: “If we are faithless, Christ remains faithful—for Christ cannot deny himself.” Pastorally, this is an urgently needed truth for Timothy and his peers. For do not all of us struggle to be faithful to God? What if we don’t have enough faith? What if we stuff up, and make mistakes? This “sure saying” culminates in an important encouragement: that Christ is the faithful one—that while we will ebb and flow, it is the very character of God to be faithful and trustworthy. Ultimately, our relationship with God is not grounded in our flaky attempts at faith, but in Christ’s enduring faithfulness. This closing line reminds us, then, that the truth Paul is directing us toward is not simply a slogan to memorise, or words to wrangle over. The truth that Paul urges Timothy toward is the truth of God’s character, the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

A pick’n’mix truth that is simply the sum of our appetites and personal preferences has no ability to change and transform us, to call us on to anything new. Such a truth simply reinforces these chains that bind us. But as Paul reminds us, even though he himself is in chains, the word of God is not chained. As we read in John’s gospel, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the truth, and this truth will set us free. Encountering the truth of Jesus Christ has significant consequences for our life, and the life we share together. For this is a truth that is life-changing, life-demanding, and life-giving, a truth Paul challenges Timothy to take seriously, and a truth that demands our attention also. Amen.

Forsyth on liberty, truth and thinking for yourself

forsyth-12A few days ago, I posted a cartoon which included the caption [from the lips of a teacher]: ‘When writing your essays, I encourage you to think for yourselves while you express what I’d most agree with’. The post drew a thoughtful response from Andre who suggested that the cartoon raised a number of important questions, including one about ‘whether the command to “think for yourselves” isn’t also a product of late-capitalism, a variant of the command to enjoy’. I’d been thinking about Andre’s statement when I re-read Forsyth’s 1908 essay on ”The Love of Liberty and the Love of Truth’, an essay, I think, which contributes an essential mix into the issues that the Andre raises, and which I will keep pondering:

‘The New Testament knows nothing explicitly of the liberty to pursue truth. That blessing is of science and the modern age. It is not religious in its historical origin. And, in so far as it is religious at all it is the inevitable, but indirect result of another and greater liberty, which is that of the New Testament, the liberty that truth must pursue because truth first creates it. Free thought is not a primary Christian interest’. (p. 160)

‘… freedom is a thing entirely conditioned by the nature of its authority, of the reality to which it answers and owes its being’ (p. 161)

‘… theological freedom must always be limited by the Gospel that makes a Church a Church, makes it live, and makes its life free. Theology in a university, as an academic science, has a freedom (and a feebleness) which it can have in no Church. A Church of free thought would be no Church at all, but the most sectarian of sects, and the most scholastic of schools. There is something almost boyish in the aggressive use of a pulpit for free thought propaganda’. (p. 162)

‘The Church of a real Gospel is called to something more than a vague zeal for liberty as an unchartered freedom. It is called to throw its weight upon the positive Evangel which makes it free. For liberty itself could become an idol, and could be used for a cloak to hide the poverty of our faith, and to express a sympathy too soft to be firm or true’. (p. 168)

‘It has been said that the creeds represent extravagances and eccentricities imported into a simple Christianity. But to the historic eye it is rather the other way. They represent on the whole the growing corporate life which normally shed the raw Gnostic extravagances of youth. Unfortunately they came to be canonised in perpetuity, and used as means of oppression and obscurantism by their epigoni. And it was to prevent such abuse that churches arose in which the form of faith was non-confessional, based on an honest evangelical understanding, which was declaratory at most, and not exclusive … But of course if such trustful freedom became an evangelical failure, there is a natural danger that many minds would for practical purposes turn from an internal to an external authority, and would return to the idea of a brief and revisable creed which should be of obligation, as the only means of saving the Churches from dissolving into star dust and luminous mist’. (p. 170)

The Gospel According to the Beatles

In the latest CT, LaTonya Taylor reviews Steve Turner’s latest offering, The Gospel According to the Beatles. Here ’tis:

Veteran music journalist Steve Turner explores the spiritual paths of the Beatles—both collectively and as individuals—in this deftly and densely reported combination of cultural history, comparative religion, and biocritical insight. “The gospel of the Beatles is not found in their conformity to an orthodox creed,” he notes, “but in their hunger for transcendence.”


Turner begins by reporting the furor that erupted over John Lennon’s infamous (and widely misunderstood) 1966 comment that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” then compares the Fab Four to magical, shamanistic storytellers who shared the insights they gained through their spiritual explorations with an audience enmeshed in political, cultural, philosophical, and religious upheaval.

Turner wisely avoids the temptation to force the Beatles’ hope for freedom, unity, and peace into a Christian mold. Indeed, Turner focuses heavily on their use of drugs and forays into Eastern religion and the occult in search of enlightenment and spiritual insight. Still, Turner thoughtfully demonstrates ways the Beatles’ search reflects the continuing influence of Christianity: “They were skeptical and even dismissive of the church, yet many of their core beliefs—love, peace, hope, truth, freedom, honesty, transcendence—were, in their case, secularized versions of Christian teachings.

Can anyone who has read this book tell me if it is worth reading?