For the Love of Words

Harvey Porter, long-time preacher and hero of mine, once said that in order to be a good preacher you had to be a lover of words. My father bequeathed to me many quirks, but maybe one that I value the most is a profound love of words. I have seen him reading Ogden Nash and laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. My father loved a beautiful poem and beautiful song lyrics. To him words were not simply objects to be thrown around mindlessly, but tools to be treasured and protected.

Words move us, shape us, comfort us. Conversely, words can cut, inflame, and injure. While other animals have the ability to communicate using sounds, only humans have the ability to create and share the specific meaning of individual sounds called words. There are countless languages on the earth, but none without meaning, and none without the use of specific, individual words.

There is something profound, and even mystical, then, that the gospel writer says that Jesus was the Word of God. The Divine Being that is beyond and transcends all understanding, descended into this world to be known as the Word.

All of which is to point to the death of words, of language, today. Words used to have meaning – words used to be signs that pointed to a fixed and immutable truth that lay behind the vocalization of certain sounds. Take the word truth for example – on one level the word is simply a combination of a sequence of vocalizations that, on their own, have no significance. On another level the word points to something solid, secure; as I mentioned above, immutable and eternal.

But, today, even truth is dying. We are told there is no immutable, eternal truth. Truth is a construct, truth is what we want it to be, truth is transitory, cultural, and ephemeral.

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, out-of-date, and stodgy, but I treasure words. I value words not only for the beauty that they reveal, but for the beauty they contain in-and-of themselves. There is a quality, an aspect, of words that I hold to be precious. Even though the eternal concept of Truth cannot be affected by the degrading of the physical word truth, its value in the economy of language does suffer. The mention of truth used to make gentlemen stand up and remove their hats. Now, all it does is engender snickers and guffaws.

All of the preceding leads me to the question that motivated this post – what does the word Christian mean anymore? That is to ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he or she is not a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist? Is one a Christian simply because he or she says that he or she is a Christian? Is there some definable, measurable quality that would identify a person as a Christian? If so, what is it? How would we identify it?

There is a collection of writings that, for roughly two thousand years, men and women have used as a measure of what it means to be a Christian. We call that collection of writings a Bible, a word that simply means book. The Bible is a book of books, comprised of millions of words. Those words are not just any kind of words, however. For those who have historically used the adjective “Christian,” those words are believed to have come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the Holy God. They are not, in other words, just inspirational words, such as the words of the great Greek, Roman, or English poets. No. These words are believed, are confessed, to be the words that God himself gave to his chosen penmen (and perhaps, penwomen). To deny that those words are inspired of God, and even to deny the truths that those words communicate, has, for those two thousand years (and even longer, adding the history of the Jewish people), meant that one is outside of the boundaries of the church. In other words, you cannot deny that which creates the identity of a person or group, and then claim the identity of that person or group.

There are people who reject the inspiration of the Scriptures. They therefore reject the foundational truths revealed in those Scriptures. They may selectively borrow certain qualities or virtues promoted in Scripture, but for them those qualities are simply inspirational, and therefore not crucial (note, the root for crucial is the cross – that which is crucial is founded of the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross).

Here is where, for me, the “rubber meets the road” (to use a colorful colloquialism). It is simply impossible to deny the inspiration of the Bible, and deny the historical and moral teachings contained in those Scriptures, and then claim allegiance to the One to whom those Scriptures point. It is not enough to claim a belief in the historical life of Jesus. It is not even enough to claim that this Jesus died to forgive the failures of mankind.

If you deny the claims that Scripture makes about itself (or, that the authors make regarding their writings) then you cannot claim participation in the realm, the kingdom, that the Scriptures identify – the kingdom of God. To me its that simple.

I am enough of a realist to understand that in the ebb and flow of history, the meanings and the usage of words changes. Take, for example, the bastardization of the word gay. Gay used to mean happy, carefree, exuberant. Now it is used to describe a deviant sexual lifestyle.

I question whether the word “Christian” can have any linguistic value today. I know the truth behind the word has not changed, but because we use the word to describe everything from trinkets and baubles to the precise and exacting exercise of theology, the word has “literally” become vapid, insipid, meaningless. I think for the time being the phrase disciple of Christ has more validity. You can measure discipleship, you can challenge it, test it, qualify and quantify it. Not so much with the adjective, Christian.

I love the word Christian, however. In its pristine form it means, little Christ. Those who honorably claim the name seek to become like Jesus in every way. In order to do that we must rely on the words he loved and meditated upon – the Holy Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. We must also rely on the words of those whom He inspired to continue his message – the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament. We must love the Word, and we must love the words.

And, for anyone who does not love the Word, let him or her be anathema. (1 Corinthians 16:22). If anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel preached in the Scripture, let that one be accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9)

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.