On Language and Lumberjacks

From Eugene Peterson’s memoir:

True language has to do with communion, establishing a relationship that makes for life: love and faith and hope, forgiveness and salvation and justice. True language requires both a tongue and an ear…depersonalized, nonrelational, unlistening language kills. In the land of the living it is blasphemous, whether spoken from pulpits or across the breakfast table.

Language is relational: it is only given to us by others, and its primary use is the creating and sustaining of relationships: the relationship with others, with self, with God.

As such, language begins with seeing–and smelling and tasting and touching and feeling–but sight is the sense on which we most rely. We must allow ourselves to see the world as unique, and to see each other as unique for language to have any possibilities for us. This is the danger of cliche: we come at the world as others have come at it, we use language that is worn and trite and void of meaning. Cliche–whether we are describing a nestled village in a valley or encouraging someone to buck up–refuses to celebrate the uniqueness and miracle of the village, of the other person. It is a cookie-cutter approach to language, and it deadens the speaker even more than it deadens the listener. For the listener can deny a word: the speaker has lived it, has made it his or her own. Has refused to see, to engage.

True language of relationship demands that, most of all, we see each other as unique. This is a weakness for today, via the internet. We no longer speak face to face. People are avatars and icons rather than material bodies with immaterial souls: it is easy to cuss at or curse an avatar. It is not a person, and if you read an internet message board you will see such language. These places are damaging in that they are depersonalized, and for the great strength of the internet there are also great weaknesses–most of all, places where people are no longer people, they are no longer humans but glowing pixels to be manipulated and used.

Language itself needs to be redeemed.

The literary theorists would remind us that even when it is personal, language is slippery and hard to pin down–the signifiers, or words, cannot match exactly the signified. The word tree and the thing itself are radically different, and when I say “tree” we all have slightly different ideas in our minds, whether of some pine atop a peak or an oak in the backyard. It is as if we can begin to redeem language now by paying attention to what we say, but on the other side of the curtain we will be given an entirely new language, one that is not so slippery and malleable–it is almost as if our language now is a shadow of what’s to come.

In the interim, as we speak–just like it is as we go to work or sit down at dinner–we are engaged in the everyday act of making things new. We not only give a cup of water to the thirsty but we think about the words we use to relate to that person–to all people–so that even labels of “thirsty” drop away and there is the dizzying humanness of the person, the accumulation of stories and acts and words and thoughts that make each of us. The accumulation of hair and skin and bone.

May we pay attention to our language, and refuse to speak platitudes that are void of soil and sinew and story. The composers of our holy writs knew this, and they wrote in a language worthy of field-hands or dockworkers, full of the here and now, the sheep and goats. Jesus knew this, which is why he told stories about seeds and coins and fish–refusing to escape into the depersonalized positivism of all inclusive statements–but instead employing the rough language of the earth. I wonder what stories he might tell today, were he followed by an assorted band of librarians and lumberjacks, by a wide swath of society that did not need to escape this world, but live fully in it, to see with new eyes and speak with new words. True language is about relationship, and we must realize that before we get to the messy work of redemption.

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