Repentance.’ ‘Virtue.’ ‘Sin’: Words as relics
Of a weird, less sophisticated time,
A time that’s wholly past and derelict,
Which we can only now bring back to mind
Enveloped in protective irony.
We’ve cordoned off our past and its ‘concerns’
In the name of making us feel more free
We must re-phrase – it’s how our freedom’s won.
And so we slice our bodies with no pain;
We grope in loveless sex with no release;
We search for self, though nothing there remains;
We make a ceaseless noise and find no peace
Unmaking language, nothing left to say:
Blind impulse speaks, and wordless we obey.
“You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.” Ah yes, we are all lost in Wonderland a bit these days. As with Lewis Carroll’s tale, communication and our collective conversation is handicapped by the discounting and rebranding of words. When “spiritual” is good but “religious” is bad, we might think it sick or dope, and we might be right. No wait, that’s wrong. What?
As Owen Barfield says in Poetic Diction, “Of all devices for dragooning the human spirit, the least clumsy is to procure its abortion in the womb of language.” It is in the “womb of language” that ideas are conceived, and then can grow and develop. The wider, richer, and more precise our vocabulary is, the more we will be able to use it to express ideas clearly and reflect on them deeply. Unfortunately, our language is subject to verbicide—the ‘murder’ of words through exaggeration or misuse, so that the original meaning is lost. Verbicide can kill words by distortion as well as by watering down their meaning, as in the use of ‘sinful’ to mean ‘enjoyable.’ If a delicious slice of chocolate cake can be ‘sinfully good,’ then the word ‘sin’ has no real meaning at all.
Verbicide can occur through carelessness, but it can also be deliberately cultivated by those who find it in their interests to render certain words empty of meaning. Authentic debate and discussion—like authentic democracy—are messy and discomfiting processes that require confronting ideas that are disagreeable, and accepting that you can’t always have things your own way. To raise an issue for discussion and argument means at least tacitly accepting that you might not be able to convince the other side that you’re right . . . and having to live with that. The alternative to authentic discussion is to manipulate circumstances such that the debate never happens, and the position that you favor becomes entrenched—or to manipulate language so that the other point of view becomes unsayable and eventually unthinkable.
Thus, apologists must be prepared to deal not just with arguments and misunderstandings, but also with the conscious or unconscious manipulation and corruption of language.
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John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Meet The Author
Dr Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; she holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road, 2017) and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius, 2014), and she has contributed chapters to C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams), C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most (edited by David Werther) among other volumes; she is also a published poet, with poems in Word in the Wilderness and Love, Remember (edited by Malcolm Guite).
Her academic work focuses on the writings of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her current book project is Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (forthcoming from Kent State University Press, 2019).
She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and travels regularly to speak on Tolkien, Lewis, and imaginative apologetics.
Photo of Holly Ordway by Lancia E Smith