The power of life and death is in the tongue says Proverbs 18:21 but the sentiment does not translate well into our modern language. The reason why is because the ancients had quite a different relationship with language than we do. For them, words were power. In the first couple thousand years of known history, language had the ability to change the minds of the gods. In fact, one could hold them in one’s power if only the right spell or incantation was spoken. I am not arguing with the Bible verse, just our contemporary interaction with it.
No separation between the word and the object it described existed. This becomes important later on. Suffice it to say that metaphor was not a concept quite yet for most civilizations. When they spoke of the sea god, they meant the sea itself. Not until later did words become more nuanced, deriving meaning on a number of different levels.
The Bible’s relationship with language reflects this as evidenced by the aforementioned proverb. Of course, the biblical context is a bit different since witchcraft and the use of incantations is strictly forbidden. Perhaps the best story that evidences this view of language in what is known as the hieratic phase of language (to toss a $5 word at you) is that of Jephthah. In Judges 11, we read of the hapless Jephthah who promises God the sacrifice of the first living thing he sees if only God will help him win a battle.
We know how the rest of the story goes. His own beloved daughter comes tripping down the road to greet her father. He cannot go back on his word. She doesn’t even question it. A vow is a vow. No one in our modern world would consider the vow more important than the life of the girl, thank goodness. But the story inadvertently reveals a relationship with words that is immovable. Words spoken become curses or promises, going out into the world to live out their unchangeable meanings. The power of life and death, indeed.
With more educated and sophisticated civilizations comes a more complex relationship with language. The purpose of language became argument rather than sheer power. In fact, its power lay in the ability to reason. The New Testament is written in this phase that will go on over at least another millennia and continues somewhat til today. The metonymic phase is based on a slightly different idea of truth. Truth can be proven through logic, at least for the Greeks and the philosophers that come after them. Even now, English courses teach logical fallacies and other relics of the study of logic.
The Gospels participate in this quite wholeheartedly. Each one argues a view and a proof of Christ as the Messiah. Paul’s letters define and expand the theology of Christianity, arguing for grace versus the law, the atonement versus sacrifice, and love rather than religion. He even takes on the Greeks with his powers of reason. Out of the mouths of the Old Testament prophets come the Word of God Himself. But in the New Testament, the apostles preach to Jews and Gentiles alike, using persuasion and drawing on the Old Testament as their original source from which they prove their arguments.
But modern language evolved once more. Various literary critics have a litany of names for the current phenomenon of modern language; the common era, the scientific phase, the modern, and so forth. But the curiosity of modern language is that it is nearly empty of meaning. This is not due to a general apostasy or that moderns are somehow more inherently evil than the old pagans. It is merely an effect of how knowledge has grown and shaped our relationship with words.
A chair used to be a chair. Now it is an endless complexity of natural and physical laws and phenomena. If it is wooden, it is carbon-based. It is made up of billions of tiny pieces of matter that may or may not be light and sound. Send some special waves at it and you will be able to tell exactly how old the tree is that it is made from. If the chair was made from a non-sustainable source, then it is also a political chair, depending on who is sitting in it… and who isn’t. So in some sense, it is even a moral chair, or immoral one, depending on who is looking at it.
Nothing is simple anymore. Knowledge in all of its complexity sometimes dilutes meaning. I can read a library of books about sailing. But knowing about sailing and knowing how to sail are two different matters. Love is now the spilling of brain chemicals in someone’s direction or perhaps a biological imperative. Sometimes it is a behavior that is socially constructed, politically motivated or a compulsive addiction. None of this knowledge is immoral, mind you. But it is the assignment of morality to knowledge that gets us confused. No wonder the marriage rate is down. The contemporary mind asks What does marriage even mean? Is it cultural? Moral? Legal? Can anyone marry and to how many?
When a thing was proved, back in the metonymic phase, a general consensus was achieved. Now we just wait until the scientists begin lobbing competing theories and studies at each other from across ideological lines. Eggs were terrible for you until they were the perfect protein. Low-fat diets were the way to go until the obesity rates skyrocketed. Contemporary minds get to choose which scientific theory aligns with their version of the truth. Modern language is a moving target.
So what is a person to believe? That isn’t even the question anymore. We ask what a person should know. Belief is merely a biological artifact, the purpose of which does not stand up to the theories of evolution particularly well. Northrup Frye, whose ideas I have just thrown at you from his book, The Great Code, makes a fascinating observation. The Bible, he says, while it uses the various forms of language mentioned above, does not actually fall into any of the three categories. The Bible is revelation. Nowhere does it seek to prove the existence of God; that is presupposed. A given. The Bible exists as a revealing of God Himself. It is alive and active. Revelation isn’t about your brain; it involves your spirit. Spirits are hard to prove scientifically by the way.
But where does that leave us, the pathetic little post-modern shills who watch television shows about nothing? Who say we love tacos with the same dedication that we say we love our mothers? We know that language doesn’t have power. After all, the talking heads shout every night without seeming to change anyone’s minds. The scientific minds have failed to solve our basic human dilemmas. Disease, poverty, war, murder, and the whole panorama of human misery still exists, though somewhat mitigated if you live in the right places. Somewhat. I’m not against science. I just think it doesn’t save us from our own hearts.
So Christians bust out their apologetics, proof that the Bible is a great history book. That it can be taken as a science book. They comb Israel for archaeological finds because that is what people think they need to believe. Scientists even stage studies on prayer and near death experiences hoping to quantify God and the soul or to disprove their existence. But they buy into the myth that God, like the chair, is quantifiable. After all, everything else is. But here is what everyone who wants to know whether there is anything to the whole God thing needs to know.
The proof is in the pudding. Find a Christian and ask them why they believe. If you accidentally pull a weed instead of a stalk of wheat, find another. There are fake Christians just as there are fake everything else. Bet you they will tell you that their lives are changed. That they have been set free.
Then pursue God. Not the knowledge of God. God, Himself, who can’t wait to reveal Himself to you. Not through magic words, argument, or scientific theorems. God is after your heart. You can argue facts all day long. But once the love of God has rocked your whole world, the rest just becomes noise. Give up trying to prove He exists. That won’t actually accomplish anything either way. Instead, seek to know Him. He will bypass all the words because He is the Word. He will give you what you really want; revelation.
Want to break your brain and enlarge your spirit? Northrup Frye is great for both:
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