Uh, you know, whatever

Words matter, and sorting things out is the Christian's ultimate task

Issue: "Army's new MP's?," May 31, 1997

When God called on Adam, very early in the history of the world and of human experience, to name all the animals, the Creator was in fact putting on a dual demonstration. On the one hand, he was showing off the penultimate aspect of his incredibly imaginative handiwork. Adam must have been stunned-even in his early, unfallen condition. But on the other hand, God was also apparently eager to show Adam the critical importance of language and words to be used as tools for stewardship of the new creation. To this day, both are wonderful gifts from God-the creation itself, and the words he gives to describe, to analyze, to understand, to develop, and to enhance it.

Words by their nature are intended to make distinctions. That's why you need so many of them. For Adam, aardvark clearly meant one thing, antelope another, ant still another, and anteater something radically different-especially for ants. It's not at all clear that Adam, at that early date, had also to distinguish between cocker spaniels and German shepherds, but at least the pattern was established that God was providing a profound means to sort things out.

Indeed, as my wife reminded me the other day, the whole work of creation involved this very process. God started by sorting out the light from the darkness, the evening from the morning, and the sky from the waters. After a busy week, he was still sorting out male from female and teaching Adam the wonderful importance of going on and on with a never ending, word-by-word description of such distinctions. To this day, it is key to the human experience to use words to make distinctions.

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Let me use words, in fact, even to make a distinction between words and other art forms. Great paintings, trumpet concertos, and ballet performances are typically powerful not because of the specificity of what they portray, but precisely because of their ambiguity. "I see this in it," says one observer-but the observer's companion sees something totally different. Such is the wonder of ambiguity.

Words too can be ambiguous, but such ambiguity is a subset of their chief function. Words in the end are meant to distinguish, to sort out, to help us say "This, not that." It's the reason, after all, that we run for the dictionary. It is also why, not so incidentally, we crave written critiques after visiting the art museum, going to a concert, or watching a ballet. Words help us crystallize the blur of our experiences.

Christians, as part of their continuing stewardship of the creation God has given us and the society in which he has placed us, need to get a new handle on the use of words to make distinctions.

Our own generation has tended instead toward the denial of all such distinctions.

Against all the evidence, our generation argues increasingly that male and female are essentially the same; that sex between two males is hardly different from sex between a male and female; that humans and animals are basically alike, since humans, after all, are descended from animals. Against all the evidence, our generation argues that no form of government is at root better or worse than another, that no particular economic system can be counted on to treat its participants in a generous or a miserly way. Against all the evidence, our generation has learned there is no such thing as great art or great music or great literature, and that there are no real absolutes in morality.

Nor is it coincidental that while all this has been happening, our language patterns have run over with ambiguous and cowardly phrases like "sort of," "you know," and "whatever."

"I know what I'm thinking," says the seventh grader avoiding the task of getting serious with his homework, "but I just can't think of the right words."

"Then," says a wise parent, "you don't really know what you're thinking yet. Put it in words."

It is not too much to claim that our resistance to using words to sort things out is itself part of our rebellion against God's order. On the one hand, we deny the distinctions that he has created. On the other hand, we reinforce our denial by refusing to pick up the very tools he has given us to spell out and understand his distinctions. The two forms of rebellion then start working in tandem, each of them feeding the other.

It is also the case, of course, that Christians are supposed to be reconcilers. In fulfilling our task of making proper distinctions, we will not mindlessly create walls of separation where God wants unity to prevail.

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