Language is a multifaceted creation that is both utilitarian and dynamic. While language is being used to present a truth, an intention, an instruction, and the like, it also can convey emotion and tone. It did not have to be so, but God graciously made language with significant depth. For instance, language can push one to action, the utilitarian side, while uplifting the soul, the dynamic side.
Kipling produced this duality in “If—“, a poem addressed to his son, John. In it, he powerfully and plainly exhorts John to ingest the ideals of a gentleman. The latter portion …
“ … If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
One might imagine John’s chest rise with inspiration in response to his father’s challenge and utter something akin to, “Yes, this is the man I will aspire to be!” Kipling laid before his son and many men since him the virtues men should cultivate in their lives. He masterfully colored directness with an edifying hue. The richness of language is demonstrated well as Kipling selected words of quality and meticulously arranged them for a certain impact upon the reader.
Not only can the words of language be structured in such an impactful manner, another component of language, literary devices, can place an idea or emotion in another realm so greater understanding is gained. St. Augustine accomplished this through the use of analogy and allusion (to architecture) in The Confessions. He expounds on the psalmist’s line, “enlarge my heart,” and the filthiness of sin by viewing them from another linguistic angle. Thereby, he explains their depths more fully.
“The house of my soul is too small for you to enter:
make it more spacious by your coming.
It lies in ruins: rebuild it.
Some things are to be found there which will offend your gaze;
I confess this to be so and know it well.”
The power of language is summed up in the great proverb: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Proverbs 25:11). Language can plant powerful seeds. It can also draw out of a person emotions never known. And as exemplified by the text, it can present glimmering images of beauty. Language possesses the power of poetic effort. “Poetic effort is the God-dependent intention and exertion to find striking, penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways of expressing the excellencies [seen in scripture],” writes John Piper. It is possible to find “fitting words for [the] wonders we see and savor them more deeply and speak them with more power.”*
Is technology, though, having a debilitating impact upon our language, our poetic effort? Is the fast-paced nature of our media decreasing our attention spans for deep, substantive topics—and the discussion of them? Is our working framework of language being shrunk by communicating in 280 characters or less? Is the incessant texting of sentence fragments inhibiting the ability to communicate fully and comprehensively?
The answers to these questions have not been fully realized. The data is wanting due to a number of factors: The internet and its numerous utilities are changing so rapidly and frequently that it is difficult to study its effect over an extended period of time. Some use the web on a mostly text-based level. Others consume numerous pictures and videos while surfing the web. While, others use it as a digital coffee shop. In addition, types of usage differ greatly based on age demographics. Moreover, where different age groups overlap in usage, they filter the information differently because of age, education, and experience.
In short, there is not the benefit of long term perspective to quantify scientifically the exact impact of technology upon the framework of language (the words and phrases of a language used most often). Wisdom, however, does not completely rest on the presence of scientific data. In fact, wisdom existed for millennia before the scientific method was developed for it is built upon the “fear of the LORD.” The biblical text does have precious principles, which can philosophically guide one about technology’s impact upon the use of language and language itself.
The Power of Impact
Regarding the concept of impact, the Bible speaks of it in varied ways. Impact is felt by what one looks at. A person can be easily swayed into coveting by what he or she looks at. John captured this swaying when he termed covetousness as “the lust of the eyes,” and its origin being not from God (I John 2:16). The steady, passive gaze upon an object or person greatly impacts one’s heart and can foster greed. Initially, the gaze does not have to be motivated by want. The heart, however, being extremely deceitful “above all things” can easily turn admiration or curiosity into lust—an intense desire to possess what is not or should not be one’s own (Jeremiah 17:9).
The Bible also speaks of impact’s power regardless of size. Paul instructed the Corinthians concerning this when he wrote, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump,” (I Corinthians 5:6). Impact is also felt based on one’s friends. “Bad company ruins good morals,” (I Corinthians 15:33). Just like a simple gaze can become evil, exposing one’s self to unsavory characters over time can be quite detrimental.
All in all, there is great biblical emphasis on how sustained proximity to or the presence of earthly goods or people or ideas can impact a person. The general principle of external things impacting one’s life is inferred by these texts and is reinforced elsewhere. In nature, the sun affects one’s skin. Numerous things can affect one’s mood such as viewing a beautiful flower or seeing the grandness of a mountain range. Candlelight can diminish one’s anxiousness. All of these examples point to the power of realities and being affected by mere exposure to them.
Therefore it must be acknowledged technology (laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.) can and does affect language and its framework seeing language is used within the confines of technology quite often. More often than not, one’s career, entertainment, and leisure centers around technology. Seeing the Church lives and operates in this technology-centric world, there must exist among her members the awareness of the general nature of technology and how it does or can cripple language. There are three possible language cripplers: slang, distraction, and simplicity.
The Three Language Cripplers
Slang has been a part of people’s linguistic habits for centuries. It is quite appropriate in the right setting—usually an informal one. A concerning problem, however, is arising in this age. Anecdotal evidence shows a portion of school students cannot distinguish between the settings where slang is appropriate and where it is not. Teachers have shared with researchers that they have received written assignments from students filled with text-based slang, e.g. IDK, BTW, ur, etc. The students’ language is being shaped more by Twitter, texting, and the like and less by the classroom. As well, slang (traditional and digital) has seeped into Christian culture. It is found in sermons, worship songs, on t-shirts, and the like. When speaking about the things of God, slang cannot haul the theological payload of the Bible with its trailer’s limited capacity.
The second crippler of language is distraction. Online data analytics show people spend very little time on a webpage, and those who begin reading an article are few with an even fewer number who finish reading it. Why are readers not making it to the end? The internet is filled with distraction such as sensational headlines and pop-up advertisements tailored (or not) to one’s online behavior. Naturally, language must shrink if the main goal is grabbing people’s attention and keeping it. Rich, substantive language can be rare in such a setting. Furthermore, distraction acclimates the mind to be in need of constant change and enticement. A shortened attention span makes meditation, scripture memory, and study quite challenging for God’s people.
Distraction lends itself to the third crippler of language, simplicity. For online information producers, they must grab a viewer’s attention quickly and to do that “big vocabulary words” are often not the choice du jour. Text comprised of simple language is the bait used to hook visitors and, hopefully, keep them as long as possible before something else distracts them. As well, simple language characterizes many emails. With a medium based on making communication easier, the linguistic lowest common denominator tends to dominate even more. Activities that are easier are comprised of less mental effort and less time investment. The two feed off of each other contributing to a shrinking linguistic framework. One operating from a capacity where only a portion of ability is used tends to see the overall ability atrophy and capacity diminish.
From an ecclesiastical perspective, one need look no further than the current collection of worship songs being written to see the impact of simplicity on the Church. Many fail to possess the linguistic richness and literary creativity of hymns such as “The Solid Rock” and “Come Thou Fount.” There is, however, a growing demand for more lyrically rich songs and some songwriters are seeking to fill the void. In recent years, they have realized this weakness in the Church’s contemporary “hymnal” and are seeking to provide theologically robust lyrics. There is also a growing trend of great songs being written by worship leaders in local churches.
In light of living in the “land of ones and zeroes,” the Church must remind herself of language’s scope in order to speak and write of God in “penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways.”
A Capable Linguistic Framework
The Bible contains rich vocabulary that greatly assists in knowing the Lord deeper. Terms such as propitiation and transgression are prime examples. These words take the believer deep into the knowledge of God. For instance, sin is the common term used to describe disobedience to God. One may be tempted to think transgression is a synonym for sin. On the contrary, the two terms communicate two different sides of disobedience.
In Hebrew, sin communicates the nature of disobedience. It means missing a goal or an intention. For example, an archer missing a target is an example of sin. The intended use of the bow and arrow is quite specific: use the two objects to penetrate a target with the arrow from a distance. In the biblical context, the intended use of the human life is quite specific as well: whatever you do do all to the glory of God. Mankind is to live by the holy standards established by God for his health (spiritual and physical) is dependent upon his adherence to them. When a person is not using one’s mind and body according to its design, sin is taking place.
On the other hand, the term, transgression, literally means rebel or revolt. It provides more insight about one’s disobedience. It communicates the motivation for the disobedience– for missing the mark. The motivation is war-like. It is a revulsion against the ruling authority. The word, sin, does not convey this dimension.
How is this linguistic knowledge helpful? One is able to see the severity of every act of disobedience from murder to grumbling to gossiping. They are all indicators of an active rebellion against the Almighty revealed in the purposeful negligence of reaching the goals of holiness set forth by God.
In addition to knowing the vocabulary of the Bible, it is also most helpful to have a depth of vocabulary knowledge. Depth of vocabulary is knowing a word’s different relations to other words in the lexicon, which includes a word’s synonym, antonym, and hyponymous status. Having this knowledge enables a Christian to understand in a more complete manner a term such as propitiation. Propitiation means a wrath-bearing substitute. Penal substitution is often a synonym for propitiation. Christ is a believer’s wrath-bearing substitute for the penalties deserved. He endured on the cross for the Church all of their collective eternal condemnation, and one of propitiation’s antonyms is condemnation. So, if one knows the meaning and weight of God’s condemnation, propitiation’s glory is seen more in its fullness than it was before.
Finally, a word’s hyponymous status assists the reader in understanding the context in which the term is being used. The root word, hyponym, means “a term that denotes a subcategory of a more general class.” Propitiation is a hyponym of the judicial system. All are familiar with a country’s judicial system. All understand the severe consequences for those who commit felonies and know a judge rarely provides propitiation for a convicted felon. God does, however. This knowledge of hyponym teaches one concerning the unbelievable gracious nature of this divine Judge. Possessing this depth of vocabulary knowledge can have a tremendous impact upon one’s heart.
The Bible also helps the Church understand how impactful literary devices can be. As stated earlier, literary devices shed new light on a topic, person, or event from a different angle. The Bible is brimming with metaphors, similes, paradoxes, personifications, synecdoches, metonymies, and more.**
Consider paradox. It is a presumed contradiction that upon further analysis is seen to be valid. A familiar paradox is “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you,” (Philippians 2:12-13). In other words, do the work even though technically you are not doing the work. God is, through you. In a mysterious manner, our thinking is elevated by the Spirit’s power.
Upon reading the Philippian passage, one may throw his hands up in frustration for the statement seems like a contradiction. One may not even reflect on the magnitude of what has just been read. If one, however, understands the nature of paradoxes, he will recognize this is what he has just read and strive to discern the text’s meaning because he knows a paradox is a statement of truth meant to communicate a point in a unique way. A writer uses a paradox to stop a reader in one’s tracks and push him or her to think deliberately about what has just been read.
In 1978, a group of evangelical scholars formulated and confirmed The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Article IV of this statement speaks of language’s primacy in the pursuit of knowing God. In part, it reads, “We affirm that God, who made mankind in His image, has used language as a means of revelation.” There is not an alternative means to knowing God. We are image bearers of His. Our abilities match our form, and our form is the best possible form to know and reflect the glory of His majesty. The reality of the Bible’s delivery mechanism, language, communicates to mankind the main channel God has appointed in order for man to know God and his life’s purpose.
Therefore the Church must guard against her linguistic framework being down-sized by technology. She must spearhead a linguistic renaissance, where needed, if her souls are to be enlarged with the knowledge of God. For a small linguistic framework cannot handle a massive God.
*John Piper. Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully.
** Robert L. Plummer. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible.