I think about words often. In writing, word choice is crucial. Quality writing exists when precise and clear language is used, it is what makes a piece understandable and beautiful. But it seems a growing trend to praise words that are merely pretty adornments for dangerous ideas, to take emotive pleasure with very little thought for what is actually being said. Ideas have consequences, and our use–and misuse–of words matter a great deal in how they shape how we think and act.
Words matter enough for us to require definitions and clarity from ourselves and others. G.K. Chesterton noted this in his book The Ball and the Cross,
“Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.”
Words shape how we understand ideas, how we express them, and ideas precede actions; thus our usage of words and absorption of them (whether passive or active), make a great deal of difference in shaping us and the culture at large. C.S. Lewis wrote of the danger of the death of words because of lazy and imprecise usage in his essay, The Death of Words, “men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say.” Imprecision and ambiguity can mean the death of a word, and thus an idea.
It is for this reason that my interest was piqued by Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. It’s an interesting piece. Hopeful, popular, with a starry-eyed optimism in human accomplishment while being ambiguous enough (and borrowing a host of religious language) to grant wholesale acceptance. Much like most of the inaugural speeches.
Who doesn’t want “harmony for all,” or a “new chapter” of “hope and laughter”, where democracy is undefeated and our nation’s sins are bridged over with a utopian grandeur? Professing Christians in particular seemed to swoon over her words, particularly her most oft quoted, final stanza:
“For there is alway light
if only we are brave enough to see it
if only we are brave enough to be it.”
But Gorman’s words, upon closer scrutiny, and in reference to her other works, reveal that she is not talking of light, love, mercy, or justice, the way Christians understand them, and in this age of malleable redefinitions Gorman’s reimagining are precisely what we should expect. It is only in such an age as this that a poet can speak in one breath of “harming no one,” while also quoting Nietzsche’s dictum “might is right”–with an undefined promise of mercy. It is only in our sexualized, self-defining epoch that one can spend a poem talking of justice and peace with another lengthy poem dedicated to the demand for unfettered freedom to kill unborn children.
I don’t fault Gorman, she isn’t a prophet, she is a parrot of her time. A passionate, talented, misdirected soul; not the first, nor likely the last. She is a prime example of the voice of our culture. A culture who has adopted the reasoning of Lewis Caroll’s Humpty Dumpty:
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The questions is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that is all.’
The current sweep of feeling is that words can take on whatever meaning necessary. Words such as justice, good and evil, man and woman, mercy and love, are now decided, not by an infinite reference point, but by the actualized self. This is the logical end to a culture unmoored from God. We are left trying to self-create, making our own morality with bits and pieces exhumed from the grave of religion. In our Promethean age we’ve acted as Dr. Frankenstein and created a stitched together moral monster, “those who urge us to adopt new moralities are only offering us the mutilated or expurgated text of a book which we already possess in the original manuscript. They all wish us to depend on them instead of on the original, and then deprive us of our full humanity (C.S. Lewis).”
Christians know this mutilated morality is a path to death, and yet we still hesitate to call it such. We look upon the monster and say, yes, but that flap of skin there looks a bit like our idea of mercy, why be so critical?
Why do we keep silent in the face of this bastardizing of what is true?
Perhaps because we have lost our ability to discern what is true and good, and what is merely imitation. We may have grown accustomed to the moon, and so we begin to forget how bright the sun is. This may indicate our need to spend less time gazing at imitation lights and more time awash in the Light of the Son; his words, not the world’s.
Or perhaps we fall prey to what Kierkegaard noted of his own time:
“There is always a secular mentality that no doubt wants to have the name of being Christian as cheaply as possible.”
We may leave falsehoods, the misuse of words, and the twisting of God’s design, unchallenged because we are afraid we will lose the favor of the world. We shuffle our feet and look away when the Bible speaks of less trendy things. We’ll talk of peace, and love, and mercy, but we will avoid those taboo words like submission, holiness, and God’s justice, because then we may lose our seat at the world’s popular table. But this world is destined for failure. Just as Humpty Dumpty fell from his wall, so too, the latest glittering promises will shatter, unable to uphold themselves without an eternal foundation.
We could fall into the trap of despairing or pointing fingers outward, looking with disdain upon the Gormans and other parrots of the age, but that would be no more honest than the cowardice of saying nothing. For Christians know better than anyone that the twisting of words begins in our own hearts, and darkness does not reside merely out there, but within each of us. We know that we are no different, we too were word-twisters, self-righteous makers of morality monsters. We all have wanted hope while denying the God who grants it, we have all wanted to have the good while being enemies of goodness himself. We have all claimed we want light while hating the Light that reveals our wickedness, but he came anyway, he dispelled the darkness in our hearts, and so we gladly shine as his lights, knowing he is precisely what is needed.
We live in a culture where the blood of millions of innocents washes over us, while pious words proceed from our lips. Christians have a duty to call evil what it is, that is part of how we love the world Christ came to save, love does not let untruth remain unchallenged, “a love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).” To love this world spinning toward its own cataclysmic self-destruction is to clearly and concisely show them where they have erred, not to celebrate their counterfeit claims.
For Gorman is right, there is always light. For Christ is the light of men and darkness cannot overcome him, but without him there is only “darkness outside and within (T.S. Eliot),” and we must tell the world it is so.
We know that life is sacred, granted by the Creator himself, that men and women are defined by the God who fashioned them uniquely in the magnificence of genetic design, that justice and love are defined by the God who is love, who in this love satisfied perfect justice by bleeding over human enmity, and we know that apart from him there can be no justice, love, mercy, nor even light. If we know these things, we must speak of them clearly, honestly, and dispel any ambiguity surrounding them as the world seeks to redefine them.
In a sense we must quarrel a bit about words, because we belong to the Word himself.