One of the top stories tonight is about our President tweeting insults and engaging in name calling. Much of the appeal of the President seems to be his willingness to speak in these ways. As someone who has always seen language as powerful and sacred, it angers me. As an 11-year-old, I would tell other kids not to use the word “retard” because it caused others pain. As Jewel said in her song Sensitive, “It doesn’t take a talent to be mean and words can crush things that are unseen.” We need to wield our weapons wisely.
But I have friends who see it differently, who find the honesty and bluntness of his language refreshing. They argue that the lack of name-calling and vile language doesn’t mean better character. And if I’m honest, they have a point. Being polished on the outside does not necessarily mean purity on the inside. I get the appeal of vulnerability and transparency, but I still can’t give up on the idea that language is powerful, important, and should be used wisely.
Interestingly, in this day filled with news about language, Jonathan Merritt’s new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch was released. I’ve had the privilege to read an advanced copy and am looking forward to getting the audiobook (new credit coming on the 17th-yay!). I love audiobooks when the author narrates, and re-listening to books, slowly digesting layers of information and inspiration is one thing that makes my long commutes bearable.
In this book, Jonathan speaks wisely into the division language and word choice can create:
“We may choose not to use the word retarded because it is unnecessarily hurtful to those with mental challenges. But we should not pretend that purging this word from our vocabulary solves our collective insensitivity to those people or their problems. The hard work still remains. We have only fooled ourselves into thinking we have solved a problem that still very much exists.” (Merritt, 2018).
This is wise and timely, though reading it grates my nerves. But if we’re honest, eliminating words doesn’t eliminate problems. We need to do the hard work of working through the underlying issues. That doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and use the word retarded. But it does mean that we should engage in meaningful dialogue with those in the disability community about how to work towards meaningful change and healing. My friend Marie (on twitter as @cpforadults), who leads an online support group for adults with cerebral palsy is my go to person for this. I’m thankful that we have a relationship where we can have hard talks.
Because as Jonathan says, discussing language is complicated and won’t be easy. But it is important, especially sacred language. Jonathan’s move from the South to New York City left him feeling like he could no longer “Speak God.” As a girl born and raised in Connecticut, some of what Jonathan shares is foreign to me because Connecticut doesn’t have the cultural familiarity of sacred terms that Georgia does. But as Jonathan points out, evidence does show that as a society we are using sacred words less frequently. And not just terms like atonement and propitiation, but also simple words like grace, wisdom, and honesty. If God is important to me (He is!) then I need to have language to share Him with others. So I am willing to engage in the dirty work of having tough conversations about sacred words. I encourage you to pick up his book and to start having tough conversations, at coffee shops, over dinner, in the park, wherever you choose. And, as we work to reimagine sacred language, we may find that same language will shape us, molding us into who God wants us to be.