In the Beginning was the … Emoticon?
I belong to a generation of online natives, owning my first cell phone around age 10 and learning to communicate via text message years before I wrote emails or crafted essays.
These days, you'll still find me texting, toting around my iPhone and spewing a stream of tweets and Instagram updates, but I draw my digital line at emojis, those tiny smiley faces and cartoon symbols. Right about now some of you probably want to reach for that one that looks like The Scream. But stay with me. As a writer and a Christian, I care far too much for words to indulge emoticons.
Words are a gift from God, a piece of his created order given to humanity, as author Marilyn Chandler McIntyre reminds us in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Christians are fundamentally a people of the Word, a body formed by Holy Scripture. What we know about our faith we know by words.
Our Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit and crafted by the God-breathed creativity of men. Before they were written, they were passed down orally, repeated by communities and families, memorized—in homes and tabernacles and tents of meeting. The sacred sharing of the Word is preserved in the church when we gather each week and feed each other on Scripture.
Our commission with language began long before the church, however. In the first chapters of Genesis, God assigns Adam's first chore: naming. He immediately engages humanity in creating with language, and this remains central to our calling. Ezekiel is commanded, "Son of man... Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel" (Ez. 3:1, ESV). This model becomes ours: we are to be nourished by God's Word and then sent out as prophetic witnesses in the world.
Our role as stewards of language is challenged as our methods of conversation evolve, as words are trimmed and supplemented with substitutes like emoticons. In an age of LOLspeak, memes, and emojis, our culture's rapid communication leads us to abuse or replace words as if they were any other commodity. But words have a sacred place in the life of God's people, and in our current trajectory, we may be losing our ability to savor them.
While the Internet and smartphones offer powerful platforms from which spurt communication, these popular emoticons illustrate how shallow our contact often is. I cannot slide open my iPhone without seeing an emoji flourishing an otherwise incomplete thought sent by text or social media. I fear that we cheapen the gift of language by communicating in ways that keep us from having to use words.
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