In the Beginning was the … Emoticon?
As I trek through Jane Austen novels with my book club, I am struck how much people in that era deliberately upheld and honored language through their correspondence. Communication between two people was a careful, regarded, protected art. In person, it consisted of lively conversation—challenging, witty, concise dialogue. At a distance, it took the form of letters. Slow communication. Careful interchange. Words to be cherished, memorized, and repeated to one's self. Austen and the women of her time were challenged to correspond with elegance and precision; their futures relied upon the success of their words.
Now, tiny, brightly colored icons pepper our short interactions. Over text and on social platforms, we opt for effortless, clipped conversations, rather than well-articulated thought. It may be easier and faster, but it often lacks depth and substance.
Writers are trained to avoid clichés—trite, common-place phrases. I can still recall my terror at receiving my first college essay back; I had never seen so much red ink. All over the bleeding page, phrases were underlined and marked cliché. I struggled to understand why these phrases were deemed inadequate. They work. They effectively communicate what one is trying to say.
Over time, my writing professor showed me the difference between writing effectively and prophetically, between phrases that are colloquial and those that are inventive. Though these go-to idioms may have been evocative when first employed, they've faded into transparency. Writers, like Christians, are called to come up with fresh expressions, language that challenges people to pause, to wonder at a phrase and the concept it embodies. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls it "mak[ing] the familiar strange." .
It is no coincidence that when John is constructing a stage for the story of Christ's incarnation, he begins by saying, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1, ESV). How remarkable that the closest concept John can find to Jesus is the Greek word logos, which means "a word, uttered by a living voice, embodies a conception or idea." Just as Christ is the embodiment of God, every word is a little incarnation. A little articulation of truth. A little way to peer in and hear God speaking.
If we are to "not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God," (John 4:4, NASB) we must approach Scripture with a framework for loving, cherishing, and working with words. Do we regard words as utilitarian or accept them as a sacramental? Do we peer through words to their meaning, or do we ever stop and look at them, enjoy them as created works?
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