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.
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?
Am I saying that it's wrong for Christians to use emoticons? Of course not. They're fun, and sometimes that sort of effective, easy communication is necessary. However, Christians must take all their actions captive, thinking critically about how they engage cultural patterns. Amid a flurry of constant, quick contact, we must move from simply communicating to conversing. We must see in every word a tiny theophany—God among us—and in every phrase sustenance, manna for our life together.
Let's elevate our conversations beyond emoticons, beyond iPhones, and social media. Let's share deep, fresh, meaningful words together—on Sundays, around our tables, over coffee or wine. Let's name things like Adam did, weave words like Isaiah, echo what John the Baptist bellowed in the wilderness, and tell parables like Jesus. Let's resume the prophetic work given to God's people by learning to love and care for words.
Andie Roeder Moody serves as an editorial and marketing coordinator at Christianity Today. She and her husband live in Chicago and worship in the Anglican tradition. Andie plays with words at Wayfarings and tweets silly things as @andiemoody.