Last week I watched the movie Pontypool. It’s a zombie movie with an interesting twist (spoiler): the infection is embedded in language. The effect is an interesting look at communication, viral memes, and the power of words and understanding.
I love literature, poetry, and fiction because I believe in the power of words. Not in a prosperity gospel kind of way, or a new-age The Secret kind of way, where positive thoughts become positive mantras become reality. You cannot talk your way out of cancer, but God can speak it out of existence.
Language moves us, as anyone who has cried while reading a novel can attest. It can transport us to Middle Earth, or Narnia. Lyrics and poetry and show the beauty of the ordinary. The liturgy of our local churches is the spoken words of freedom in the gospel, allowing us to love God and love others. Words haven an incredible power.
But they have power because of the one who created them.
The Power of Words to Create
We cannot create prosperity or health through our words, but we can create with them. In the realm of literature, as I’ve already mentioned, whole worlds have been created like Narnia. In this way, we are reflecting or “imaging” God—the creator of all things. Genesis 1:-3 presents us with the drama of creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
In these three verses, God’s creative power is shown through exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution. God conquers the darkness and chaos with a spoken word. First there was nothing, then a voice, then light. The power of God’s Word creates. The power of our words create as well, though in not so dramatic fashion as out of nothing, and the work of God’s creation continues to echo in the corridors of time.
But there is another way in which words can create. Genesis 1 tells us that God created everything from nothing and affirms it is “good;” Genesis 2 gives us a picture of the good: humanity in relationship to God, each other, and creation in such a way that there was wholeness, peace, and harmony.But then something happened and each of those things were distorted and made ugly—but in this post Genesis 3 world, the power of words can be wielded to recreate wholeness, peace, and harmony. There is a sense in which words heal, not cancer of the body but cancer of the soul.
If someone is in sin, we can use words to call them to repentance and offer them assurance of forgiveness (Proverbs 27:5-6). As we do this in our liturgies corporately, we should be doing this in our relationships personally. If someone is overcome by anxiety or despair, we, under the authority of God and Scripture, have the power of life in our words, and in God’s word to us through Jesus and Scripture. Words have power to restore what has been broken—in God’s words to us, our words to God, and in our words to one another.
The Power of Words to Destroy
Unfortunately, as I’ve alluded to already, there is also a power of words that subverts the good power of creation: the evil of destruction. We see this dark power at work at the beginning of Genesis as well, in chapter 3. Like cattle to be slaughtered, the serpent in the garden used his words to bring destruction by inciting an unwinnable rebellion.
“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”…“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent provided a counter narrative to God’s good creation that attacked our very identity. We were already made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26), but it was the power of words that introduced doubt—”You will be like God.”
This satanic word destroys by decreating, by taking the order of the world and placing it back into its former formless, empty, darkness (1:2). And just as the echoes of creation reverberate through our words, this satanic word has embedded itself like a parasite into our communication. Our words indict the murder in our hearts. Our language can be bombs rather than balm. Our speech can bring chaos rather than order.
A Modern Example of the Power of Words
During the last presidential debate, I made my fair share of jokes on twitter and Facebook, two websites that, like this one, is still primarily driven by our words (Though, to be fair, Facebook may evolve from words to pictures of cats in the near future). I tried to get some friendly punches thrown at both candidates, and as much as possible, poke at the words said rather than the person who said them.
Unfortunately, during that same debate, a much-more-followed pundit had some very different remarks to say via twitter.
I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) October 23, 2012
Obama: “Stage 3 Romneysia” – because cancer references are HILARIOUS.If he’s “the smartest guy in the room” it must be one retarded room.
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) October 23, 2012
It’s easy to judge Ms. Coulter on the choice of words she used, but that would be taking the easy road of deflecting the reality that most-if-not-all of us have used the same words, for the same rhetorical impact. The intent cannot be anything less than to tear-down, to destroy. Rather than affirming the dignity and worth of all human beings by virtue of being made in the image and likeness of God, these remarks bear the image and likeness of the serpent. They remove the dignity and worth of a group of people, then denigrate someone else by placing them in that group.
And we’ve all done it.
Maybe it’s not the word “retard;” Maybe it’s a racial slur. Maybe it’s the way we talk to our spouse, or how we talk about other churches. Maybe, it’s the way we talk about other political parties, other churches, non-Christians, homosexuals, or Muslims. This is not about the intolerance of tolerance—we can disagree, even powerfully so, with any of these people. What we cannot do is be unloving. Christ hasn’t given us that option. We cannot undermine their dignity and worth. It is not unloving to call a sin a sin, but it is unloving to not point them to the One who took their sins upon himself and offers peace and wholeness. Something we all long for and need.
This is the power of words, which is why I end this post pointing you to the wounding words of a friend (Proverbs 27:6). Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens penned this response to Ms. Coulter in An Open Letter to Ann Coulter. May we all see the bigger picture that John alludes to here. We are not above Ms. Coulter and the words she chose to use, but we are blinded sometimes as to how. Thankfully, the power of God’s words open our eyes to such things.