“Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be deployed, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship.” – Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
In the past few years in American society, we have seen language used in a myriad of ways, ways in which we are reminded of the need to reflect on the power of language. In particular, it seems pertinent to explore how the power of language relates to our love of neighbor. How does caring for our words relate to caring for people? Marilyn Chandler McEntyre explores this same question. In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, she writes,
“Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another. We need to take the metaphor of nourishment seriously in choosing what we ‘feed on’ in our hearts, and in seeking to make our conversation with each other life-giving” (2).
A film that comes to mind when I consider the power of language is the 2008 Canadian indie horror film Pontypool. The film centers on Pontypool, Ontario’s radio host (and former shock jock) Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), who is broadcasting his radio show in the middle of a blizzard. The first sign that something is amiss is when Mazzy encounters a woman who is not appropriately dressed for walking around in a blizzard and who, as Mazzy calls out to her to see if she’s okay, begins repeating Mazzy’s own words again and again. While he finds this deeply concerning, he nonetheless continues his trek to work.
As the day, and his broadcast, move along – and as he continues to piss off the station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) – we witness the unfolding of a plague, an infection which spreads and turns normal, every day people into 28 Days Later-kind of creatures. And how does the virus spread? Through human language. The terror though is not merely that it’s spread through human language, but that certain words affect people differently. Even with a day filled with confusion and terror, by the end of it, they’ve dodged the Apocalypse, as Grant Mazzy declares in his sign off,
“But you know what friends? We were never making sense. And today, when Armageddon leached out into your good, good mornings, you know what? It’s just another day. Another day in Pontypool. The sun came up, you did what you did yesterday, and it’s exactly what you’ll do tomorrow. Today’s news folks, today’s late breaking, developing just across my desk news story is this: it’s not the end of the world folks. It’s just the end of the day. This is Grant Mazzy for CLSY radio nowhere, and I’m still here.”
This film, though a decade old, almost functions like a prophetic call to remember and reflect on how we use words. The breakdown of communication is not something to glibly ignore. The “virus-as-language” motif of the film, along with how different people are infected by different words, both serve as metaphors for the ways we can protect against communication breakdown by speaking in ways which promote other-centered love and human flourishing for all people. And, in particular, those who confess the Christian faith should be the ones at the forefront of this, not the ones joining in on the chaos. In Redeeming How We Talk, Ken Wytsma and A.J. Swoboda discuss the role of dialogue and personal relationships, writing,
“The ability of humans to talk in dignified and respectful ways has fallen on hard times…It isn’t that the amount of information or words has declined, bur rather deep, transformative, and redemptive communication has fallen victim to the new realities of modern culture. Whatever the cause – maybe the internet, social media, television, or simply the pace of contemporary society – we are losing our ability to connect with one another…We speak all day but rarely think about the words we say.”
With digital culture an integral part of the modern world, it is hard to think of life without social media being present, especially ones like Twitter and Facebook. Many of these online spaces have been used as wonderful resources to share goodness, truth, and beauty. However, they have also been used to promote hate, to misrepresent others for the sake of tribal approval, and as replacements for personal journals, having no filter and saying whatever we feel like regardless of who they hurt or the consequences of our posting it. In other words, we can often use language as a weapon to win a war and not a tool to bring order out of chaos.
Perhaps the best summary of our careless use of words comes from Dr. Mendez, as he tells Mazzy, “Your friend is sick. I’ve seen a lot of this lately. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s hunting us.” People whose lives are characterized by non-stop talking, who must always be right, and who must share their opinion or disagreements are sick. It is a sickness of the inner life, one which can cause our hearts to turn inward and callous, one in which we seemingly lose the ability to be quick to listen and slow to speak. And with the anonymity and “post-and-go” kind of environment social media can foster, we often live our lives completely unaware of how our words hurt.
When the Epistle of James warns us of the power of the tongue and likens it to a blazing fire, we are given an invitation to cultivate and care for our language. A stewardship of language is not about being elitist or tone-policing. Instead, it’s about having wisdom to know when to speak, when not to, and what the best words to use in a situation might be. It is one thing to speak honestly about our story, but it is another to use our story as a judgment seat on which all of our nouns, verbs, and adjectives fall on unprepared ears, taken off guard by our words and left unable to process what we have said.
A stewardship of language recognizes that for those of us in the Christian tradition, we do not merely speak for ourselves. We do not simply speak for the sake of being heard, even as important as that may be. We speak in order to love our neighbor, to build them up in love, to lovingly correct and rebuke in love, and to be patient and exceedingly gracious. For, as followers of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, we first and foremost know the power of language – from “Let there be” to “It is finished” to “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
With Pontypool, we are reminded how much semantics matter because language matters. Language is never merely neutral. It is always doing something. It must not be thought about uncritically. Mazzy and Briar had to think about language in order to survive the virus. Perhaps the same is true for us. If we desire to have healthy communication, we must use our words to “engage in rich, nourishing conversations that echo the voice of God and speak life into His world” (Wytsma & Swoboda, 18). This calls for courage, humility, compassion, patience, and a deep, long-suffering desire for goodness, truth, and beauty. It also requires us to seek to understand others in ways which accurately reflect what they have actually said, not what we think they said or what we wish they would have said. As Duane Elmer writes in Cross-Cultural Conflict, “We are called to love all people. But can I truly love someone I do not, at least to some measure, understand? Love requires at least some understanding of its object…When we truly love others, we love them in their own context…We can’t express love in a vacuum” (13-14).
And this is the whole point: we speak in order to love, to help others flourish, to promote the common good, and to commend goodness, truth, and beauty. This will look different in a variety of contexts and from person-to-person. But let us rise above the chaos to speak a better word – to call forth others to listen more, speak less, and when we do, to steward our words well. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.