A second excerpt from my plenary address given at the Ekklesia Project Summer Gathering earlier this month.
Who would have thought that “measuring our words” would come to mean observing the 140-character limit of a Twitter post or crafting the perfect—clever-yet-concise—Facebook status update? A friend recently confessed that she often finds herself parsing her experience into Facebook status updates in an internal commentary in her head. Her honesty points to how easily all of us are caught up in forums and media in which a good deal of attention is paid to words but very little to language—to the shared forms of life that make language more than just a mode of communication.
If you’re a regular on Facebook, maybe you’ve been the recipient (or the perpetrator) of a status update that failed to communicate—a cryptic message about something personal in your life or an obscure song lyric posted for no apparent reason. (I’ve noticed that college students seem to favor the obscure song lyric option in what I take to be a perverse attempt to confound their elders). Such miscommunication is more than just sloppy speech or willful confusion; it falls under the category, I suggest, of what Wendell Berry calls the illegitimate use of the powers of language. “Language that becomes too subjective,” says Berry, that is too cut off from a common world, “will impose, rather than elicit, its desired response.” Genuine communication, real understanding, will not take place.
Now if you are not a part of the world of Facebook, first of all, you are much admired for your resistance, and secondly, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about, which is pretty much the point.
It isn’t just new social media that present a challenge to the stewardship of language and the practice of word-care, obviously. The Church has long been in the grip of the language of the market—of investment and growth, of management, results, and advertising strategies. We’re also captive to the language of consumerism which makes salvation a commodity obtained through a “personal decision” and colludes with the discourse of entertainment to present us with an array of choices when it comes to worship “styles” and mission “opportunities.”
Much of the Church’s worship speaks the language of commercial pop music with its emphasis on facile lyrics and simplistic melodies—“praise music,” it’s called; you might have heard of it. One example is a popular chorus called “Our God is an Awesome God.” I often think about this song alongside, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which is not only a praise song of sorts but is also a tour de force in Christian theology and doctrine: Salvation, Creation, Incarnation, Christology, Death, Evil, Eschatology—it’s all there in Luther’s rousing anthem, crafted into a narrative with tropes and images that resonate deeply with the story-world of Scripture. “Our God is an Awesome God” is skimpy and artless by comparison and lacking in textual (and musical) nuance. Moreover, songs like “Awesome God” do not mine the deep reservoirs of the Church’s theological and biblical heritage, and because interiority is their “hook”—there is no traditioned speech they draw on or are indebted to—they impose, rather than elicit, their desired response.
Many churches live in the language-world of computer technology where Microsoft’s PowerPoint does the talking on Sunday morning. Just as a typical PowerPoint presentation in an IBM boardroom too readily elevates format over content (“chartjunk,” as one critic has described it), PowerPoint in worship reproduces the same “stacking” of text, the relentless sequentiality that divorces content from context. When the text of a hymn (or, more likely, a praise song) is projected onto the big screen, it can only be experienced as fragmentary and incoherent—small groupings of words cut off from the narrative whole and no musical notation at all. The textual and theological arc of a great hymn cannot be communicated when only a few lines of text can be accommodated on each of the 30-something frames it takes to display the entire hymn.
Worse, perhaps, is the morning sermon brought to you by PowerPoint. Richard Lischer has noted that “[t]he projected outline of the sermon gives the impression of a reasoned flow of information, but the conversational, dialectical aspect of the sermon is eliminated. We are left with a list.”
This returns us, I suggest, to an observation made earlier: our cultural fixation on words but our lack of attention to language and its shared forms of life. Like the boxed script under a TV talking head, words on a big screen in church are flat, depthless, isolated from context and practice. But the words we speak in worship and preaching are often so dense (and so odd) that they make no sense apart from the Church’s strange language and its attendant practices and gestures. “This is my body,” is simple enough English, but it is a phrase that both acknowledges a mystery beyond human language and requires the peculiar linguistic community of the Church for its intelligibility.
There’s an unspoken assumption undergirding this practice of borrowing from language-worlds for the Church’s worship and ministry—from corporate culture, commercial pop music, computer technology, and others: that they are value-neutral, mere tools that can be taken up and used without effecting the job at hand or its outcome. But of course no medium or discourse is value-neutral. Theology done on a blog is not the same as theology done in a book or in a classroom. I think that it’s possible to do theology well on a blog, but form always shapes content and we are unavoidably affected by the discourses and media we engage; that is part of their power and their point.
To be stewards of the strange language of the gospel is not to try and protect it from outside influences—as if that were even possible. We communicate our story through speech that is always culturally conditioned. But we also practice discernment in the ways we tell the story, alert to temptations that would minimize or domesticate or otherwise miscommunicate the unsettling grace that comes to us in the Logos of God—temptations that would make God “nice,” say, or “religious” or “one of us.”
The language of our call to worship earlier this afternoon is an example of this kind of stewardship of language, this kind of recognition of the “awesome” God we worship. I’m also reminded of Annie Dillard’s well-known observation about worship: “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy,” she says, “as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.”
We are stewards of a strange language indeed.
 Berry, Standing By Words, p. 32.
 Berry, Standing By Words, p. 32.
 Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2003).
 See my article “PowerPointless” in The Christian Century, July 25, 2006, p. 10ff.
 Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), pp. 25-26.
 D. Brent Laytham, ed. God is Not . . . Religious, Nice, One of Us, a Capitalist, an American (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
 Annie Dillard, “Holy the Firm” in The Annie Dillard Reader (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 447,