What language do you trust?

29 Jan

Three events have spurred these reflections. The first comes from my days as a seminary teacher, in a seminar discussing the Bible.  One student spoke up: “I grew up in a Soviet society; we knew that we could not trust what the government told us; much of the time we could not trust each other. But we could trust the language of the Bible.”  The speaker was Anne Kull, who is now a university professor in her native Estonia.

That seminar took place forty years ago. Just a few weeks ago, Michiko Kakutani’s new book appeared, The Death of Truth, an analysis of political talk in the United States. The dust jacket features a snake attacking Truth.

The third event, which forms the background for my reflections, is my daily reading of the Hebrew Psalms. Several verses stand out:

Psalm 140—

Rescue me, Lord, from the wicked,

save me from the violent.

Their tongues strike like a serpent, 

their lips hide deadly venom. 

Heap hot coals upon them, 

plunge them into the deep, 

never to rise again.

Let liars find no place to rest 

let evil stalk the violent

and drive them to their ruin. 

Psalm 12—

Everyone lies to their neighbor;

they flatter with their lips

but harbor deception in their hearts.

Psalm 149–

May the Lord silence all flattering lips

and every boastful tongue—

those who say,

“By our tongues we will prevail;

our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;

the poison of vipers is on their lips.

Deep fissures of alienation run through American society today. Our public discussion focuses on our political alienation; ironically that discussion is itself often alienating—marked by name-calling, hypocrisy (as the antagonists insist each upon their own ideological purity), division within communities and even within families. Although certain individuals are pictured as the primary agents of alienation,  the body politic itself is alienated; in actual fact, “we the people” are its agents.

This being the case, it is not surprising that we are alienated in and by our language. Politics is a realm of alienation, and so are the news media  (Fox News versus MSNBC); in some instances, even sports has been politicized and thus also become a domain of alienation.

The three events I have referred to span three millennia. I am shocked sometimes by how relevant the ancient psalms aren’t the current scene—I think particularly of “they flatter with their lips  but harbor deception in their hearts.” Language is a great gift, without it we would not be human—and yet our tongues are as sharp as a serpent’s, and the poison of vipers is on our lips. Our language is demonic—following theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of the demonic as “the good turned against itself.”

What are we to do? Language, in both writing and speaking, pervades our living spaces, like the air we breathe. Like Anne Kull, each of us has specific language-places that are our safe places, our refuges, from demonic language. Sections of Scripture, favorite poems or novels, pieces of music and songs—all of these can serve to remind us of truth that does not kill; they can be language-oases for us.

I am interested in the safe places of language that serve you. What language do you trust? Send me your responses, and we can stage our own life-sustaining language event.

(c) Phil Hefner 1 February 2020

4 Responses to “What language do you trust?”

  1. Larry Foster February 2, 2020 at 7:08 pm #

    Some thoughts stir up. One has to do with distinguishing use of language between the notion of “What to think.” versus, “How to t think.” The second appears more process oriented and the more open consideration of phenomena.

    A second angle relates to use of language in the formation of questions, questions that lead to either more objectivity or subjectivity. That is, in seeking to state a position, belief, or opinion with less reactivity or less generated willful polarities, fruitfulness and less intensity can emerge when asking, “What, How, When, or Where,” about a subject or issue. The more subjective, and thus more potentially rancorous reactions, seem to stem from the question of the “why of something.” “Why are they so lazy, evil, useless, mean, violent, etc.?” The why question leads to interpretation that can end up in mindsets that harden particularly when the atmosphere is tense.

    I think another piece has to do with communication as an emotional process. When things are calm one can be more direct and get a hearing. When there’s some tension it helps to use story, fable, parable. When the interactions are toxic I don’t think anything one says really gets through without reactivity and discounting interpretations. Then it becomes a matter of what you do more than what you say. I believe this shows up during funerals for example where family tensions have been harbored over time.

    Words or language may be seen on an emotional continuum, or so it seems. Words can range from trivial to extremely important and loaded. We can make stuff up. Words affect the nature of relationships and outcomes. I’m drawn to what is attributed to Walter Brueggemann, “Reliable utterance keeps us from Chaos.”

    Thanks, Phil. Blessings

    Larry (former student at LSTC)


  2. Liftthescreen February 7, 2020 at 9:12 pm #

    From Esther Shit—

    Your blog is SO TIMELY!!! Especially today, a week after you sent it, when we have seen truly demonic language coming from our President, and at least glimpses of the truth and sanity from some of the House Managers, Mitt Romney, and several op-ed columnists.

    One thing I have learned as converted Jew over these past 30+ years: speech is a subject that often comes up! From the prohibition against gossip (probably more in the abstract than in daily life..), speaking truth to power (including God–one of the reasons we admire Abraham so much, flawed though he was) and Noah as well.
    And the prohibition of bringing unnecessary shame to another (even if true)

    For me, more than individual policies, the worst thing about Trump is that he truly seems to be a ba’al lashon hara–a master of the evil tongue. His use of language, his choice of words, his demeaning characterizations are intended to hurt, divide, shame, gloat, etc. And it is just as infectious as the corona virus, in it’s own way.

    I believe that humans are a mix of yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov–we have inclinations to evil and to good. An evil inclination (say greed or lust) can be channeled into a good inclination by starting a business or getting married and starting a family. Likewise with speech–it can lift up, inspire, comfort etc or it can bring down, divide, shame etc. It’s a matter of intent.

    So how to spend time with “good language”–some simple things for me–I watch the news on PBS only (don’t have cable, thank goodness), I try to read fairly standard journalism (NYT, WP, NPR). Subscribed to the Christian Science Monitor for years–got too expensive for me, but it was a place I knew I could read about real news and stay away from inflammatory pieces. I also try hard to find new, reasonable information sources: for example, The Niskanen Center (https://www.niskanencenter.org/) and the new Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (https://quincyinst.org/ )

    Because I’m very interested in American history (esp 20th century), I’ve found it useful to read memoirs/biographies of what used to be “tradional conservative” and/or Republican thinkers (Hoover, Coolidge, Bob Taft, Eisenhower, Buckley, Russel Kirk) Andrew Bacevich has been important as well.

    With regard to social media (i.e. Facebook) I try hard (not always successfully) to NOT react in vicious language to the latest Trumpian move/remark. Likewise, I don’t follow either the far left or far right FB pages and won’t respond if any friends start a “mean-spirited” conversation. Occasionally I’ve had to unfollow friends. On a positive side, I try to insure that anything I post are either uplifting (nature, illustrations, or meaningful posts), and/or true (from a reliable source) etc.

    In short, Phil, some of what I do is avoid contentious or mean-spirited or untrue speech, counter such things by posting inspiring, beautiful, and/or true pages) and to read from sources that generally truthful. It takes a fair amount of monitoring and I’m not at all totally successful.

    What a great conversation you’ve started. Look forward to seeing other suggestions that pop-up!!!!

  3. Liftthescreen February 7, 2020 at 9:15 pm #

    From Kirt Hendel—

    Thank you again, Phil.

    In my life journey, I particularly trust the radical good news revealed in Jesus the Christ that God is gracious, loving, and trustworthy. Furthermore, I have been wonderfully blessed by the trustworthy nature of the love expressed through word and action by my spouse, children, and grandchildren, all of whom are such precious gifts of the trustworthy God to me and who experientially and inevitably remind me of God’s persistent love for me, for them, and for the whole creation.

  4. Liftthescreen February 7, 2020 at 9:16 pm #

    From Joe Wolf—

    March. 4, 2020 MEN’S BREAKFAST 1 Corinthians 13 By Joe Wold

    “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; Love is not irritable or resentful; 6 Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.

    1 John 4:7-8 says:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. As Christians, we confess that Jesus is God. So most Christians will not be surprised if I replace the word ‘Love’ in that passage with the name ‘Jesus’, to help us better understand Jesus.

    If I do not have Jesus, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a]but do not have Jesus, I gain nothing. 4 Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious. Jesus is not boastful. Jesus is not arrogant 5 Jesus is not rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable nor resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice in wrongdoing, instead Jesus rejoices in the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, Jesus believes all things, Jesus hopes all things, Jesus endures all things. 8 Jesus never fails.

    As followers of Jesus, our goal in life is to be like Jesus. So in verse 4 if Jesus/love is patient then WE will do our best to be patient. As Jesus/love is kind; WE will be kind. WE will never be envious. WE will not be boastful. As Jesus was not arrogant, WE will not be arrogant. 5 WE will not be rude. Jesus did not insist on his own way; neither will WE insist on our own way. As Jesus was not irritable nor resentful; Neither will WE be irritable nor resentful. 6 Jesus/love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. So WE who want to be like Jesus will not rejoice in wrongdoing, instead WE will rejoice in the truth. 7 WE will bear all things, WE will believe all things, WE will hope all things, WE will endure all things. 8 Love never fails. Jesus never fails. This is a promise to us that if we truly follow Jesus, who is love, WE too will not fail.

    I pray that as Ephesians 4:15 says: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, Into Christ.” If you and I sincerely try to follow Jesus, to be like Jesus, to grow into Christ. Then we will not fail when we try to do the work God is calling us to do.

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