"When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn't get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous. She finally persuaded 'them' that I write only for small children and was not a threat. In any dictatorship writers are among the first to be imprisoned, and vocabulary is quickly diminished and language deteriorates. Writers, if their vocabulary is not leashed, are quick to see injustice, and rouse the people to do something about it. We need words with which to think; kill words and we won't be able to think and we'll be easier to manipulate."~ Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season (pg 164)
As I read this section of The Irrational Season today, a chill went through me. Madeleine L'Engle lived through WWII, Viet Nam, and the Cold War. She saw the devastating effects of tyranny, and what methods dictators used to cause them. We see that still, in China, North Korea, parts of the Middle East, and many other places where there is little or no free speech. In such places the oppressed do not know what is going on in the outside world, they are kept in the dark through force and propaganda.
Yet there is a different sort of tyranny running rampant in the 'free' West - the tyranny of disappearing words. We have heard the adage that talk is cheap, yet are still hurt and offended by various sleights, snubs, and insults. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but we all know that words spoken to us in vulnerable moments (childhood especially) may leave lasting scars. Our sneaking enemy bombards us with so many words each day that their meaning and weight is weakened. Advertisements and billboards, e-mails and printed leaflets and newspapers, words flashed on television screens, iPads, iPods, and other electronic devices. We can now communicate quickly with anyone in any part of the world, but our whole world aches with the loss of community. Our Western society is losing the ability to articulate as words like"selfie" are added to the dictionary, but even bright persons no longer know what 'widdershins' means; or they say words like 'impactful' in place of a real word like 'impacting' or 'meaningful.'
Our insidious enemy, the State, is not removing words from dictionaries as much as they are removing them from circulation and common vernacular. Thus, the minds of the public are weakened. But words are strong. They can augment or crush. Words are the death of us in the throes of an argument. Or words can be life and hope breathed into us in a genuine compliment or observation. If we understand the power of words we can share ideas and ideals, vision and Truth. We can paint the canvas of the mind with vivid sunrises and sublime mountain ranges. Yet we can only do this well if we have the subtle colours provided us via a large vocabulary. Vocabulary is to the writer what the toolbox is the carpenter, or the palette is to the artist. Without the fine chisels or minute brushes, the artisan is unable to inlay the wood or paint delicate subtleties in his work. Without a vast wealth of words, the writer loses clarity and sharpness in his writing. Without a vast array of words, communication is fuzzy at best, muddled and hollow at worst.
Even when the writer has the word bank needed to clearly communicate, his audience also needs a grasp of language. The reader must possess a desire to look up unfamiliar words in order to receive clarity and insight. He must, even before that, be willing to read. We live in a culture where we are too lazy to even read a blog post if it does not have photos with it; or where a magazine article, sermon, soundbite, or news clip has been made as brief as possible to retain the viewer's or listener's attention. We are sliding into the ground where we begin to lose context and perspective because we have shortened everything. The media overloading our eyes and ears and brains has shortened our attention spans. We can no longer listen to a speech three hours long, or spend the whole 4th of July listening to speeches, recitations, and singing.
We want more action, more multi-tasking, and the rush of information, because we do not know what to do with silence. But the more information transmitted to us, the less meaningful it is. Sometimes an idea or a word is underlined best by minutes or hours of silence. Sometimes we have to stop reading so fast to look up an unfamiliar word in order to gain greater insight. The goal is not simply to finish a book, it is the be led out of ignorance and into Truth.
We need words to be alive -- because at one tangible point in History, the Word Himself was made man and dwelt among us. He shrouded Himself in this fleshly body of death to bring us new Life. Words matter vastly in reality. It is by words that God spoke all that we see, smell, hear, sense, and know into existence. It is through the Word enfleshed that we are given the hope of stepping through the portal of death into the really real world of the High Countries. It is that Word that is making us less and less shadow-men, and more and more into solid creatures. Words are life - The Word is Life. The Word is the substance of Hope. That final Word of God is the Prince of Peace. Let us not rush past that Truth into vague and insipid thoughts and 'communication' (i.e. electronic exchanges in place of face-to-face meetings) this Advent. Let us listen to the Word when He says, "This is the way, walk in it." Let us ask questions. Let us live dangerously. Let us live.