Used Up All the Words?
A while back a film/book came across my desk via the MB Herald called “Lord Save us From Your Followers” (my review for the Herald can be found here). It’s the brainchild of Oregon film-maker Dan Merchant, and asks the question, “Why don’t Christians in America look more like Jesus?” Merchant travels around the USA in a bumper-sticker/Jesus-fish clad set of coveralls in order to generate dialogue with people who don’t think like him—to challenge the confrontational, antagonistic, and polarizing nature of religious discourse in America.
It’s a good film, all things considered. Merchant asks some good questions, and his call for Christians to embody a mode of dialogue which more closely mirrors the character of the one they claim to follow is a welcome and necessary one. One of the film’s metaphors—that of the body of Christ with its arms and legs amputated and consisting of little more than a large (and active) mouth—is a sobering one that should represent a challenge to all of us regarding how our actions line up with our words (James would be proud).
There was one quote, however, that while initially striking and possessing a certain rhetorical flourish, has had me thinking over the last couple of days:
We’ve used up all the words.
Now, in the context of the film, this quote makes perfect sense. It’s time for (North) American Christians to talk less and do more. Less preaching, more action, fewer arcane doctrinal disputes, more compassion, fewer confident pronouncements of religious certainty, more openness to learning from others who don’t think like us. I get all of this, and I’m all for it. I’m under no illusions that Merchant was advocating the cessation of speech or attempting to pronounce definitively upon the nature and value of words. But the phrase got me thinking…
… and I’m not sure we really have used up all the words. I think there is still a place for words, that words are important, that they move people to action, that they lead to good things being done for those who need it.
I got a good reminder of the power of words from my aunt this week. A while back I cobbled together a brief post about the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the coming of World Food Day (and about an article I had written, truth be told—can’t minimize the self-interest involved!). I threw a few links up and issued a suggestion/recommendation for how people might get involved. At the time I had intentions of trying to get something together for our own church, but there wasn’t the time, motivation, whatever. Despite the fact that I advocated action in the post, my own involvement didn’t go much beyond the post itself and a prayer during church the following Sunday. In the end, there wasn’t much from my end except words.
But words find their way through the ether onto people’s screens and into people’s minds and hearts. Words move people to do things. My aunt and uncle live in the lovely little town of Rosebud, AB (home of the famous Rosebud Theatre, where my uncle is the music director) and she decided to do something to mobilize her community for World Food Day. Among other things, they had a “Third World Supper,” “putlucked” stories of global connectedness, and collected shoe boxes for Samaritan’s Purse (you can read her description of things here). It sounded like a fabulous day and made me feel a twinge of regret for not having put more effort into organizing something out here.
But my aunt reminded me that words do make a difference. There are many reasons to be cynical of blogging as a mode of communication—if ever there was a “genre” of discourse where words were cheap and ephemeral, it would be the online barrage that fills cyberspace every day. But in this case, words on a screen actually played a positive role in the real world, regardless of the paucity of my own efforts in backing them up. I send a good many words out through this blog, and many of them undoubtedly drift off into the moldy, uninhabited corners of cyberspace. But some, apparently, do not.
Words matter. Words can be picked up by others and put to better use than they might have at the point of their origin and this is a very good thing. Words are not all we have—we must always remember that our world needs more than words, and that there are times and places where wordless action is the appropriate response. But words are an important part of what we have been given us to help us love God and love our neighbours. We haven’t used them all up; like every other good gift, we have been given the freedom to use them redemptively or irresponsibly.
And we have the privilege of learning from others of what it looks like when words are used well.