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Christian language and the words of eternal life
In the course of some brief remarks during a breakout session at a recent Catholic conference, the editor of First Things, R.R. Reno, urged those in attendance to engage the world in our language — that is, Christian language — rather than in the language of the modern world. Our language, he said, “has power.”
Such a statement should be obvious, and such a recommendation unremarkable. Christians should know the power of our words, because we know the power of the Word. That Christ is literally, and not metaphorically, the Word of God is central to everything that we believe.
And yet, Rusty Reno is right: Too many Christians, Catholics included, today forsake our own language in favor of the language of a world that has rejected Christianity. The irony is palpable, because the Christianization of the Mediterranean world, and later of Europe, went hand in hand with the infusion of Christian language into the everyday discourse of men and women, to the point where such language was often no longer even consciously recognized as Christian.
Owen Barfield, friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and a philosopher and historian of language, illustrates this reality at length throughout his “History in English Words.” The Christian experience was captured and transmitted in the language of everyday life, and while that language did not by itself ensure that men and women remained Christian, it certainly helped to do so, by keeping the memory of that experience alive in the very words that they used to conduct their daily affairs.
“Evoking history from words,” Barfield writes, “is like looking back at our own past through memory; we see it, as it were, from within. Something has stimulated the memory — a smell, a taste, or a fragment of melody — and an inner light is kindled, but we cannot tell how far that light will throw its beams. Language, like the memory, is not an automatic diary; and it selects incidents for preservation, not so much according to their intrinsic significance as according to the impression they happen to have made upon the national consciousness.”
From Barfield’s words, though, we can surmise what has happened as our society has strayed from its Christian roots. As our experience of the living power of Christ the Word has faded, the language that captured that experience has lost its vitality. Where passages of Scripture, for instance, had once entered common parlance because everyone who heard them shared the same experience, today that experience is alien to an increasingly larger share of the population. For them, our language no longer has the power to evoke that experience.
And that shows the limits of Rusty Reno’s sage advice. The language of Christianity has power, but only to the extent that those who hear it can feel at least the echo of the experience of Christ the Word that animates that language. “Master, to whom shall we go?” said Simon Peter, when Christ asked the Twelve if they, too, wished to abandon him, like the many others who could not comprehend the truth of his words. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The words of eternal life are not a magical incantation. They have power because of the experience that they evoke. But the experience must come first. The disciples on the road to Emmaus listened intently but uncomprehendingly as the stranger explained how Scripture had foretold all that had happened in Jerusalem during Holy Week. Yet “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” in the breaking of the bread.
Rusty Reno is right: We shouldn’t toss aside our own language — language that evokes the encounter with Christ that has changed our lives — in favor of the language of a world that has never experienced that encounter. But we can’t stop there. Evangelization requires that we not only speak of Christ but help others encounter him in the breaking of the bread. Only then can they recognize that he has the words of eternal life.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.