Has language become too familiar? Too anesthetizing? Too comforting? Do we soften the meaning of words by making them sound less offensive? Politicians now call taxes “revenue,” we call the death of people in war “collateral damage,” cemeteries are “memorial parks,” undertakers, “morticians.” The poet Archibald MacLeish calls those who practice this deceit “assassins of the language.” Most biblical scholars agree that much of our scripture is poetry. It is filled with similes, metaphors, oxymorons, rhythms, meter and wonderful diction that were meant to move us and change us.
Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and on the Sabbath he was asked to read from the lively language of the prophet Isaiah. After reading this scripture the people were allowed to ask questions. After this exchange between the Rabbi Jesus and the people, an angry discussion erupted among them, and we read that the people were “filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill, on which their town was built. They meant to throw him over the cliff.” It is hard to imagine the reading of anything in church today so upsetting that the faithful would be in a riot mode.
Yet we do know that in South America, as in China and the former Soviet Union, the artisans of language - the poets - are taken very seriously indeed! In autocratic countries, poets are considered enemies of the state. Why? Because poetry arouses the passion and feeling of the people living in those countries. Dictators consider poets dangerous. And because they do not want the feeling and passion of the people aroused, they call poetry “treason.” They want a language that is anesthetized! Non-feeling! Sedated! Without passion!
Poetry is meant to challenge the “sameness” in our nature. It is meant to “ruffle our feathers.” It is not meant to put us to sleep. In his book Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a world of “shiny, happy people.” Huxley’s brave new world was a world where people were cloned. They had perfect genes and therefore no diseases. They were affable, good-natured and docile people. Their world was comfortable. They knew nothing of those “big ideas” that would cause them to reflect or think. Shakespeare, the Bible, other philosophies and literary works were non-existent, since this might trouble this generation of “shiny people” and cause them “unnecessary” discomfort.
Walker Percy faults the language of popular religion today, because of its tired, clichéd, worn out phrases, its lack of power. He writes that we have degraded the Gospel by using a “weary, used-up language” that no longer communicates freshness. If language will not move us to good action, if it will not change the course of our life, if it no longer lights a fire in our souls, if we only communicate in a dead language – maybe we are already living in the “valley of dry bones.”
I conclude with this poem by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
Telling lies to the young is wrong.
proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God is in his heaven and all’s well with the
world is wrong.
The young know what you mean
the young are people.
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times
Say obstacles exist they must encounter;
hardship happens, sorrow happens, the hell with it,
Who never knew the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognize;
it will repeat itself, increase
and afterwards our pupils will not forgive in us
what we forgave.