Words Symbols and daily life… some musings

Some time ago I read an article about the concept: “the medium is the message.”  It asked – essentially: How does the dawn of instant digital communication affect the transmission of the Gospel? As with all human creations, the internet/social media can be bent to serve the Gospel.  I saw this on display when our diocesan high school students generated great content to send to their friends/contacts on social media.  Such a positive experience depends, however, on taking a moment out to really think about what one is doing online, what tools one is using, and what the best language to use (pictures, video, text etc.) may be.  It applies no less to the power of printed words than it does to our latest communications revolution, digital media.

Iris Murdoch, in her essay, “Against Dryness” described the modern world as, “a scientific anti-metaphysical age in which dogmas, images and precepts of religion have lost much of their power.”  To anyone who’s walked down the street, it may seem odd to think about our world as devoid of “images,” but in a philosophical sense it is.  If I can put a brief gloss on Murdoch’s commentary, I read it as and age without “symbols.”  Despite a proliferation of pictures, and other stimuli for the eyes, there’s not a lot that we stop to take in, discern, and ultimately [hopefully] appreciate/adore.  Normally the pictures we see stop at their surface value, without pointing us to greater truths.  Our wold is much more dominated by the printed word, and more specifically, the technical printed word.

Modernity is considered by some to have begun with the invention of the printing press by Guttenberg.  On that day in 1440 Western life was forever changed.  Words proliferated and with them very specific, set, flat meanings…  Language became technical/specific rather than symbolic/poetic.  The diffusion of information that occurred because of the printing press contributed largely to the scientific revolution of the 16/17th centuries in the universities, the enlightenment in politics, and the protestant reformation in religion.  If you need more evidence, think about how protestantism replaced stained glass and sacraments (symbol images) with the doctrine of sola scripture (“only Scripture” …i.e. words.).  The change didn’t happen immediately… and certainly not with any sort of a clean break between eras.  Poetry, theater, music are all still with us, bastions of symbol.  Remnants of the age of symbol/image are certainly still with us everywhere we look.  One need only walk through DC’s monumental core.  They city’s layout, the iconography of the monuments, all of it points toward higher truths… All of it invites the viewer in the comfort and freedom of his own mind to explore those truths over time.  Compare that to more contemporary manifestations of the technical word present in the very same streets: ads on buses, signs in shop windows, news stories (written, audio, film) etc…  In an almost nominalist way, the words tell you what to think and their meaning stops there.

Catholicism still considers itself as founded on image/symbol.  Christ is after all the Revelation of the Father.  Saint Paul says, he was “in the form of God.”  While Christ is rightly understood as the “Word” of God, the Greek from which that term descends is “Logos,” which really has a deeper sense of Christ being the “fullness of the meaning of the Father.” The Church defines herself as the great “sacrament” of salvation (a sacrament is a visible sign that conveys God’s divine life).

But even in the Church, “the medium is the message” has had an impact.  Everyone wants to know what law, what policy, what definition the Pope or the Synod assigns to a given issue.  Magisterial teaching from previous Popes/Councils etc. is appealed to as if Christians were in a court battle.    Words have certainly occupied a powerful place in the daily life of the Church.  In contrast, what people seem to love so much about Pope Francis is not the convincing power of his words (though they’re pretty great), but rather the visual example of his actions.

This issue is also, literally, on display in the Mass.  Having turned to face the People, and with the new influence of speaker systems, priests’ now-audible words are the main focus of people’s attention at mass.  On the church steps, what does everyone say to Father?  Either, “Nice homily, father.” or, “You know I think your homily was really off father.”  Homily… words.  Even the Eucharistic Prayer, though it is a dialogue between the priest and God, must be heard by the people.  Last week my lapel mic broke (as they often do) and one man approached me with great urgency to say, “I couldn’t hear the words, what was I supposed to do with myself?”

In considering the medium/message relationship I’m not trying to directly critique words, images or anything else…  All these media have their benefits and all can be turned to serve the Gospel as surely as my high school students turned social media to evangelization.  But like those kids, we all need to take some time out and use our eyes of faith to discern: Where is the balance between various media?  Am I lopsidedly focused on any one medium?  Do I spend enough time exploring symbols and the truths to which they point?  What affect does that have on my daily life?  ‘just a few musings this morning.  Peace!

“Use your words…”

Words have power.  In high school, Bro. George began Senior English, “In the beginning was the word…” (Jn 1:1).  Words form our sense of self.  Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading makes a full man; conference makes a ready man; writing makes an exact man.”  Whole civilizations have coalesced around words.  Italy’s fractious provinces and principalities found common identity in Dante’s Comedia Divina (written in vernacular Italian) long before they identified with the tricolour flag.  The British established the architecture of modern commerce and globalism by spreading their language to the 25% of the world’s population once held under their imperial sway.  Gandhi, Dr. King, and many others have moved whole populations to control just anger, channeling it into effective non-violent protest.  And most recently, consider the “Washington Redskins” (need I say more?).  Words have power.

That’s why today’s Washington Post article “Redefining the N-Word,” by D. Sheinin and K. Thompson is so fascinating.  Before going any further, let me say: This post is not meant to come down on any side of any argument about any word.  Today, I’m marveling at the process of talking about words, and a very few of the many phenomena that influence that social conversation.  The WP article in question is spurred by he NFL’s latest attempts to ban the n-word from use on the field.  It raises some interesting questions (some in the article, some just in my own musing):

Do words have an absolute / fixed – value?  …or do words depend wholly on context for their fullest definition?  In English, probably a little of both… and when a word seems to move between those to categories confusion and concern result.
What is the role of history in language?  Throughout English history, words have morphed in meaning and weight.  What seems to be so new is the speed with which words change… Has there ever been a time when a word (e.g. the ’n-word’) has -in the course of one generation- so radically and frequently changed?  What role has instant print, radio and now digital media played in that process?
Can language be controlled by coercive force (e.g. a school district …or here, the NFL)? …and even if it can be so controlled, should it be so controlled?  Does today’s article display features of Orwell’s “1984,” or Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?
Traditionally linguistic questions could find resolution… a final stamp of (dis)approval, either in academia or in the daily language of civil government.  Does such a lexical court of final appeal exist today?  Has English, at least in the U.S., split into so many mutually exclusive socio-cultural sub sets that emotionally charged words like “Redskins” or the “n-word” will forever be without final definition?

I dont’ have a final answer to any of these questions, but ongoing debates about words can serve as a great forum for our own personal formation as each of us strives to use language prudently and temperately for the good of others and the glory of God.