Language is a powerful thing. It has the ability to create and to destroy. While a kind word can heal a wound, a harsh word can open one up. We’ve all experienced the way the words of others can affect us, whether positively or negatively, and the way we can affect others when we speak, sometimes without even meaning to.
In fact, language is central to the human experience. After all, it’s what sets us apart from other animals. Sure, they may be able to communicate simple information to one another, but only we humans can use words to create dialogue, to craft stories, and to compel others with our (sometimes) well thought-out arguments. As Jonathan Merritt puts it in his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch, “We are word-shaped beings who live word-shaped lives within word-shaped communities. This, it seems, is by design.”
We get our propensity for speaking from God himself. The very first verses of the Bible tell us that the universe was created when the Lord spoke it into existence. He said, “Let it be,” and it was so. And when he said, “Let us make humanity in our image,” he spoke us into existence with that same ability to speak and to impact the world through the words that we say.
Scripture is full of stories that illustrate the role of language in shaping the world. Throughout history, God has used prophets, authors, poets, and preachers to get his message out there. Moses transcribed the law. David composed psalms of praise and lament. Jesus delivered sermons on mountaintops and the decks of ships. Paul penned letters from prison. And all of these words have been passed down for centuries to shape the lives of those who serve God.
One very interesting aspect of language is its ability to unite or divide us. A simple word or phrase can let us know more about a person than anything else. The way someone speaks can tell us where they’re from, how old they are, and so much more. Language lets us know who is like us and who isn’t, who we’re able to interact with and who we aren’t, and who we want to be around. It is an instant identifier.
Have you ever been to a place where you didn’t speak the language? Maybe you went to another country or to a place of business where the staff communicates differently, or maybe you just visited a family down the street who speaks another language at home. You can hear people talking around you, but it doesn’t make any sense. It all sounds like gibberish. Clearly they understand what they’re saying to each other, but you’re left in the dark. It can feel very isolating, can’t it?
I feel that way sometimes when I hang out with people at my church. We have a lot of very handy people there, and when they talk about their projects, they start using jargon that is completely foreign to me. I hear them say things like “quarter-inch drill bit,” and I know they’re speaking English, but it doesn’t sound like it to me. They start talking about two-by-fours and four-by-fours, and suddenly, I’m completely lost.
Here’s what I mean: Language can bring people together, or it can push them apart. When someone starts talking about a topic or hobby that you’re fond of, you instantly feel a connection with them. When you’re in an unfamiliar place and you hear someone speaking your language, you perk up because you know that’s someone you can communicate with. Connecting with someone over common language can be like a breath of fresh air, while being unable to connect with others can make you feel like the wind's been knocked out of you.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at stories from the Bible that touch on language and its power to unify and divide us. In reading scripture, we see both sides of the coin: the way that language can be a force for good and the way that we can use it to destroy others. The choice is really up to us, and we’ll see that throughout this series.
Really, these stories are using language as a metaphor for the connection, the oneness, and the unity we feel with our fellow human beings. We put a lot of stake in language and what it reveals to us about the people around us. And scripture actually has a lot to say about that.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to dive into it! So come back next week for the first story. (And if you’re one of those people who likes to read again, give Genesis 11.1-9 a look this week.) I’ll see you then. Thank you for reading, friends!