As we have for the previous few years, my wife and I have endeavored to see the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar®. With ten days remaining and only two movies yet to view, I am confident that we will complete our task. Reflecting on the films we have already seen, a theme seems to be emerging: the power of words. In these films, I am reminded that a well-chosen word or a turn-of-phrase at the appropriate time has the power to uplift or destroy, the force sufficient to motivate a nation or crush a spirit.
Of particular impact were the words Sheriff Bill Willoughby (portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, MO), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour and referenced in Dunkirk), and fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread). Without giving away the plot, the theater-goer will be gripped by the redemptive and encouraging nature of the words contained in Willoughby’s letters, the motivating influence upon a nation to continue the struggle through Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech before Parliament, and the damaging and demoralizing destruction caused by Woodcock’s cutting comments.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:10
The last few weeks of movie-going have caused me to consider anew the wisdom of James and the power of the tongue. How is that the same function can exalt or eviscerate? How intentional am I with my words? Have I learned the truth regarding the power of speech and the wisdom to wield that ‘sword’ beneficially? Ultimately, am I utilizing my glossary to glorify myself or give gravitas to others? While I would not to presume to be as loquacious as Churchill, neither do I want to be as self-absorbed as Woodcock.
Perhaps preparation is key (and a Hollywood screenwriter would help, too). Churchill labored over his speeches, editing and reediting his message even to the final moments before delivery. Willoughby wrote letters, which experience tells us is a slower form of communication – our thoughts race faster than our pens, allowing us to shape and shade our words as we go. I wonder how our words might change if we gave ourselves as little as a moment to collect our thoughts. That might be enough time to enable us to refrain from that angry retort and share something edifying instead.
Words contain an immense power – a power that could be positive or negative. A single word (“mistake”) can destroy the fragile soul of an impressionable youth and a single word (“gift”) can develop the formidable soul of that same impressionable youth. Words can be ugly or beautiful, can be used to build up or tear down and therefore requires our attention. I wouldn’t let youngest juggle chainsaws, even if he told me he was confident in his ability to harness to power of the tools. Perhaps I should have the same concern about his (and my) use of the many tools we find in the dictionary.
With careful preparation and attention, may we use our words to build up one another.
Last Saturday my wife and I went to Regis College to sit in the audience for a taping of the NPR broadcast of Says You, which the show’s website describes as “a simple game with words played by two teams in front of live, enthusiastic audiences from coast to coast”. If you haven’t heard the broadcast before, Says You offers up a series of puzzles relating to words: on the show we saw being recorded, the panel was asked to remember the instructions offered by flight attendants, recognize celebrities related to the Marx Brothers (actually, people whose names ended in ‘o’), answer trivia about Gilbert and Sullivan and decipher overly complicated idioms. It was a great way to spend the afternoon.
One of the regular features of Says You takes place before and after the station breaks. That is when the panelists play a game where one team is given a word (like ‘kish’) before the break and are asked to make up plausible definitions to go along with the real one. When the show resumes, the other team tries to guess the true meaning of the word and reject the false suggestions. Most of the time, the best definition is not the correct answer. I case you are wondering, ‘kish’ means ‘slag floating on the surface of molten iron’.
This definition game is fun when asked to define arcane or obscure words. The danger, as I see it, is when we seek to define some more common vocabulary. We are all susceptible to making up definitions for everyday words like love, happiness, family, security or turbulence. We are all susceptible to thinking we know the meaning of a word when we really do not; for years I thought the word ‘sanguine’ meant ‘sad’, when in fact it really means the opposite. Then there are words that have so many definitions that we are susceptible to substituting one meaning for another – words like ‘run’ or ‘set’.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1
There is a word, a term, a name that many find difficult to define. Let’s play the game and define the term “Jesus”. Is it:
- An interjection of emotion, stated during times of high stress indicating pain or frustration, such as, “Jesus, that hurts!”; or
- The name of a historical or mythological teacher, said to have lived from 4BC to AD30 in present day Israel, Lebanon and Syria, who served his community as a religious leader and moral teacher until his death by execution, such as “Jesus was born in Bethlehem”; or
- The the promised Messiah of the Jewish people, spoken of in their scriptures, a descendant of David, a worker of miracles which demonstrated the power of God and served to declare him as God Himself, who was crucified for the sins of all people, who died and who rose from the grave and who now dwell eternally with God the Father, such as “Jesus is the Savior of the world”?
I close with a relevant quote from another radio broadcaster from the 1950’s:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Last weekend, my family and I went to the movies and saw Minions. If you haven’t had the chance to see the movie (or the previous two which featured them, or the dozen or so commercials on television), minions are diminutive yellow creatures with tiny arms and legs whose purpose in life is to dutifully serve their master. They have their own language (which seems to be a combination of English, Spanish and gibberish) and their own culture (which venerates bananas and pranks). These loveable little guys are by no means perfect (causing disaster after disaster throughout the 90 minute film) but their hearts are always in the right place.
Watching a movie where the dialogue is largely unintelligible was challenging. As we watched, we understood what was going on through the minions’ behavior instead of their words. We saw their acts of care and compassion even when we could not make sense of their conversations. Watching Minions also made me wonder about visitors to our church. Do they see our actions and are they amused for more than an hour, even though the language used sometimes sounds like gibberish? Do they recognize our desire to serve our master and love one another even though we are by no means perfect? Or do visitors feel that a church service is just goofy looking people using goofy sounding words?
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2:9
Clearly, an animation studio is capable of conveying a compelling story through odd characters using odd terminology. It is not a stretch to believe that the church can share the greatest story ever told through a group of peculiar people utilizing peculiar words. Just as these big screen ‘corn pops with eyes and overalls’ told their story through their actions, the church can share the Gospel through her acts of love and service.
But we can also do more. We can work on our terminology and resist the temptation to use words like temptation, iniquity, transubstantiation, eschatology, justification, sanctification, anthropomorphism, and atonement. These are great words which are full of meaning but may be heard as gibberish to the casual attendee of a worship service. They would likely sound like Kevin’s, Stuart’s or Bob’s words in Minions sounded to me. While it may be entertaining for an hour or two, eventually unintelligible communication becomes too difficult to follow and too much trouble to engage. It would be better simply to keep it simple.
Like minions, we who are followers of Christ dutifully serve our master, Jesus. We are by no means perfect and we often make great messes of life. We have our own language and our own culture, both of which convey care and compassion for others. We often look and dress differently than most. If you give the church a chance, it will likely entertain you at first but eventually you will fall in love with the people you see there. Maybe after a little bit of time, you’d even be able to understand what most people think is meaningless sounds.
And, like minions, we love to sing!