The Elusive Nature of Words

I have no idea why I wrote that title just now, except that I’ve been studying scripture this morning, bemoaning my lack of knowledge and training. There is of course plain meaning in words, but there is also the shimmered layering that floats over centuries and translation. The appearance of a word in language is a mystery all its own, and I see it as frankly miraculous that such a brilliant notion as language exists. That ideas and conceptions of reality, both concrete and abstract, can be effectively–if not exhaustively–transferred from one piece of gray matter to another is astounding, leaves me in awe. It mostly goes unnoticed, being as how we get accustomed to asking for bread and water and love and peace and it all gets pretty normalized. We breathe, we speak, we understand.

But it’s not that simple. Postmodernism has taught us that words are constructs, and aren’t the things themselves. The word “love” isn’t love. So words are pointers to realities. “Jeff” is something different than the reality of me. Things would definitely change if you called me something else, but the growing, transforming reality that is me would still be…me.

Why bother with all this prattle about words? I suppose because scripture (and all writing) is composed of these pesky things, all strung in a row, pulling along meaning like so many frisky train cars. What a miracle it is to understand anything, and scripture comes to us over thousands of years, layered in evolving denotation and connotation, meaning not out of reach by any means, but often, I think, more difficult to get to than we allow. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews called scripture “living and active”–actually the words there are “For the word of God is living and active..” (Hebrews 4:12)–and like any living being or thing, there is much more to grasp than meets the eye.

What’s sad about this is that we are poor students of scripture. I make no real judgment about the meaning of the end result of that fact, but still, it’s true. As we jettison linear thinking and rely more and more on experience to gauge our wisdom by, there is frankly less reason to try and grasp the fullness of what scripture has to say. And we all know the sad reality of everyone gathering around the fire barrels of our own experience, comparing notes, deciding that there is nothing we can gather around that can speak to all of us of life’s final meaning, it’s truest origins, it’s great and overriding meta-narrative (forgive me, I still think there is one, dense and difficult, miraculous and mysterious as it may be).

The end of me thinking through this little idea is that we need to dig deeper to find meaning and wisdom. We need to resist thinking that our first understanding of a thing is by default the best thing. What does a passage of scripture mean and how do we get to it? Again, we (the church, the people who follow Jesus, the folks who look to scripture as being alive and living) are not the students we once were, and I can’t help but think we suffer for it. God is gracious and remains near, and of course, the map is not the territory (let the reader understand) (it drives me crazy when scripture says that), but still, since we’re traveling the territory, the map is awesome to have.

If we could just read it…

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