Power and Limits of Words

Photo via Flickr user JayRaz
Photo via Flickr user JayRaz

A couple I know are torn about which church to attend. One enjoys a more traditional worship and the other tends toward emerging churches with contemporary worship, but they want to worship together. The former read to me the vision and mission statement of the latter’s favorite church and asked me, “Do you even think it’s Christian?”

My immediate response was, “I don’t know enough about the church to say if it’s Christian or not. I don’t know that it’s my place to say.” I thought for a second and added, “That might not be the most important question to ask.” In moments like these, my instinct is to shy away from labeling. In moments like these, I think it may be good to recognize both the power and limitation of words. Take another look at the second sentence of this post. What micro emotions came up as you read the words traditional, emerging and contemporary? We all may react differently to these terms because of our different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences. It quickly gets tricky to talk about these things without defining terms.

It was Kathleen Norris who first got me thinking about semantics when it comes to religion. Her beautiful, powerful book, Amazing Grace, tries to unlock words that have been trapped by years of projection and religious piety. Each vignette is titled with a word that is especially loaded. Instead of defining the terms, she tells a story in hopes of breaking the word back open. Telling stories with people instead of defining terms can counter some of the potential hurt that comes from the power and limitations of words.

Another trick I like is to study other languages. There are words and cultural concepts in other languages that just don’t exist in English. Take, for example, the word hygge. Hygge is a mental state that is loosely defined at coziness or togetherness. But those words don’t cut it. English is too limited to capture the idea. According to Denmark’s official tourism site:

The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family — that’s hygge too.  And let’s not forget the eating and drinking — preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life.

When I am curled up by the fire in sweatpants, snuggling with my loved ones, sipping tea and reading, that is hygge. One word in another language evokes an entire scene with bubbles of emotion and nostalgia. We don’t have a word in English that does it justice. That reminder of the limitation of our language also invites me to approach religious semantics with humility and curiosity. The Bible I read is a translation, and religious experience can be so personal and powerful that words sometimes do not capture the heart of what is going on.

The church being questioned is welcoming people on the margins of society who are coming back to worship after feeling hurt by organized religion. It is, then, I believe, doing healing work of reconciliation that Jesus would approve of. The people who attend that church have stories to tell and moments in their lives that are too big for words.

Published by Ellie Roscher

Ellie Roscher is the author of How Coffee Saved My Life, and Other Stories of Stumbling to Grace. She holds a master’s degree in Theology/Urban Ministry from Luther Seminary and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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