Most of us take our facility of speech for granted. We form words, sentences, and paragraphs with relative ease and think little of it in our daily conversation. For those with speech impediments, the case isn’t so simple. Rachel Kadish tells of her own story in the New York Times:
As a child, I had a relatively unusual speech impediment: I couldn’t form the sounds sh, j or ch properly, and this made a large swath of words difficult to pronounce. The word just would come out sounding like chust or shust; double-whammy words like church never emerged cleanly . . . Because I found this mortifying, I learned early to plan each word in advance. Given enough determination, almost any message could be recast in less perilous, albeit slightly formal vocabulary — vocabulary that might have seemed a bit peculiar coming from a child, but served me well. I never offered a suggestion or a choice, only an alternative; I never judged a playground contest, only decided or considered or even weighed it.
Kadish goes to elaborate on the various strategies she learned to employ in order to avoid social embarrassment: weighing her words carefully, pausing to find the right word, or letting others fill in the blanks for her, cautiously side-stepping the verbal landmines that could be set off with a stray syllable. As trying as her childhood speech impediment was, though, coping with her challenges led her to develop linguistic skills that became strengths as a writer and a communicator.
In reading Kadish’s story I couldn’t help but find in a parable for the proclamation of the Church in a culture that has made Christian speech problematic. For many of us, the thought of pronouncing words like “sinner”, “Jesus Christ”, “salvation”, “mercy”, “judgment”–staples of the basic vocabulary of the Gospel–induces a similar sort of social anxiety. Some of us fear, not so much mispronouncing the words, as being misheard.
Ours is a post-Christian culture, one in which that same basic vocabulary still lingers on for many, but has been sadly distorted & mis-defined (often by the Church itself!), and is now readily misinterpreted absent a basic knowledge of the narrative within which they take their basic meaning. As Francis Spufford recently noted, “sin” in the UK conjures up images of red lingerie and chocolate instead of the gross moral fracture of the Creator’s good world (Unapologetic).
While a pregnant pause here and there, or a thoughtful moment to listen may be helpful, ultimately, silence is not an option for those of us entrusted to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. So how can the Church it speak in a world trained to hear a stutter instead of a clear word? Kadish’s own story suggests a couple of insights.
Different Ways of Saying ‘Gospel’
Too often we’ve fallen into a hackneyed patterns of speech, reducing Christianity to two or three themes, presenting a good, but somewhat stilted picture of the Gospel. Instead, in a culture seemingly unable to hear what we have to say, we are pressed to rise to the occasion as communicators. This is where a cultural-speech impediment might do us some good. As Kadish notes:
needing to avoid certain words brings home firmly that most fundamental of writerly lessons: there is always, always an alternate way to get your meaning across. There are, in fact, 50 or 500 ways to say any given thing.
For instance, the Bible gives us warrant to speak of sin in variety of ways beyond simple law-breaking. Sin is “missing the mark” (hamartia) for life as God intended it, sin as idolatry is the “disordered love” of holding something in our affections the way that only God deserves, and so forth. Building on these, Francis Spufford has recently defined it as the HPtFTU, the Human Propensity to F#%@ Things Up. Vulgar, true, but is it inapt to describing our sin condition to a culture that might not recognize God’s law, but can see the shambles they’ve made of their own lives?
More importantly, though there is one Gospel, Gospel can be said in many ways. It is the return of the good King to re-establish his Kingdom. It is the healing of broken people and broken cosmos. It is the adoption of the orphaned in a cold world. It is relationships shattered beyond recognition, reconciled into wholeness once again. Our language ought strain to expand as far as the reach of the Gospel itself.
Using the ‘Right’ Words When Necessary
Of course, at some point, no other word will do. Kadish writes of the moment at 17 when she realized she needed to quit dodging words, because try as she might, she couldn’t find an adequate replacement for the word “change” in a speech for her class:
Hang the self-consciousness, from then on I was simply going to use the best words — the deliciously, luxuriously right words — for what I needed to say.
At some point, we must say “self-consciousness be damned,” because there’s a point where it becomes damnable. There are times when, in faithfulness, we need to deploy the words that bring the embarrassment and social shame because they are the right words. Probably more often than many of us are comfortable with.
And yet, Scripture gives us words like “righteousness,” “guilt,” and “redemption” for a reason. At some point sin as “law-breaking” needs to make an appearance, and even in a culture like ours. These words communicate something essential and irreducible we need to know to understand ourselves, the world, and, most importantly, the Savior who comes to redeem both. Those are the moments when all we can do is to speak slowly, parse distinctions carefully, define clearly, assume nothing, and then prepare ourselves to silently suffer the reproach they bring alongside of Jesus who, though he was reviled, held his tongue.
It would be easy for us to lament our situation and pine away for the old days when we could simply speak freely and assume we’d be heard. Instead of grieving, though, the Church ought approach this impediment as an opportunity–a challenge to plunge more deeply into the good news we want to preach. It may be that as we learn carefully measure and “weigh” our words, we come to more fully appreciate their true weight.