DEUTERONOMY 5:8 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
DEUTERONOMY 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down , and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
JOHN 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
JOHN 6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life… 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Via some research I was doing in support of the Mammon-paid professional portion of my life, I stumbled across a thoughtful, fact-filled article with myriad connections to our context here. It’s entitled, “A Future of Fewer Words,” linked at Lifeboat.com. (It first appeared in the March/April edition of ‘The Futurist’ magazine.) While lengthy, at ~4,000 words, it’s worth at least skimming.
Without apparently setting out to do so explicitly, the author, Dr. Lawrence A. Baines, helps shed light on several factors I had not considered before that are contributing to a declining awareness of, appetite for and adherence to the historical, Biblical gospel of Christ.
The overall trends he describes also help to affirm where we are on the Biblical-eschatological clock as it ticks down the final minutes to Christ’s return — not that we really needed any more evidence or reassurance on that point. To those watching diligently the season, if not the exact timing, is pretty obvious.
(Parentheticaly, the Lifeboat foundation appears to subscribe to a secular-humanist worldview, however they seem to hold it with a light touch. E.g., Baines quotes John 1:1 (and slightly mis-quotes Isaiah 48:13) as well as citing another Bible-related example in support of the second of four key trends he describes in detail in the article: how words in general are losing their authority. Several advisors to the foundation (e.g., Dr. Th. Ralf J. Muller, Dr. Jay E. Gary & Dr. Daniel A. Briggs) appear to be professing Christians even though it is probably not a safe assumption that ‘lifeboat’ can be equated with Noah’s Ark. In fact, just the opposite, as Roland Emmerich’s hokey apocalypse flick, 2012 made plain several years ago.)
Following is a running commentary on some of the article’s high points, plus connections I made between those and the current state of Biblical Christianity:
…of the 6,900 or so languages spoken on the planet, more than half are likely to become extinct over the next century. Today, 95% of people speak one of just 400 languages. The other 6,509 languages are unevenly distributed among the remaining 5%… Like living organisms, languages morph over time in response to continuous evolutionary pressures.
Don’t get hung up on Baines’ use of the term ‘evolution’ in this context. It means something quite different from the still-unsupported Darwinian conjecture about trans-special lineage.
By contrast, God and His Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, do not change. His Word, the Bible, reveals Him. His Holy Spirit breathes life into His Word however it is conveyed. He can make Himself understood in any and all languages, even simultaneously, e.g., at Pentecost. So too, despite the nuances of translation and the evolution of language, the written Word of God has continued to have the same divine power it began with.
The UN’s simultaneous translation is a Babel-in-spirited imitation, just as was Babylon’s reliance on a single language to run the known world.
Trend 1: Images Are Subverting Words — Not only is the world using fewer languages on a daily basis, but it is also using fewer words. Consider the rich vocabulary and complex sentence constructions in extemporaneous arguments of politicians in earlier centuries against the slick, simplistic sound bites of contemporary times… The move from language to image is perhaps most apparent in advertisements, which increasingly emphasize sound and image to the exclusion of language. A winner of the 2010 CLIO award for the best commercial of the year was Volkswagen, whose commercial featured a series of rapid close-ups… followed in the last few seconds by a picture of a car and just two words: “Tough. Beautiful.”
‘Subverting’ is an interesting choice of words. Subverting what? The Word Himself. Think second commandment. I expounded at length on this idea in a post about the second commandment, around this time last year. Quoting myself:
[God] has never said: look at this picture of me… we have no record whatsoever… of what Jesus looked like… If it were important for us to have a visual image of him… you’d think we’d have something more regarding His Son’s [physical] appearance… Yet history has been orchestrated in such a way that we don’t. The stuff that purports to depict him is pure conjecture, much of it based, quite perversely, on the likeness of a few profoundly evil men in the late Middle Ages… God has not said: here’s a geometric pattern which will give you insight into me… He has not said: here’s a great statue of a scene from My Son’s life; scrutinizing it will help you understand us… [today] most peoples’… lives… are overflowing with images, both still and moving… [and so] I am coming to appreciate more of the wisdom in [the second commandment] — even how it came to be set before commandments [with] a visual component (e.g., covetousness, adultery, murder, theft, etc.) After all, one of the two primary characteristics of the apple/fruit… in the garden was that it was “pleasing to the eye”… Christ, said it was better to ‘pluck out’ one’s own eye than that it lead one into hell.
One thinks too of George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, where giant posters of ‘Big Brother’ were part of a movement towards fewer, simpler words. In that prescient if as-yet-still fictional world, authorities also worked to bleach certain words of their power and meaning. Words such as ‘hope’, ‘change’ and ‘progress’ have become almost religious in their evocative power, even as those who employ them are seldom specific about their object or destination. Other words, like ‘atonement’ now mean almost nothing outside of an inner circle of Christ-followers steeped in Biblical theology and doctrine. Growing up, the most common way in which the word ‘sinful’ was used in my house was in reference to ice cream sundaes. Really.
Trend 2: The Written Word Is Losing Authority — In the Bible, John 1:1 begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Isaiah 48:13, God says, “By my word, I have founded the earth.”
The Isaiah translation he’s quoting from appears to be an ancient Jewish version from the Aramaic, even more in synch with John 1 than are modern translations. He could just as well have quoted Genesis 18:14 in the Wycliffe translation, as one of the three men sent to Abraham and Sarah (almost certainly a pre-incarnate Christ, IMHO) says, “Is there anything too hard for God to do? By my word, I shall return to thee at this same time, as I live; and Sarah shall have a son.” Or in the opposite (restrictive, disciplinary) sense, we have the first statement of Elijah’s ministry, in 1st Kings 17:1 — “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
As I endeavored to outline in this post last month (Χριστός), we as a society have lost touch with the very concept of authority, much less kingly authority in an absolute divine sense. The scriptures say, over and over again, in various ways, that the fear of God (awe, reverence, utter and totally deferential respect and obedience) is the beginning of wisdom. As such, much of our society is still at the starting line, if not headed backwards away from it.
In Christianity, as in most religions, holy words are assumed to have potency well beyond human comprehension, and the mere utterance of a holy word is assumed to have mystical power. J. K. Rowling borrowed this aspect of religious texts in writing the Harry Potter series of books, where her characters are often too fearful to even mention “him that need not be named” (Voldemort).
One could quibble about the implications of ‘mystical powers’, but I take his point to be simply that the Word of God is special — sharply different from other books. Of course there’s the problem of lumping together all ‘religions’ but for his audience we’ll let it pass.
Only in Christianity does the Word ‘resolve’ into God Himself, with every piece of it pointing to Christ, illuminating His character and will. (A missionary friend, serving in an especially difficult Islamic country that shall not be named has familiarized himself with the Q’ran. He notes that, in addition to being self-contradictory in ways nobody ever even accused the Bible of being (and it’s not, if you press in) the Q’ran is also historically, archaeologically, scientifically and factually inaccurate in myriad ways.)
A larger point Baines does not pick up on is that we are wired to want to invest words with special power. Look closely at virtually any piece of pop culture (film, music, advertising, sports, etc.) and you’ll see it. (E.g., Bud-Wei-Ser, said the animated frogs. Gooooooaaaaaal! says the futball announcer. ‘There’s no place like home…”, says Dorothy, etc.)
Our ability to use language in general, and our tendency to want to make it magical is one of the most profound things which distinguishes us from animals. As is true with other appetites and proclivities God designed into us (e.g., sexual drive, hunger, thirst, etc.), this facility — our inclination/desire to invest words with special power — will end up getting directed at other things to our harm if not directed to the Word of God first (Christ as revealed in the Bible; seek ye first… the Word of God.)
Baines makes an even more interesting and proximate point though:
At first blush, the popularity of texting might be construed as a sort of affirmation for writing. Upon closer inspection, text messages and e-mails have more in common with oral language than written language. Text messages are usually spontaneous, one-shot efforts, written with little to no revision, often in response to a previous communication… Tweets are limited to 140 characters… [which] restricts both linguistic complexity and sentence length…
I would add that short-form messages tend towards the transactional (the province of the current ruler of this world) and away from the transformational (the province of the ruler-to-come, Jesus Christ). There are exceptions that prove the rule, however my own experience of texts and tweets is that they create a temptation towards sound-byte gossip and self-centrism even as they lack the emotional depth or nuance of written letters.
Trend 3: Changing Environment for Words — Most public libraries around the world are transforming from institutions focused on archives and research to centers for information and entertainment… Language simplification is apparent in cinema, as well. Film scripts from Avatar, Planet of the Apes, Transformers, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars are written at a second– or third-grade readability level… The complete dialogue for the first Terminator film, which served as a harbinger for a new era of special effects, is just 3,850 words — about as long as this magazine article.
Is the wisdom of God’s Word and the lateness of the hour becoming more apparent?
DEUTERONOMY 5:8 You shall not make for yourself a carved* image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
*See this post, from late 2010, for a deep deep dive into how the terms ‘carved’ and ‘molten’ are used in scripture and how they may apply to us. Quoting myself, here was the main idea:
If you were God and your Holy Spirit were working through someone like Moses… How would you convey the concept of… television? (And with it, any moving, word-less entertainment or distraction on an electronic screen nowadays.) Where would you even begin more than three-thousand years ago? Yet scripture is written by a God outside of time. It is meant for all time (until time ends).
One of the elders at our church helped open up my understanding of this point even further. I’d always thought of Christian religious art as generally useful — a kind of reverent ‘crutch’ that helped to get folks through a time of darkness and widespread illiteracy. It may well have helped to perform those kinds of functions, however it had (and still has) a deeply sinister side effect. (And that’s leaving aside the motivations behind it replacing the Word of God.)
Religious art tends to dumb-down peoples’ understanding of the fullness of the gospel, the scriptures, and Christ’s work since creation, while bringing into the foreground of peoples’ imagination a few ‘pat’ stories and extra-Biblical ideas which distract from it.
That’s a whole subject unto itself that we don’t have time to treat here, but I urge you to think about it. E.g., what aspects of scripture don’t lend themselves well to artistic portrayal? As part of the Word, are they any less important for being hard to depict?
Extra credit: consider what the worldwide flood of Olympic coverage does in this vein…
The article continues:
Trend 4: Effects of Neural Darwinism — Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman postulated that the brain constantly undergoes a “survival of the fittest” process, in which cells respond to environmental stimuli and, in turn, battle for dominance.
Again, don’t get hung up on the term ‘Darwinism’. The author is using it in a very different and much better documented sense than the transposition of species. He’s referring instead to the processes which go on within a single individual over his or her lifetime. He goes on to share startling statistics about how the human brain “dumbs down” (or ‘smarts up’) in very particular ways in adaptation to whatever it’s given to ‘eat’ or ‘drink’. (Note Amos 8:11, where the Holy Spirit makes an explicit link, picked up in many other places, e.g., John 4, between the Word of God and food and water.)
Read less and watch more TV and you’ll lose the ability to read well. (One of the commenters on the article described spending three years as a hermit and how difficult it was to even speak when he returned to civilization. Even if only half true, that’s remarkable — in synch with my own experience backpacking alone for a week.)
Closer to home: participate in a multi-media rich, entertainment-driven worship service where you don’t have to read the Bible yourself and think and reason, and the same thing is likely to happen. (It’s remarkable how many times, in the book of Acts, Paul and others go into the synagogues and public squares to reason with the people from the scriptures. It’s never an emotional appeal divorced from the Word of God.)
This is all intuitive, but neural science now has the data to back it up. Thankfully the reverse is true also. Those who’ve grown accustomed to ‘molten’ (shifting) images can be re-trained in fairly short order. The Word revives the spirit and mind of a person in a very concrete and temporal way.
Trend 5 — Translating Machines… The inevitable proliferation and technological improvements of translating devices will mean more plainspeak, more monosyllabic words, and fewer polysyllabic words. As world commerce continues to expand and the need to communicate in several languages becomes a standard expectation, the emphasis will be on functionality — a few, useful words and durable phrases. Again, the universe of words seems destined to shrink… Losing polysyllabic words will mean a corresponding loss of eloquence and precision.
The phenomenon he outlines is the same as my frustration when traveling in foreign countries. Global communication and commerce and machine translation merely brings it into more situations day to day. It’s not that foreign travel and dialogue isn’t pleasant, or that the people one meets are any less human or intelligent. It’s simply that, at best, I’m reduced to a fourth-grade vocabulary, and most of that centered around transactions (world system) rather than anything transformational (kingdom-of-God system). Still, we cannot complain. Languages and people groups were separated for a time and a purpose. When the ultimate Pentecost comes, at Christ’s return, these barriers will surely fall as they do already within genuine, Christ-following churches. (Ours includes a marvelously diverse cornucopia of people from all over the place; it works beautifully.)
We should not conclude from all this that we’re doomed. Far from it. God’s Word and His people who take it seriously are salt and light. He knows what he is doing. The art of written communication is being enhanced and spread abroad via some of these same phenomena, e.g., blogs, facility by more people with a few major languages, etc. As with the Roman roads, the technologies are morally neutral. Monosyllabic gossip, blasphemy and epithets are just as easy to spread as words of Truth and healing and love. What gives them all direction lies in the heart of man — whether wicked and natural or forgiven and redeemed. And that puzzle is only solved through the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.
What a fascinating and ‘pregnant’ time we live in! May His Word go forth with power!