I mentioned a few weeks back that I’ve been watching old episodes of “Knight Rider.” I must say again that it’s great fun, not only for the horrible special effects and equally terrible dialogue but also for the 80s reminiscence it stirs. I say this mindful of a recent episode in which KITT, the show’s futuristic talking car, insisted on Christ as the only sensible reason for celebrating Christmas. Even better, a little further into the episode, Michael Knight, the main character, casually assumed out loud to another character that anyone unfamiliar with the contents of the Bible must be part of a very strange minority.
I found those perspectives refreshing. Although, when I returned to real life, I suddenly found them disheartening, having realized we’ve drifted far from such comfortable vantages. Today’s ethos makes 80s TV show language feel more like the vernacular of an alien planet than an echo of earthly history. If you think I’m exaggerating, then consider the Gallup poll from the 1980s that determined a little less than 75% of Americans were biblically literate. In 2021, the number came in at around 11%. That’s not an annoying but nevertheless inconsequential sign that we’ve lost our national footing in this regard. It’s an indication we’ve gone over the cliff and are in free-fall.
A passing conversation I had about two weeks ago with our Kantor, Keith Vieregge, comes to mind. We were talking about how so many words in the English language are mauled with regularity. When someone says “supposebly” in our presence, there’s a good chance we’re cringing internally. But it gets worse. Keith mentioned how words are being completely reconfigured, having recently heard the word “conversate” used in place of “converse”—as in, “The teacher needed to conversate with the parents regarding their child’s behavior.” I agreed and then volleyed with the made-up word “crucification,” which I’d recently seen used in place of “crucifixion” in an online forum.
So, where am I going with this? Well, I suppose one point of intersection is that not only are we thoroughly lacking in biblical literacy, but with our current culture’s reworking of words, we may discover breakdowns in the fundamental transmission of the Bible’s contents. Anyone who cares about language will tell you that when words become confused, the only way forward is chaos. I mean, consider the current confusion regarding gender. The terms “man” and “woman” mean different things to different people. In relation, the word “sex” no longer refers solely to biological gender and reproduction processes. It has become ideological, and as a result, no longer holds a firm footing for easy communication. I proposed not all that long ago that the practice of confusing terms spilled over from academia’s already-poisoned river into the streams and creeks of America when Bill Clinton, in response to a question in front of a grand jury while under investigation for perjury, said rather ridiculously, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Clinton went on to mumble almost unintelligibly, “If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
What a rambling word-salad of ridiculousness. If we don’t know how to properly handle the two-letter verb “is,” we’re in big trouble.
This reminds me of something else.
There is a memorable line in act 2, scene 3 of Macbeth that reads, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” If you know the story, then you’ll remember these words being spoken after Macbeth murders Duncan, the King of Scotland. The point is to communicate the impending chaos on the horizon for a rulerless kingdom. When no one is in charge—when there’s no certainty for direction—things come undone very quickly. Maybe this line applies to 21st-century communication, too. When the crispness of language is murdered, regardless of the unkillable nature of objective truth, the ability to actually transmit objectively true things becomes untenable, burdened by the absence of universally accepted fundamentals.
Take for example the important topic of marriage. Marriage, and the families it produces, are the fundamental building blocks of every society throughout history. In a simple way, without the hardened commitment established by marriage, societies would dissolve into little more than chaotically self-indulgent gatherings overflowing with orphans. But how can you talk about marriage in any meaningful way if the variables of its equation are undefinable?
“Marriage is to be between a man and a woman,” someone might say.
“I agree with you,” is the possible reply of a transgender woman married to a man.
But they don’t agree on marriage. A transgender woman is a man married to another man, and by such a combination, cannot begin to meet the basic parameters of natural law God has cemented into marriage, one of which is the procreation of children. The frustrating breakdown here leads to giant tech companies, with all seriousness, creating emojis of pregnant men. It leads to schools teaching children gender dysphoria is something to celebrate along with phrases like “birthing person.”
In short, words matter. What’s more, holding the line on their structures and meanings matters, too.
Truth be told, I’m only sharing with you what came to mind after reading Proverbs 21:23 during my devotion this morning. The text reads, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” I suppose the text is somewhat relative to the direction of my thoughts. The word used in the text for “keep” (שֹׁמֵ֣ר) means more than just to control something. It means to guard it for the sake of preserving it. A commentary I visited with this morning compared the guarding to someone who cares about the language they use, inferring someone who says “no more than is right and fitting.” This is both contextual and residual. In other words, aware of the precise meanings of words, a righteous person also knows the long-term damage that comes when those words are misused. Misuse leads to confusion. Confusion can result in a tangling that brings incredible harm.
Come to think of it, Jesus spoke to these things in a way when He said in Matthew 5:37 to let one’s yes be yes and one’s no be no. In context, the Lord is referring to taking oaths. But His broader teaching is not only to understand what is meant by the terms but to be so certain about them that you can speak with simplicity in a way that has binding strength. You can say “yes” and be fully invested in your answer, or you can say “no” and never feel the tug to question your resoluteness.
I don’t know about you, but on my part, I’m not only doing everything I can to be careful with language but to protect the terms that make communication through language of any value, especially as it meets with God’s Word. I don’t want confusion anywhere near the Gospel. Confusion, as John Milton chimed so poetically, brings nothing less than “ruin upon ruin, rout upon rout.”