Christian Education in Seven Books (3)—Less Than Words Can Say

Christian Education in Seven Books (3)—Less Than Words Can Say

Just as you cannot do algebra without numbers, so you cannot know, discover or communicate meaning without clear, accurate, and precise language. It is not too much to say that bad grammar is the enemy of truth. Christians should then prioritise language, since it is the media of propositional truth.

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.
– Dorothy Sayers

Words are our only means of knowing the world as rational beings. You cannot think without words. Go ahead, and try it: try thinking without words. Form pictures in your mind without words, but you will soon find yourself naming those objects, and even making short sentences about them. You cannot know the world without thinking in words. Words are the basis of rationality and self-awareness.

Not surprisingly, we read that creation came into being through words, and John’s Gospel tells us that those words spoken at the beginning were through the Word of God Himself. God’s Eternal Son is the Word: the communication and explication of the life of God. God knows Himself through His Word by His Spirit.

The written Word, God’s special revelation, is the foundation of knowledge about God, ourselves and the world. Words themselves are part of general revelation: language mediated through culture, through which we obtain light. All we know comes through words.

Richard Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say may seem like an odd choice for as a book to explain Christian education. After all, Mitchell did not profess to be a Christian. At times, he can even be lewd. But Mitchell is one of the few writers who understands that language is more than a convention: it is the very filter we use to understand reality.

Less Than Words Can Say starts, as The Abolition of Man does, with some errors committed by professional educators. In this case, the error is not logical positivism, but a kind of bureaucratic-speak that steadily destroys meaning while posturing as formal and educated. Mitchell shows this is more than irritating; it represents a hollowing out of meaning (a worm in the brain, as he calls it) and this by people who are meant to teach meaning to younger minds.

To illustrate, Mitchell then imagines a tribe of people, the Jiukukwe, who have few active verbs in their language, and plenty of passives and indirect forms of address. He pictures these people doing little in the way of forming a civilisation, except clawing for food out of tree bark. The problem with these people is not a lack of sophistication with words or grammar (for their language is highly complex). The problem is that their language spirits away personal responsibility, and the resulting worldview creates a passive and complacent way of life. The way the Jiukukwe understand reality is shaped by their syntax and grammar, not by some outside force. The meaning of the world comes at them through the filter of their language.

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