Words Do Not Make Worlds
Okay, one of my biggest mentors is Walter Brueggemann, who in step with the Yale school of post liberalism, has argued that "Words make worlds." This is an hermeneutic argument that what we say, speak into being, changes how we behave. Citing Freud, Bruggemann writes that speech about our memory and hope open in us new possibilities. He also then connects this to Biblical Theology as it pertains to God. The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, speaks the world into being, communicates as a voice, and instructs through prophets who say "the Word of the Lord." It follows, then, that the New Testament's extrapolation in the incarnation of Jesus as the Word made flesh, is the embodiment of God's utterance.
The Church After Words
I have been drawn to this argument for quite some time but often get stuck on one thing, "words are not the only way, the primal way of knowing and communicating." I spent a semester in seminary trying to make sense of this and created 90+ pages of words to prove my point (get it here: Download arts_as_witness_02_revision
). Missiologist Leslie Newbigin proposes a complimentary idea that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel. Different than the Franciscan-Young Life motto- "preach the gospel at all times, only use words when necessary," Newbigin's argues that the congregation is a meaning making group who bear witness to the gospel of Jesus and the reign of God in their host culture. In this way the words are only part of the witnessing component, and the gospel is not simply preached but performed. Moving beyond Newbigin, I have seen this argument fitting well with the post-structuralists who suggest that disembodied words are actually tools of power- to manipulate others or evade responsibility.
Until today I have been stuck on how to connect the trajectories of these two formative scholars in my own approach to life in the way of Jesus. I agree that words, utterance, change our reality starting with our own vantage point and hope. I also agree that the church is the community witnessing to the story of this hope in word and deed, in the beauty of making a life together for the sake of its neighbors. But Brueggemann would seem to protest that words are a prerequisite, absolutely necessary for the formation of this community and the Newbigin trajectory (now I'm projecting certain postmodern suspicions to his work, I know) would seem to argue that words are an insufficient.
Words as elaboration
Today, listening to a pod-cast on hermeneutics and eschatology by John Green, I recognized that imagination is often pre-verbal. That the church's failure of imagination is tied to our preoccupation with words, to well elaborated systems. And I connected these two theologians to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHICK-sent-me-high-ee).
He describes the work of creativity as more recursive than linear, but proceeding in the following progression:
- Preparation (immersion in a problem that speaks to one's curiosity),
- Incubation (ideas call to each other without the pressure of linear logic),
- Insight (the aha when pieces of the puzzle fall together),
- Evaluation (utilizing former knowledge of the domain and opinion of the field determining if the idea is novel),
- Elaboration (paying attention to outside developing work, open mindedness, refining for elegance and simplicity, listening to colleges, and finally articulating the complete innovation).
Here is the connection to the church as hermeneutic and the speech act. The church requires the disciplines of contemplation on Christ to shape our imaginations. The church (to give props to my reformed fore parents) is shaped in the the proclamation of the Word. The narrative of scripture re-scripts our imagination so that new problems emerge, new incongruence's between our selves, our church, or our world as they relate to the gospel-shaped world of God's dreams known through the gift of the Holy Spirit, scriptures, and tradition. The speech act is "elaboration." But this elaboration is, as Csikszentmihalyi shows points out, is not linear but recursive and continual. And this elaboration is the fruit of an internal creative process, one the church exists to nurture.
Words as fruit and not product
I think this gets to the bottom of my beef with "words make worlds." In a consumer centered late-capitalist world, we rush past practices as means to a desired end. For preachers we need the next "word" and so cheap, flaccid, or self serving words are conjured up to meet 7-day cycle of market demand. Consequently the church has shaped a generation of eager "utterers" looking to say more than they believe and content to believe or wrestle with far less than they like to say. Churches and pulpits become the natural habitat in modernity for "vibrato" big sexy ideals. CCM and "praise music" is just amplifies the point. And yet pastors who preach every week play into this by demanding nothing, by saying words that therapize, validate (from a position of pulpit authority), or demean the other side (feminazis, homophobes, or culture-haters... you pick your idealogical enemy).
But utterance is not a consumable to be outsourced to experts or reduced into microwavable single portions. Utterance is the fruit of disciplines of readiness. Imagination is the gift of God from the future for the community to bear witness anew. And the congregation can bear witness anew only after it has internalized the creative process, facing emerging problems between the "kingdom come on earth" and the inspired imagination of "as it is in heaven." The church is not just a place for preparation (singing "Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary" or "Wait for the Lord") and elaboration (singing "Shout to the Lord" or "God Bless America" or "We Shall Overcome") but also for incubation (silence, and contemplation), insight (freedom to play and speak provisionally-divergently), and evaluation (lamentation, confession,reconciliation, and protest) as well.