When I was a boy, a whole room of my grandmother’s home was dedicated to her library. Thousands of books filled dark, neat shelves. Art deco prints from Maxfield Parrish lined the walls with images of ruined pillars and children lounging in blue sunsets. An antique bronze of Hermes, god of language, faced the door, right hand raised to heaven, face cast upward. That library was not only a place of knowledge or entertainment; it was almost sacred. Standing on thick carpet, one breathed quietly the smell of aged paper. Each word held there was precious.
Christianity joyfully affirms that language is worthy of such honor. After all, “In the beginning was the Word,” John 1:1 states, and the theme of word can be traced brilliantly through the entire Bible. Christians, extending the Jewish tradition, have been known for ages as “people of the Book.” What happens when we write and speak is something holy.
But today, we live in a crisis of language. Not only is the sacred nature of our words largely forgotten, but language is becoming degraded. In a world of significant social, ecological, and spiritual crisis, this may seem like a low priority. But healthy language, like clean air or water, is something we take for granted until it is gone. And if language falls, so do uncountable other things upon which human well-being depends.
This crisis has been growing for many decades. In 1946, George Orwell, novelist and one of the great defenders of language, opened his essay “Politics and the English Language” with “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” Orwell did something, of course (including writing the unforgettable 1984), but the form of the crisis is something he might not have easily foreseen.
Like Orwell predicted, political language (“designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”) is still a threat, visible anywhere words are warped to propaganda (often as simple as loaded phrases like wokeism or alternative facts). But in the same way that social surveillance is more consensual and boring than Orwell’s Big Brother, so the great threat to language is not from a shadowy politburo. It is from the sheer disposability of words as part of a general glut of information. Words are everywhere. What is everywhere must not be precious. Language becomes disposable.
And we are throwing it away. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences noted that between 2003 and 2018, the amount of time Americans spent reading for pleasure fell to an average of 16 minutes per day, compared with 2 hours and 50 minutes watching television. Numbers from 2021–2022 indicate that the average time spent on social media is 2 hours and 27 minutes. Sustained, thoughtful engagement with well-crafted language is becoming a cultural rarity.
Serious effects follow as we lose our discernment and grip on healthy language. Mind games reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm (“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”) play out all around us. As one example: Social forces might, say, rename murder as killing, specify a particular sort of killing as euthanasia, rebrand euthanasia as medical assistance in dying, contract that to the more palatable MAID, and then state that it is simply health care. Discussion ended. Language which ought to promote nuanced dialogue is appropriated to reduce it.
The decay is deeper than politics (Right and Left are guilty), government (our advertising culture is as corrosive to healthy language as the state-sponsored propaganda of autocratic regimes), or any generation or demographic group. It is in Ivy League academia, on AM radio talk shows, throughout the frenetic dopamine hit of TikTok. The decay is not simply a secular problem. Puffed up, manipulative language is a long-held habit for many popular church leaders. Most of us take it all in stride.
But we can change things. Artist Makoto Fujimura eloquently describes the Christian mission in society as “culture care.” We are called, with Jesus, to love our neighbors in every domain of life. In keeping with the oldest blessings of God (Gen. 1:28 and 2:19), we are called to use language to “name” the world with love, to encourage the flourishing diversity of creation and humanity that is our divine blessing.
What then can we do? We can cherish language as an act of radical, countercultural love. I pick that word carefully: cherish. It came into Middle English from Old French (the root of cher), and further back still from Latin’s carus, whose sense of “dearness” remains today in charity and caress. To cherish is to hold dear, to tend, to protect. To care. To so sense the preciousness of someone or something that taking them or it for granted is unthinkable.
This cherishing is for all of us and will take the simple, everyday form of care for our words. We must stop taking words for granted. We must be more thoughtful about each message, each email, every conversation over coffee. We must rekindle our delight in language. We must rediscover great poetry and rich story, and make and buy and read good and beautiful books, rejecting twaddle.
We must hold those who speak and preach to high standards. Our prayers must become careful, simple. As we cease to be passive consumers of processed or manipulative language, we can reclaim our status as namers in the holy Adamic sense—actively participating in the daily life of the Word.
We must reject disposable language in all its forms with an energy we may have forgotten. As an editor of books, I have found several tools useful, such as avoiding cliché in preaching, praying, and writing; learning to recognize jargon that obscures meaning or pushes others away; and allowing myself to fall in love with the sheer power and beauty of healthy language.
This is all part of a great, lifelong act of cherishing. It is care—for words, for neighbor, for our cultures. It is a worthy object, maybe even a form of worship.
And as we remember the sacredness and vital importance of language for our lives, we may find ourselves becoming more. More aware. More spiritually buoyant. More thoughtful. More attentive. More generous in spirit. More hospitable to perspectives other than our own. More discerning in what passes the doors of eye and ear. More like that eternal Word who has spoken us, who wishes us to speak and sing through all eternity.
Paul J. Pastor is senior acquisitions editor for Zondervan and the author of several books, most recently Bower Lodge: Poems. Speaking Out is CT’s guest opinion column.
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