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Language as an open door

  • 10 December 2020
  For writers one of the most infuriating features of words is that they grow stale. This is true of images, too. What was yesterday a striking phrase that offered a new perspective will tomorrow be a tired cliché on whose meaning no one reflects. This process is speeded up by advertisers who constantly look for fresh images and words to dispose people kindly to the products that they sell. Think of the image of a sweet elderly couple bathed in golden autumnal light on almost every brochure for nursing homes or insurance. Or of the fair haired, blue eyed boy with a computer under one arm and a tennis racket in the other who decorates promotional material for schools, accompanied by words in the same enticing key.

I don’t object to this commodification of words and images. But it does constantly challenge writers and speakers to find fresh words for fresh insights into reality. This is especially true of religious language which attempts to catch a reality whose experience lies beyond words. St Paul stretches words and images to the limit when describing the significance of Christ. The stories and images of the Book of Revelation and the Gospels also take words beyond where they comfortably fit. To describe Jesus’ tortured execution as the source of life is a hard ask. When freshly minted, images like redemption, sacrifice and atonement were vivid and startling. Later, however, the images dulled and the words described a doctrine, not a startling insight.

The images and language of Christmas have grown particularly weary. As it has become a public rather than a religious celebration, the words associated with it have been commodified to sell food and drink, all kinds of trinkets as presents, and a generalised bonhomie as the appropriate mood. Even the cards that put Christ back into Christmas make the manger a nice place, remove the dirt and smells that go with cattle, shepherds, camel travellers and two young people seeking shelter after a long journey. For people who do it hard, the language, the gift-giving and the feasting cannot but remind them of their exclusion.

If we want to renew religious language and images we must begin with attention to the words we currently use, noticing their resonance as well as their meaning. It is then important for the language of prayer and reflection to be grounded in deep contemporary experience.

In the Christmas stories,