by John Ellis
Over the last few months, one of the questions/problems I’ve been thinking and working through is in reference to the Fall’s effect on language. At first blush, I think most Christians would agree that language didn’t escape unscathed from sin’s curse. But that acknowledgment is likely thin; largely, I believe, because we almost never (if ever) think about it. We think about the Fall’s effect while pulling weeds out of our flower bed. We think about the Fall’s effect when our optometrist prescribes bi-focal lenses. But I highly doubt that the curse of sin is referenced during times of the proverbial “failure to communicate.” At least, not in relation to language, specifically regarding meaning and value. Maybe in relation to the “other person’s” ability to listen.
(With the first footnote, I attempt to explain the difference between meaning and value. Rereading it, I think that my explanation is dependent on concepts and thoughts that I develop later in this article. If you read it, you may want to reread it after finishing the article.)
Owing to its roots in the Enlightenment, white evangelicalism has an elevated opinion of language that is unwarranted and one that unwittingly denies the Fall’s effects on our ability to communicate. Men like Charles Hodge and Carl F.H. Henry have gone a long way to institutionalizing foundationalism/propositionalism within white evangelicalism. We are taught to believe that objective truth in language is accessed fairly easily. Facts speak for themselves, after all, and woe to anyone who dares to question the truth of that truth claim.
Like Critical Race Theory, postmodernism makes for a handy boogeyman for the defenders of all things modernism. Creating strawmen out of terms and concepts that the overwhelming majority of us have never heard much less studied (and even flat-out lying about those terms and concepts, at times), any acknowledgement that our estrangement from each other is reflected in the Fall’s effect on language is quickly and roundly condemned as a denial of all objective truth. I understand the fear. If texts lack discernible meaning, then truth is whatever I make of it, right? Well, it’s not that simple, not by a long shot.
For sure, academic eggheads can be found who believe that texts do not contain any meaning. For them, truth is a myth crafted by our community’s already in place context and values. Brian Malley’s How the Bible Works is a fairly recent example of how contemporary linguistics can be weaponized in humanity’s ongoing rebellion against God.
But the misuses of the conceptual insights into language over the last one hundred+ years should not cause us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Beginning with the 1916 publication of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, the idolatrous belief in the verifiability and synonymous power of human language and, hence, its mostly-unfettered accessibility, so long as a little intellectual and interpretive elbow grease is employed, has been under constant attack. Facts do not speak for themselves – cannot speak for themselves – is what we’ve learned. That doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist. The question and answers are much more complex than that.
Ultimately, truth is revealed. That’s a fundamental Christian doctrine. And revelation requires a Revealer. Down that conceptual path lies a defense of the Bible’s inerrancy and our gifted/given ability to comprehend that truth. But that’s a defense that will have to wait for a future article. And it’s a belief to which I hold that puts me at odds with the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Brian Malley. For now, though, my concern is with thinking and working through the ways in which truth, as communicated by humans to other humans, is cloudy and accessible only to a point. An understanding and belief that has been aided by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Brian Malley. As Mikhail Bakhtin argued, truth is dialogical and cannot be reduced to a monological perspective.
We do have access to truth, but that access is limited. This shouldn’t frighten Christians. For one thing, we should recognize how contemporary linguistics points to truths revealed in God’s Word. For another thing, it should cause us to pray for the return of King Jesus when all things, including language, will be made right.
Take the Skinheads Bowling
In 1985, the alternative rock band Camper Van Beethoven released their debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory. The album sold around a mere 60,000 copies, a gigantic sum for a DIY, indie band like Camper Van Beethoven, but far from the numbers needed to be considered a national success. The album did include what has become the band’s signature song “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”
A rollicking jangle pop song, “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is catchy and fun; it’s also nonsensical, intentionally so. The band’s founder and lead singer David Lowry (probably better known for his 90s band Cracker) explained of the song, which he wrote, that “the lyrics were purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning. Each subsequent line would undermine any sort of meaning established by the last line.” Later, after the song reached its peak popularity because of its inclusion in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Lowry added, “it’s one of those songs that the more you repeat the mantra the more you understand it.”
Well, which is it? Does “Take the Skinheads Bowling” contain meaning (value) or not?
If you do a Google search of the song’s meaning, you will undoubtedly uncover Lowry’s quotes, but you will also find blog posts and articles exegeting the song. One blogger interprets the song as attacking neo-Nazis with bowling balls, making them fall to the ground like pins. I found another blogger that summoned outrage at a song that he believes encourages fraternization with neo-Nazi skinheads. He believes that the song is normalizing “white-cis-heteronormative cultural practices.” And while I believe that his take is satirical, he’s still found meaning in the song. And that speaks to my point: much of meaning (value) is contextual.
There are probably scores of people who have listened to “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and who are unfamiliar with the songwriter’s claim that the song is intentionally nonsensical and yet who have interpreted the song, contributing value to it (And, yes, I intentionally typed “contributing” and not “attributing.”). Are they wrong? Or is David Lowry wrong? And which David Lowry? The one who laid claim to the song as a Dada exercise or the one who attributed some value to it?
(As an FYI: the article continues below the video.)
Tennessee Williams and Authorial Intent
My favorite American play is The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. In 2002, I had the immense privilege of playing Tom in an Atlanta area theatre. During the phone call informing me that I had landed the role, the theatre’s artistic and producing director offered me free tickets to the theatre’s current production of Driving Miss Daisy. Eagerly taking him up on his offer, I was unprepared for the artistic and existential weight that fell on me while sitting in the darkened theatre.
Before the curtain rose on Hoke and Daisy, like my fellow audience members, I perused the playbill. Unlike my fellow audience members, I was acutely (and proudly) aware that my name and list of credits would be included in an upcoming playbill. Reading the impressive list of regional theatre gigs, TV guest spots, and film roles of the Driving Miss Daisy cast, all of whom were considerably older than I was, I hubristically thought, “These are my peers!”
Except, after the curtain rose, it became obvious that I was not their peer. Whatever I thought I knew about acting, I knew that I didn’t know how to do that – “that” being what was happening on stage. They were exhibiting a level of storytelling via acting that I had yet to reach. In fact, sitting in the dark, mortified, I was aware that I didn’t know how to reach that level. Returning to my apartment later that night, I threw myself into what I believed I did know how to do – play analysis – as I began my frantic attempts to do my best to approximate what I had just seen on stage.
At the time, part of my process of the work of mining for Tom’s super-objective and, hence, his objectives that make up the smaller beats, included researching Tennessee Williams. In early 2002, my knowledge of one of America’s greatest playwrights was minimal. After checking out Lyle Leverich’s masterful biography Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams from the library, I quickly devoured the nearly 600 pages of material (and then promptly bought the book from a Books-a-Million).
I learned a lot from Leverich’s pages. I learned that Tom is Tennessee Williams; the play is semi-autobiographical. Tennessee was Tom’s pen name. I learned that owing to Tennessee’s anger at his father, he wrote him out of the play. I learned much about the back story of Amanda (Tennessee’s mom) as well as Tom’s complicated relationship with her. I also learned that much of the impetus for Tennessee’s writing of The Glass Menagerie was the guilt he carried for, what he believed, was his role in sending his sister to an insane asylum, which eventually led to her being given a lobotomy. Those, and other fascinating tidbits about Tennessee’s life helped me round out my research and deepen my play, scene, and character analyses. At least, I believed that to be true.
Nearly two decades later, I now understand that whatever success I achieved in my portrayal of Tom as I helped my castmates tell the story of The Glass Menagerie owed very little, if anything, to my author research. It was the words on the page that I translated on the stage that allowed me to connect (if at all) via value with the audience. No matter how much I believed otherwise, my access to Tennessee Williams was severely limited. The information I received regarding his perceived involvement with the tragedy of his sister did not transfer the full truth of his existential responses. In turn, his truth was largely incapable of informing my acting choices.
Six years later, in a directing class I was taking that used Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon as our text, I came to class armed with a whole host of biographical details about O’Neill that I demanded control any and all interpretations of the play and subsequent directing choices. My teacher gently confronted me with my near-idolatrous fascination with author bios/authorial intent. I exploded in anger, aghast at her postmodern rejection of objectivity. I didn’t have ears to hear her. My right to knowledge/truth was unassailable at the time, and authorial intent is one of the most sacred of sacred epistemological cows for modernists.
I still believe that knowledge and objective truth are attainable, but only to a point because I also believe that sin and sin’s curse (the Fall) affects language and our ability to relate to one another.
Philosopher John McDowell’s sense of dislocation as he applied it to Ted Hugh’s poem “Six Young Men” is helpful. While McDowell steered almost completely into the inevitable horror of death that is present in all pictures, his larger understanding of how moments are always immediately dislocated in some way from the next moment holds true. Pictures, no matter the sign used (words, images, etc.), are always anchored in a specific moment. Outside of that moment, while in another moment (which we always are), that moment lacks full acquirability.
In a previous article, I mentioned finding an old photo of my mom, her parents, and sister from when she was a kid. The familiar faces (familiar to me but not, probably, to you) are smiling in familiar ways. If I were to look at that photo again, I would see specific moments in their smiles but none of those moments had happened at the time of the photo, because I wasn’t born until decades later. I would be able to overlay an interpretive grid on the photo that would enable me to experience emotions like happiness, nostalgia, and even loss. I would even be able to make truth claims about the photo based on my own moment(s): “They were happy and content.” “They love/d each other.” “The picture reveals a loving, happy family made up of friendly, nice people.”
Those truth claims may all be true, but they’re not the whole truth regarding the picture. I don’t have access to all the truth(s). Whatever access I have is mediated through now-in-the-past moments I collected while my grandparents and mom were still alive. Even if I were to sit down with my aunt, the only remaining living participant of the photo, and have her walk me through the events surrounding the picture, I still wouldn’t have complete access to the truth(s) of that moment. In fact, neither would she.
That moment – any moment – is not transferrable, not completely. Much of it is lost. For sure, reminiscing about the photo would bring a flood of memories back to my aunt. But she’s not the same person who’s in the photo. Even if she could perfectly recall every moment and the emotions those moments elicited, her interpretive grid has changed. Before the film roll had been removed from the camera, her interpretive grid had changed because her self had changed. This is why I included the extended intro to this section to point out that even though I can recall the events and even my emotional responses, I can’t recall them fully. The truth – my truth – of that moment, the moment of realizing that my acting ability was sorely lacking, is, at least, partially lost to me. And I’m not talking about the loss that comes with fading memories. I have changed. My belief system has evolved, as have my objectives and goals; what I believe to be important has also changed. My self has changed. The full truth of that moment is inaccessible, even to me. How much more inaccessible is the complete truth to you, the reader?
There are aspects to the changing self that I want to briefly unpack, but first, another example.
The (Partial) Lack of Access to Value in Eschatological Despair
My recent “Eschatological Despair” series contains truth, I believe. If I didn’t believe that truth wasn’t accessible to some degree or another, I wouldn’t have bothered to publish the articles on this blog. But that doesn’t mean that all the truth/s is/are accessible.
The collision of several things is what created the cognitive soil from which the series sprung. Some of those things are unknown by me, at least consciously. I am a product of rolling given-circumstances. And those rolling given-circumstances continue to shape and reshape me, including my interests, questions, and conclusions/accepted truth claims. There are other things, though, that played a role in bringing me to the point of exploring eschatological despair via writing that I am cognizant of. Some of those things I have deliberately cultivated. Some of them are variables and events that have been/are out of my control, for good and bad.
All of that. All the given circumstances and variables are contained within my words and provide those words’ value. The question remains, though, how much of it can be mined and recovered by readers? And this brings us to the question of, do words describe the world, or are words products of the world?
Wittgenstein works through some of this “which came first, chicken or egg” type of problem in Philosophical Investigations. Christians will find some of his conclusion unpalatable, but his overarching concern, though, is instructive. One of his initial observations that I believe is helpful for us is his claim that, “it only makes sense for someone to ask what something is called if he already knows how to make use of the name.” We are required to have a prior relationship with the world before we can begin naming it. This is born out in the Christian creation narrative.
(Speaking of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” type of problem, I really need to finish my article on ontology. Some of what I’m going to assert below is based on my arguments in that uncompleted article.)
The Ever-Changing Self
Being is relationship. God is the only first principle. Everything else exists in relation to Him. And regarding humans, our relationship (our ontic reality) is either one of growing blessing or growing wrath. For those of us who are being conformed to the image of the Son, our meanings and values are being continually reconstructed. For those who are continuing to grow in their rebellion, their meanings and values are being continually reconstructed, too. As Saussure made clear, “A community is necessary in order to establish values. Values have no other rationale than usage and general agreement. An individual, acting alone, is incapable of establishing value.”
Truth, the Truth, is a product of a specific Community, specifically the product of the Author and Lord of that Community. Growing in Truth means that the (redeemed) self is appearing, in a sense. On the flip side, this means that the (unredeemed) self is disappearing, in a sense. Our self is continually in a change of stasis. By definition, this means that our meanings and values, in regards to language, are also in a constant change of stasis. At this point, conservative Christians should be tracking with me. But let’s add in the Fall’s effect.
Our meanings and values are culturally constructed. While our ontic reality (redeemed or unredeemed) is a controlling factor, the Fall means, among other things, that there are aspects of our changing self that are inaccessible to those in other cultural contexts. This should be expected by those who claim to believe the Bible.
As beings in relation, we have relation with other humans, with creation in general, and with our self. Sin not only changed the relationship with God from one of blessing to one of wrath, sin’s Curse has negatively effected all our other relationships, too. We struggle with weeds in our garden. And we struggle to love and serve each other in the ways in which our Creator calls us. Part (possibly a large part) of our failure to love and serve others is wrapped up in the inaccessibility of language’s meanings and values. We can’t hear each other because of sin. Even if/when we can hear, we often don’t want to because of sin. Hearing others often means dying to self.
Of all people, God’s people should understand that the Fall has negatively affected our ability to communicate and that we have a responsibility to do our best, through the power of the Spirit, to seek ways that will aid us in our desire to listen, learn from, and love/serve fellow Image Bearers. This requires epistemic humility. It also requires a willingness to let go of our myopia created by our cultural context, not to mention a willingness to question the (Kingdom) ethical validity of the meanings and values that are specific to our cultural context. In turn, we need to foster the desire to do our best to learn from others in different cultural contexts, with the understanding that there will be times when we do not have full access to their meanings and values.
Are you aware of all the philosophies, ideologies, and value sets that have shaped you and, hence, your language? Try this thought exercise: If you had been raised among a community of deaf and mute people, how would you think? In what language would your thoughts be? What linguistic shape would your thoughts take? On one hand, the signs you use internally to provide meaning and value to your thoughts/perspectives are arbitrary (because the signs you use to communicate to others are arbitrary). They are a product of your cultural context. Without differentiation between signs, though – the difference made by the letters/syllables that make up the sign “dog” versus the sign “cat,” for example – your thoughts would be too chaotic for even you to understand. In that sense, signs are not arbitrary. So, while signs are arbitrary on the front end, they are provided to us by our context, and they come laden with meaning and value already that allow us to communicate with ourselves and with others. But this means that language doesn’t describe the world; language is a product of our world. So, again, are you aware of how much your perspective on the world is shaped by outside philosophies, ideologies, and value sets?
Competing meanings and values are effects of the Fall, I’ve begun to believe. They add to the disrupted relationships between Image Bearers. By God’s grace, we should desire to better communicate with each other, which, again, requires much humility, graciousness, and the willingness to do the hard work of deconstructing our own language in order to lay aside idols, love God more, and love and serve others in ways that adhere to Kingdom ethics. Clinging to idolatrous, anthropocentric, modernist beliefs about language is not just a product of sin, it also contributes to the Fall’s continuing effects of alienation from each other.
Soli Deo Gloria
 The difference between meaning and value in language is conceptually difficult to distill in a pithy sentence or two. But I’ll try. While the terms are not synonymous, value is part of meaning but meaning is not part of value. Meaning is the sign culture assigns to the signified. For example, an example that almost every linguist I’ve read uses, the sign/word “horse” refers to a horse. That seeming tautology is revealed to not be a tautology by the value you, the reader, attribute to “horse.” Your value of “horse” has been shaped by variables, some of which will be unique to you. Maybe you grew up on a horse ranch. While there is a value for “horse” that all English speakers share, there are aspects to the value of “horse” that are unique to an individual who grew up on a ranch and inaccessible to those of us who didn’t grow up on a horse ranch. The philosopher John Searle uses the example of a forest. When I say forest, my value is imbued with the shapes, sounds, smells, and my experiences from playing in the loplolly forests of the Florida Panhandle. If I tell a friend from Northern California how much fun my brother and I had playing in the forest behind our house when we were kids, my friend has a mostly shared meaning of “forest” with me, and even some shared value. But some, if not much, of our respective values regarding “forest” are going to be different, possibly even quite different. This doesn’t mean that I can’t communicate truth to him. It means that some of the truth (truth = my experiences, emotions, responses, ectc. in regards to the value of “forest”) will be inaccessible to him.
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
 The song used in the documentary is a cover version by the band Teenage Fanclub.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, ed. P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 19.
 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics trans. Roy Harris (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), 112.