worlds out of words

“People make worlds out of words.”*

They do. I know it. I have lived in those worlds, often and often, and they have taught me to make sense out of my own world, which is also, as it happens, made out of words, by the Word, beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

“And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness He called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”**

Later, He made man, not by the familiar “Let there be” formula, but with His own hands, from dust, infusing him with His own breath. This was the way to make man in God’s own image, according to God’s likeness: great God-hands fashioning, great God-breath made small enough to fill the fragile lungs. There stood man, a small maker after the image of the great Maker.

His world was ready-made for him, but to him was given the gift of words, the task of naming, so that by a word one man could call up a bit of the world in another man’s mind. So that I may say “cat,” and you see it, though your physical eyes are not on it. That was the beginning.

Later still, at Babel, when all the people of the world spoke one language, they planned to build a world to reach to God. (Still hearing, no doubt, the hissing seduction from the Garden, that God was keeping some good from them, that they must reach out their hands to take it.)

"'Tower of Babel" by Marten van Valckenborch, circa 1600

 God thwarted their building plan, not by toppling the tower, as I might have done had I been God, but instead by destroying their world-building capability: their language. No longer could one man build a world to which all the others could be effortlessly privy. No longer will every person to whom I say, “cat,” see the thing that I mean.

In their own languages, the people recreated the story. The great project: that tower; the labor involved; the visionaries who, with their words, helped all the others to see it; the friend who labored alongside, with whom one shared words while toiling with stones.

And then the day when the friend gazed with uncomprehending eyes, even at the most commonplace comment, when the friend spoke, and the sounds were utterly new – unlike even the garbling of a baby. The visionary attempted to rally the people, but they told each other he was insane, for he was saying nothing, and they could not understand one another any more than they could understand him.

Though all their meanings were in agreement, they could not understand it, and left the words for blows, and left the blows behind with the project. They knew that the blows were sinful, that such sinners could not hope to find God, even at the top of the highest tower in the world, even if building the tower had not become a hopeless task.

Their worlds divided by only words – and the saying goes that “words will never harm me”! – they abandoned the tower project, wandered off with their different visions, different words, building worlds all over the world.

But the dividing wall – words – has now been broken; to the men who could not reach up to God, God has come down: the Word to crush the wall and heal the breach, the Word to bruise the head of the hissing seducer, to bring all good things to the people who could not even reach for them.

So that the world made by words, broken by words, is restored by the Word. Even now, when God says, “Let there be light,” there is light.

 

 

*Donald T. Williams, “Christian Poetics, Past and Present.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002.
**Genesis 1:3-5
Other material © 2012 by Stacy Nott

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