As of January 2017, I am writing a monthly column for the Christian Courier, an independent newspaper published in Canada. Here is the first column, which is offered as a kind of description of my own approach to writing.
Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life.
— The BFG
It is not only Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant who has a twitch-tickling problem with words. Rather, words are a frequent source of botheration (to use a word the BFG might appreciate!) for many of us. In the case of Dahl’s fictional character, words represent a challenge because he has never gone to school and has only ever read one book—Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Given this history, it is no surprise the BFG’s words have ended up as topsy-turvy as they have!
For those of us who inhabit a decidedly non-fictional world, words are a challenge for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is perhaps the fact that we are inundated with words. So many words, in fact, that there is no chance we can absorb them all or attend to them with any care. Words come at us from tablets, monitors, and magazine pages. Very often they are screamed at us, whether literally or figuratively, by politicians and advertisers. And then there is the fact that the reliability of so many words (fake news, anyone?) is often in question.
Within the Reformed tradition that many of us inhabit—whether of the Dutch, the Scottish, or some other variety—we face this same challenge in a slightly different form. Too many words! This overflow of words owes partly to our historic and theological distrust of icons and artistry, and of silence and introspection. And it means that our worship services remain heavy on words and thin on silence—our church walls are largely free of images that might distract us from apparently more trust-worthy words. So many words!
The title of this new column within the Christian Courier is “Word(s) and Wonder”, and with that title I am pointing toward something quite hopeful in relation to our words. Particularly with that playful and parenthetical “s”, I am highlighting the possible proximity of our words to the Word—the proximity of our words to the Word through whom all things are created and through whom we have new life and redemption. More, I am pointing to the fact that our words are capable of bearing the reality of Christ and his kingdom into our lives and world.
Among other things, our words can express the love of God, can articulate the mystery of Jesus’ identity, can declare something of the truly human, and can lift up truth in circumstances where falsehood has gained the upper hand. With our words we can attest to the wonder of the world and the wonder of the One through whom it is given/redeemed.
To express this in slightly different terms, we can say that our words must be spoken and written under the discipline of the gospel. Which, of course, represents another twitch-tickling problem for us, and especially for those who make a living with words, whether through teaching or writing or preaching. It is all too easy for our words be only ours—for us to neglect the question of our words’ faithfulness to the living Word.
As this column unfolds in time, it will range over a whole variety of topics related to faith, culture, identity, and ethics. Of course, we need so much more than words to engage fully with any of these dimensions of life—we also need image and gesture and silence and awe and laughter. Yet for me the promise of proximity, between my words and the living Word, means that my reflections might play some part in bearing Christ into our lives and world.
As I write this column into the coming months, I also hope that there will always be a kind of playfulness in my words. The more time I spend with words, the more I have recognized the inevitability and significance of the gaps and silences and ambiguities that attend our words. But this is not to cast yet more doubt on the reliability or significance of words. It is not to introduce another problem. Rather it is to see the joy that words represent. Writing is like trying to catch a firefly with your bare hands—you think you’ve caught it, and then it suddenly reappears luminescent and floating in front of your nose. And that is a twitch-ticklingly wonderful problem.