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It’s hard to know what words are left to say about recent events—it’s difficult to begin writing, not knowing what might happen mere hours from now. I’m sure there are many good and necessary words, but I am less confident about what I can contribute that hasn’t already been said better somewhere else. 

That said, I will make one observation: I was struck by the report of former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s remark on a weekend news show: “People took him literally. I never thought I’d see that.”

The surprise that is evinced in the statement, “People took him literally”! As if to say, “we all know that politicians don’t mean what they say. We all know this is a game, an abstraction, a cynical exercise of power. Even if the lies have been escalating in recent months, even if conspiracy theories have been wildly encouraged, even if no evidence exists—why, we’ve been saying stuff like this for years. Surely no one would actually believe it. C’mon, it’s a game.” It says a lot about this Age of Irony—where nothing is in earnest—and about a political system where rhetoric is so often detached from reality. Irresponsible and cynical, indeed. 

Except, it turns out, words do matter. Stories (including the most ludicrous and seemingly unbelievable of conspiracy theories) do have incredible power. Particularly when they are repeated again and again over years and years. People are persuaded. The way we use words, the stories we tell are ways we disciple our minds—and the consequences when we misuse them are very real. Language may have no materiality, but that does not mean that it has no material effect. The consequences, in fact, put me in mind of one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems from 2001: 

V
A mind that has confronted ruin for years
Is half or more a ruined mind. Nightmares
Inhabit it, and daily evidence
Of the clean country smeared for want of sense,
Of freedom slack and dull among the free,
Of faith subsumed in idiot luxury,
And beauty beggared in the marketplace
And clear-eyed wisdom bleary with dispraise.

Berry’s point: more than the mind is “ruined” by the narrative of devastation and destruction. Everything is disfigured and uglified by it. 

It feels like I am stating the obvious: words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Speaking out, saying the right words, matter. But do we act like it? And perhaps more importantly, what are the things we are willing to admit we take literally ourselves? Is there anything? Or are we creatures of abstraction, too sophisticated to be in earnest about anything or too timid to admit it? So much of what seems to pass for Christianity these days often appears like performative abstraction, cultural allegiance, social club. Our faith commitments can seem as hollow (and as self-interested) as our political ones. Surely, no one really believes that anything we say really matters. Isn’t vague assent to a checklist of “right” thinking (however that may be defined in one’s theological camp) enough? 

Inadequate, inarticulate, and overwhelmed we may feel. But the time for embodiment—in word and deed together–is every day, not just when crisis forces it upon us. The challenge: to ask ourselves, “Would anyone feel surprised if you acted on what you say you literally believe?” Whatever the areas are where the answer is yes, we must commit, God helping us, to begin to bring right thinking and right action into ever greater accord, joining our voices with others already bravely speaking out. Our witness demands no less. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

13 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you. Excellent. Triggers my curiosity on how “literally” has devolved to its use in current speech.

  • mstair says:

    “ … repeated again and again over years and years. People are persuaded. “
    Took me here…
    “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8)
    And then…
    “People require and seek out persuasion that validates what they already believe.”

    • Henry Baron says:

      Yes, too true. But what is the formation of that belief? How does the substance of that belief become one’s truth? A truth often accepted from unreliable sources and informed by conspiracy theories that have basis in fact? That continues to confound me.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    This is a sentence I will not forget for a long time: Language may have no materiality, but that does not mean that it has no material effect.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    This reminds me of the line in the hymn “Creator Spirit by Whose Aid”: “Make us eternal truths receive, and practice, all that we believe.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for a thoughtful article. Right thinking and right acting do go together. I imagine those who terrorized our capitol last week were acting on their convictions, even their so called Christian convictions, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Such a declaration gave Israel permission and the mandate to kill off their surrounding nations. And today it gives terrorist and protestors the right to physically challenge those who don’t identify with their “Christ.” Belonging to Christ, whatever one’s idea of belonging may be, has been reason to wage wars throughout history. And it has given Christians reason enough to want to impose their ideas on an entire nation. It’s part of the Christian conspiracy theory, God’s kingdom will triumph. Thanks Jennifer for adding your clarity.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Honestly, I am unsure what your point is, so perhaps my response is a bit off mark. I doubt very much that many of the radical right who attacked the Capitol Building last week could quote 1 Peter or would have any idea what that verse means if it were quoted to them. Despite some carrying signs that said “Jesus Saves”, they are not Christians, at least not in my definition. Their motivation lies in white supremacy and white grievance, not in loving God and loving others as themselves. So instead of condemning all Christians through the acts of this mob, perhaps you would do better to challenge the so-called Christianity of the mob.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you Jennifer, I appreciate your thoughts. I do wonder, however, if they go far enough. I think that our problem is that, in the last four years, we have totally lost any contact with the truth and factual evidence. It is not just that we decided that we didn’t have to take politicians’ words literally. We decided that they could lie with impunity. In the last four years, we have existed in a deluge of lies, big ones, little ones, ridiculous ones, dangerous ones. Regardless of our political persuasion, we as Christians should speak the truth and demand that our leaders, whether in the church or in our pluralistic society, speak the truth. Oh, I realize that the “truth” is not always black or white and that exaggeration will always be with us. But we as Christians have a clear responsibility to search for truth and to speak for truth. We should hold our leaders accountable for speaking truth, not debate whether we should take their words literally or not. If we do the latter, we are complicit in allowing lies to be spoken and spread.

    As I write this, I am listening to the debate on the floor of the House about impeachment. If you want evidence of the lack of truth in the political arena and complete divorce from reality, all you need to do is listen.

    • Don E Ribbens says:

      Well said Tom.

    • I agree, Tom. I think of this as only a very small start. Inadequate, even, in the face of all the lies and (as Henry says above) the confounding power of so many pernicious stories that seem resistant to rationality. Your point about silent complicity is exactly right. That’s actually where I wanted to start: being politely silent can’t continue. Thanks for reading.

    • John VanStaalduinen says:

      Tom, it is interesting that you have limited your memory of lies to the last four years.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Their “truth” is not truth, as they think ours is not. Is this blindness curable?

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