There wasn't a lot of things I wasn't allowed to do, growing up in small-town New Zealand. I could go to school barefoot, explore the bush and lake around home, and help Dad with his power tools. My Grandpa would let me sit on his lap and drive the car when I was just a young tot, and I was free to experiment with chemistry, electricity and - every boy's favourite - fire.
But for the entirety of my childhood, one of the few forbidden fruits was a TV show about a yellow-skinned family living in Springfield. The Simpsons was treated like an A-class drug in our home - something to be shunned, ignored and repelled from our midst.
Although my parents didn't know much about The Simpsons, they were sure that the language would not make a good impression on their precious children. So they made sure that we wouldn't be telling anyone to "Eat my shorts!" or be exposed to any of Homer's blasphemous rants.
Our use of language was important and as good Christians, we shouldn't swear or find foul language funny. So despite our desperate pleading, the TV would stay switched off at 7pm and we'd make do with yelling at each other over family games of Monopoly.
As a Christian kid in the 90s, it seemed like the one big point of difference we had from non-Christians was with our language. Good Christian kids didn't swear. Average Christian's swore occasionally, and the worst Christian kids had tongues that could make Elmo blush. Your control over language and the words you used reflected how serious you took your faith. Packed with your arsenal of "Frig", "Crud" and "Shoot" - you were ready to take on the world.
Dropping Linguistic Bombs
Recently, I've noticed a culture shift in the language of Christians. Suddenly, it seems to be OK to swear. Christian young adults have thrown the shackles of their childhood off, and are revelling in the new found freedom to drop some linguistic bombs in the mix for some shock-and-awe in their delivery.
The cool Christians are the ones who can cuss-without-a-fuss, and love to push the boundaries about what is acceptable for a Christian to say.
Perhaps the previous generation's view on language was simple moralising, and could be argued away as being rules-for-the-sake-of-rules - but perhaps they understood something about the power of words. Living in our world of constant texts, Tweets and television, language is ubiquitous and its impact can be somewhat lost on us.
But those who have lived through the stirring speeches and provocative pronouncements of the last era may just recognise something the Jewish prophets did as well - that our words create worlds.
A Brave New Word
In the Judeo-Christian narrative, the entirety of the universe and its metaphysical reality find its origins in language. This God is the one who speaks - and when He speaks, things happen. Other creation myths from the Ancient Near East may have a deity who creates the world, but their method is often very different from this mysterious God of the Jews. Some cultures believed their gods created the world out of conflict, with the earth being the corpse of a losing god. Others saw their gods creating out of drunken revelry, and the Gnostics saw the divine being creating through intangible emanations.
But this God says that the method of His creation is language, and that we ourselves are the product of the sacred speech-act of God.
Throughout long years of slavery, exile and struggle, the prophets of Israel would retell the story of this speaking God - and then they would call out. Surprisingly, often what they are asking for is not blessing, or even an appearance of God, but is a word from God. Thus the Psalmist could cry out, "Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you." (Psalm 143:8), and Job could be comforted by the very word of God. This God gave new words to the prophets to speak, to share hope and new life to the people who were struggling.
Then John's gospel makes the bold claim that this man called Jesus was none other than the Word, the creative, speaking God. Although this statement has a depth to it that I could never hope to fathom, part of what John is alluding to here is the power of the life and voice of Jesus. Just like the creation story in Genesis; when Jesus speaks, things happen. He recreates, he sets free, he casts out, he heals - and more often than not, he does this with a word.
Called to Create
It is because of this grand story that some Jewish rabbis said that when we speak to another person, we are recreating them. Part of what it means for us to be image of God-bearers is the power to use language for creative persons. We can either speak to people in a way that calls out the true creation God has called them to be, or speak destructive words that recreate them in a destructive way.
Similarly, it is because of this story that the spiritual discipline of taking a period of solitude and silence was a regular exercise of some of the giants of the faith. Temporarily taking a break from the spoken word would remind them of the incredible power and privilege it is to be a speaking creation, before they would plunge back into the world with a renewed vision and communicative practice.
Perhaps I am too one-eyed (full disclaimer - I am a Communications Student), but I do believe the act of speaking is a sacred act that I too often take for granted. When I am loose with my language and when I speak without thought, I am forgetting the creative power of words and am often focused on building up my own little kingdom of pride.
But when I remember this hard-wired potency of language, the healing and life-giving nature of the living lexicon pour out. The writer of the Proverbs explains this with an infinitely more tasty metaphor, saying "Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones."
Subway, Supermarkets & The Lingering Sting
When I was a Youth Pastor, I loved asking teenagers what had been the most impactful words during their lives. Almost without fail, they could each remember a comment - often off-hand - that had been spoken to them more than five years prior. Unfortunately, most of the time that comment was negative. They could not remember the sting of their first encounter with a thistle, or the ache of falling off their bike - but they could each remember and still feel the pain of loose language in their lives.
Thankfully, the creative power of the Word is more powerful than the destructive power of our words. Many of these teenagers found healing from the weapon-like words and discovered the liberating language that helps call out a new reality. They encountered the fact that words create worlds, and new words create new worlds (not the supermarket chain).
So I write this as a reminder to myself of the playful, enigmatic power of language that I carry each day. Every interaction with friends, family or the Subway Sandwich Artist who makes my lunch has the possibility to be a fresh interaction that speaks difference.
And in today's magnitude of meaningless messages, a fresh creative breath is something we all crave.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.creativate.co.nz) whose favourite words are 'vendetta', 'rapscallion' and 'serendipity'.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html