Words Have Meaning, Or Do They?


Deconstruction _ LEGO PhilosophyWords have meaning. Of course they do, or people would never be able to understand each other. If I say, Thanks for visiting my blog, no one is going to mistakenly think I’m saying you’ve stopped by my home. My blog address is one of my online locations, but it’s not where I reside physically. It doesn’t take any special level of language acumen to understand this.

And yet we are living in a time in which the meaning of language is up for grabs. Postmodern philosophy has played a role in the deconstruction of language.

Here’s a brief summary of what was and what is replacing it:

Western philosophy is in this sense logocentrist, committed to the idea that words are capable of communicating unambiguously meanings that are present in the individuals mind.

Words are capable of communicating unambiguously. Sounds similar to words have meanings.

For the postmodern thinker, however, there’s deconstruction:

deconstruction, a method of textual analysis . . . which by means of a series of highly controversial strategies seeks to reveal the inherent instability and indeterminacy of meaning. . . . Deconstruction is best approached as a form of radical scepticism and antifoundationalism. (quotes from “Postmodernism”)

And why deconstruction?

Postmodernists believe that people are trapped behind something in the attempt to get to the external world. However, for them the wall between people and reality is not composed of sensations as it was for Descartes; rather, it is constituted by one’s community and its linguistic categories and practices. One’s language serves as a sort of distorting and, indeed, creative filter. (from “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn”)

If language is distorting reality, then it needs to be deconstructed.

And so, we have a culture–Christians and non-Christians alike–that systematically goes about redefining words. I’ll mention some of the hot-button issues by way of illustration, not to make a point about them necessarily, other than to say, deconstruction is effective.

First, the Mormon church has for years effectively deconstructed a number of terms from the Bible: Son of God, Father, atonement, redemption, salvation, and Christian to name a few. The apparent intent is to shake the identification of cult. Rather than trying to deconstruct the meaning of that word, Mormons instead have couched their doctrines in terminology that means something very different to Evangelical Christians than it does to Mormons.

So in the Mormon community “Jesus Christ” refers to a god, not a member of the Trinity.

Words have meanings, until someone deconstructs them.

For centuries now here in the US, marriage has meant “the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.” For the last fifteen, twenty years, however, this definition is being deconstructed. Consequently, same-sex relationships now claim marriage, though clearly the traditional definition contradicts the concept.

Other words have undergone a similar deconstruction: the concept of glorifying God, for example, and even the meaning of worship.

Most recently “natural” took a hit in order to explain away Romans 1:26-27. The thinking of the author of a recently published book roughly states that God said in Genesis, it is not good for Man to be alone. God then saw there was not a fitting partner for Man, so He gave him one.

For the gay man, the only fitting partner is another man, so this means what is natural for him is a male partner, not a female partner. Therefore when he is joined in “marriage” to his partner, that is good in the same way that Adam and Eve’s union was good.

Extrapolate that then to the Romans passage and you see that in reality for the gay person, same sex activity actually is what is natural.

I undoubtedly have mangled the explanation, but it serves as a good illustration. According to postmodernism, language takes on meaning from within a culture or community. So within the gay community, “natural” has come to mean the opposite of what it means to the rest of society. Or should I say, what it had meant to the rest of society.

The thing is, words actually do have meaning, so society at large either accepts the deconstruction of marriage and natural and Christian or it rejects those re-definitions.

If it accepts them, then the words will have come to mean a new thing.

Living languages, in fact, do change the meanings of words, so there’s no shock there. But the fact is, this manner of deconstructing language seems to carry with it intention. It would seem there are those who wish to a) destabilize culture and/or b) reverse meanings.

What I find so fascinating in all this is that the Bible told us we’d be right where we are:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Language And Thought


talkin-about-revolution-700582-mThe debate is not new: does language shape thought or does thought give rise to language? In some ways, a companion argument exists: does popular culture reflect society or is society shaped by pop culture?

In both, the question seems to be, does giving expression to thoughts influence others to think the same way or does it merely reflect the way people are already thinking?

My answer generally is, yes.

I believe the Bible gives us reason to believe that thought precedes language. Romans 1, for example, makes it clear that before Scripture was written, before prophets prophesied or apostles preached, humankind knew God through creation:

because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20)

Thought, then, pre-exists language. They saw God’s attributes, eternal power, and divine nature in what He made, not because of what He said. They understood without a verbal lesson.

And yet clearly God values language. Jesus is named the Word; God inspired the writing of Scripture; the Father Himself wrote His commandments in stone; and through His angel, He commissioned those who believe in Jesus to make disciples, baptizing and teaching.

Over and over, Scripture itself verifies the importance and veracity of Scripture. That may seem a little odd until you remember that the all-knowing God is the author. Who is positioned better to make a judgment about His Word? The idea that finite humans can pass judgment on what an infinite God said is laughable.

So from Scripture we learn, for example that God’s word is tried (tested) (Ps. 18) and stands firm (Ps. 119), that it endures forever (Is. 40 and 1 Peter 1), that it is righteous and faithful and upright and pure (Ps. 119), that it gives understanding (Ps. 119).

Here’s the key to understanding God’s Word:

The sum of Your word is truth,
And every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting.

Taken together, God’s Word is true. Taken one by one, each of His decrees will last forever. The sum and the parts, then, are vital in identifying what God chose to communicate.

There’s another interesting aspect to language, however. Satan introduced lies. From the beginning of this fallen angel’s interaction with humankind, he has called into question God’s truthfulness, proving himself to be the liar.

But Eve fell for his game: Did God really say . . . ? And people today continue to be swayed by Satan’s words–an evidence, then, that language has the ability to persuade. God made His existence evident to people, and yet many have been persuaded away from what they once knew.

The same happens among people claiming the name of Christ but denying His word. Essentially they asked the question, Did God really say . . . ? And many of them have concluded, No, he did not.

Why? Because they have evidence to the contrary? No. They simply have determined in their hearts that “their god” wouldn’t say such a thing or do such a thing. Or they’ve undermined the idea that He actually inspired writers and communicated to us His purpose, work, person, and plan. No, they say, language has no static meaning. What certain words meant two thousand years ago to a people living in a different culture, speaking a different language, can’t possible retain the same meaning for an audience today.

In so saying, God’s power is also called into question. The God who said, with Him all things were possible and proved it by the Incarnation of Jesus, born of a virgin, now, according to those who deny the Bible’s authority, cannot govern language to the degree that what He wrote millennia ago retains its meaning today. So much for an all powerful God.

So here’s the conclusion: thought gives rise to language (God’s thought, communicated to the people He created, first by making us in His image–thinkers who communicate). But language can also shape thought.

Sometimes, for instance, giving voice to ideas, either verbally or in written form, clarifies what a person believes, even to himself. In turn, those thoughts given concrete expression can influence the thinking of others. Isn’t that the general point of communication?

More to say about how praise and thanksgiving fit into this, but I’ll save those thoughts (and words 😉 ) for another time.

Published in: on February 6, 2014 at 7:30 pm  Comments (8)  
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Rebutting The Postmodern Philosophy Of Language


Adam_and_Eve019Much of postmodernism stems from an assertion that language shapes the way humans think, but humans, in turn, cannot stand outside of language to investigate it objectively. Thus, language is powerful because it shapes human thought, but it is impoverished because it is unable to serve as a means to examine itself.

Recognizing the power and poverty of language, poststructuralism implies that all knowledge, including its own, must be taken on faith.
How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Crystal Dowing, p. 126.

Downing asserts that this view of language is Biblical, citing God’s identification of His name to Moses as Yahweh—I AM WHO I AM. “As though in recognition that language molds perception, God communicates a Self that transcends the limitations of any noun referring to a created entity” (p. 127).

Her summation follows:

The power of language to mold, and hence limit, our understanding of God thus implies its poverty. Language cannot capture the essence of God because it is a human, not a divine, creation.

This is wrong on many levels.

First, Man did not create language. Downing’s own assumption destroys this theory–how could a man without language create language if we are molded BY language?

I refer back to the Bible, where God commanded Adam to care for the garden, keep it, cultivate it, refrain from eating of the fruit of a certain tree. Clearly, God initiated this conversation. Language had to be His idea.

He also put Adam in charge of naming the animals BEFORE Eve was created. Adam had no “cultural” reason to name things, yet he did so as a response to God’s command.

Does this mean that Man created language? Not the concept of language, surely. Individual words, yes–in that regard only, Man “creates” language.

Other Scriptural evidences that language is God’s creation include the fact that He named Man. He named Woman. Later in history, He wrote with His finger in stone the commandments He wanted His people to follow. He also specified that He inspired all Scripture–the words that reveal Who He is and what He does.

Secondly, the idea that Man cannot capture the essence of God because of the poverty of language is flawed.

Man cannot capture the essence of God, according to the Bible, because sin separates us from Him. Sin blinds, so we do not see His essence. We do not seek after Him. We are, like Adam, hiding from Him.

Postmodernism promotes the concept that God is hard to find, transcendent and mysterious.

The truth is, He was not any of those things before sin.

God and the people He created walked in the garden and talked together. Adam and Eve weren’t on their faces in fear, weren’t mystified by God’s presence or His essence–no more than a toddler is in the company of his mother, though she is certainly not a person he can fully grasp.

I posit that any poverty of language is a direct result of sin that defaces all creation.

When I was little—second grade, I think—I got in trouble one P. E. period for being too loud. We were right outside the 6th-grade classroom playing kick ball on the asphalt with lines painted for the bases. (Why someone thought this was a good place for little kids to play anything is wrong, so very wrong for so very many reasons! 😦 )

For a competitive, excitable seven-year-old lacking self-control, staying quiet during a close game of kick ball was just too much to ask. My punishment was to miss P. E. the next day.

This was back in the era when no one thought much about leaving kids inside classrooms, so on the day of my punishment, my teacher told me I was not to get up out of my seat, then left with the rest of the class.

Most of them, that is. A little boy was also staying in because he hadn’t finished some work. We talked a bit, and I guess he told me what was stumping him. I was pretty sure I could show him what to do, but there was my teacher’s order, Don’t get up out of your seat.

Ah-ha, a solution presented itself. I wouldn’t get up out of my seat, I would get down. Yep, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled across the room. And yeah, I got busted–lost P. E. for a week, but worse, I was embarrassed, caught in front of the whole class, not just for my disobedience but for lying as I tried to walk the line of literalism. True story.

What does that have to do with the postmodern philosophy of language? If my teacher had been a postmodernist, she might have thought the problem was with language. Perhaps we needed a discourse that would allow us to communicate outside the tower in which our language group had us confined–hers the language of adults, mine of second graders.

Poppycock. I knew exactly what she MEANT by Don’t get up out of your seat. But I didn’t like it. I wanted to find a way around it. I also didn’t want to suffer consequences for going against it. So I, in my mind, manipulated what she said and justified myself to myself by pretending I was not disobeying as long as I didn’t break her mandate in the precise way she stated it.

I am so thankful God gave me a teacher who didn’t let me get away with that. The problem was in my sinful little heart, not in the language my teacher used. Not in my perception of that language.

We cannot speak of God as He really is because we no longer know Him as He really is. Not because of who He is but because of what we became–sinners with a nature that no longer allowed us to relate to Him.

Without Jesus, that’s the state we’re destined for.

However, with Jesus, I now know the Father.

And yet, I see through a glass darkly. One day, even that will change, and I will know in the same way I am known.

That’s something to look forward to! 😀

This article combines two posts from a series on Postmodernism published here in 2006.

Published in: on February 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm  Comments (5)  
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Mount Hermon – Looking Back


I first attended the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference (where I am now, though you think I’m at home writing this blog post 🙂 ) back in 2004. Afterward one of the writing groups I belong to asked us to write about our most memorable moment at the conference.

Here’s my offering:

My Mount Hermon memorable moment was in transit. First stop for this poor white older single female bus traveler with Too Many Bags (both kinds) was downtown LA, for a transfer, at midnight.

I might mention, I’m not the most courageous person (i. e. I sent [one of the writers teaching a workshop] about seven dozen e-mails asking what I should expect at the conference).

The bus trip, however, was me and God—and about 82,000 other travelers. And the homeless folk who hang out at warm places like bus stations in the middle of the night.

Faced with an hour wait, I plopped on an end seat in the terminal and
determined to apply a recently-read writing tip—use the opportunity to people-watch. However, an elderly woman soon approached and sat next to me.

To my polite question about her travel plans, she responded, “No In-glesh.”

I dug out my rusty third-year Spanish and proceeded to stumble through a wonderful conversation with a godly Christian woman whose pastor-husband sat across the aisle.

Lessons learned:

  • God is in the bus station, too.
  • Language is important.
  • God transcends language barriers.
  • No matter how much I learn about my craft, without God’s transcendence, I might as well be stumbling along in a foreign language.
  • Connecting with culture is easier if you know the language.
  • Prayer matters.
  • Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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