29 October 2008

My Senior Paper: The Short Version...seriously

On the nineteenth of May 1930, Eugene Genovese was born to Dominick and Lena Genovese. He was to become one of the most influential radical historian of the slave south, and arguably the most interesting case study of an historian living out his own beliefs. Historical research and writing, Genovese believed, was by its very nature a political act. He believed in the transforming power of history on its own terms, and by keeping an open mind in his own academic life he found a respect for religion and a recognition of its power throughout history. Later, his own life was changed by conversion to Christianity. Genovese advocated religion to himself by merely studying the past as it actually was.
Genovese was born into a working class family in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were part of the Marxist party and he became active in the Communist Youth movement at a young age. Later he became the first Marxist President of the Organization of American Historians in 1978. His historiography was shaped by his Marxist leanings as well as his own sense of right and wrong imparted to him from childhood. He believed whole heartedly in what the party stood for and stood against, but he was still conscious of the necessity to learn from others who may not share the same view. In an interview with The American Enterprise Online, Genovese says, “From the 1960s, when I was positioned on the far left, I was very active in insisting on a dialogue with conservatives. I always insisted that there were good and bad people in all political camps and that most people were opportunists anyway.”
Despite his strong Marxism, Eugene Genovese found that he could not in good conscience and in a sense of good scholarship, write history pandering to the party lines or whatever cause the party was putting forward at the time. In 1965 his first major work The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and the Society of the Slave South was published. The thrust of this book was to understand the political and economic forces which led to the Civil War and to analyze whether or not the conflict was inevitable.
The 1960s, when this book first appeared, was witnessing the rise in the militantly active, often young students and historians known as the New Left and the legitimizing of the communist party in America. They were the new wave of Marxist historians, and the future hope of the Communist Party-U.S.A. But Genovese in now way fits the ideology put forward by this radical group. The New Lefts were more interested in tearing down old institutions rather than setting up an alternative form of government, whereas Genovese was interested merely in the transforming power of history on a society and on the individual.
The Political Economy of Slavery was not the typical party propaganda being pushed in the 1960s. In the introduction he states firmly, “The notion that the values of the South’s ruling class, which became the values of the South as a whole, may be dismissed as immoral is both dubious and unenlightening.” He argues throughout the book that it is important to the study of southern society to not merely focus on slavery and the oppression, but rather on the unique society created by the class structure of the slaveholders.
As a Marxist however there was a basic conceptual framework he imposed on his writings and The Political Economy of Slavery was no exception. This bias is found throughout most of his later works, even after he converted to Catholicism. Genovese allowed for bias. He knew that as a Marxist he saw things differently from his conservative colleagues, but he wanted to be able to work with historians and glean knowledge from their scholarship that he could not have access to with his own biases. “The study of the religious life of both slaves and slaveholders,” Genovese said, “thus encourages an atheist to hope that he can contribute something to a subject generally slighted by his ideology and can even position him to challenge Christians to clarify their theology. By extension, it encourages a Marxist to reexamine fundamental tents of his own interpretation of history.
Even as a self proclaimed supporter of the advance of the Viet Cong in Vietnam he could not whole heartedly accept everything the party stood for. Even in his youth and most intense years of his Marxist belief Genovese continued to believe in letting history speak for itself. He stood, even as a young man, against the history that blindly tore down the oppressors without considering that the oppressing class might have something to add to the conversation. Genovese believed that to ignore the oppressors or worse, to dismiss them, was a tragedy to good scholarship.
His argument differed from the prevalent ways of approaching slavery at this time. Some historians of the southern slaveholders would claim that they knew exactly what they were doing and they were competing in this capitalistic world, having faith (albeit misguided) that slavery would further them economically. Other historians wrote as though there really was no difference between the North and the South in the antebellum years, and those that did exist were not that remarkable, thus the South should be condemned as purposefully backward because they knew better. Both these historians were united on one thing and that was that racism formed the backbone for this institution of southern slavery. Genovese took the approach that this was a region entirely distinct in their values, ways of life, and their economy. He conceived of the institution of slavery as primarily class oriented and secondarily race oriented.
He also saw the slave south as a non capitalist society, in fact he saw them as rejecting the very notion of capitalism. “The planter typically recoiled at the notions that profit should be the goal of life; that the approach to production and exchange should be internal rational and uncomplicated by social values.” This was a strange thought for a Marxist to have because it did not fit the recipe for oppression laid out by Karl Marx over a hundred years ago. Yet Genovese was convinced that this was true at least in the way that he defined capitalism. He would not go so far as to deny that wealth was one of the major contributors to the class difference, but he maintained that, “Whereas in the North people followed the lure of business and money for their own sake, in the South specific forms of property carried the badges of honor, prestige, and power.” For the slaveholders, Genovese posited, ownership of property was esteemed far above amassing large amounts of money for the sheer purpose of consuming.
According to Genovese, this idea of the South as an anti-capitalist society gave an explanation as to why slavery was so important to the antebellum South. Slaves were considered property, and those who had many slaves were usually plantation farmers whose land far exceeded the average Southerner who might own a slave or two. Slavery was a key factor in their hierarchy. Those who owned more slaves, owned more property and were therefore part of the elite.
In publishing The Political Economy of Slavery Genovese was not differing too far from his party’s norms. The two most controversial of the messages in this collection of essays are the thought that a serious historian should not cast aside the slaveholders altogether just because of their anti progress lifestyles; and the belief that slave society was not a capitalist one. Other than these statements, he stayed relatively within the party lines. He focused mainly on economics and the class system of the south.
Another important book published by Genovese at this time was called In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History. In it he tries to explain his own existential journey of discovering himself and what he stood for through his own study of history. The first chapter is an attempt to clarify his own position and his own thoughts on advocacy. “It may seem especially strange,” he begins, “to those who work in the historical profession or who follow leftwing factional debates and have been led to believe that socialist historians like myself stand for the separation of politics and history. In fact, what we stand for is the realization that all historical writing and teaching – all cultural work – is unavoidably political intervention.” This is really what Genovese has been arguing and will continue to argue for the rest of his academic career: that there is no need for historians to get involved in pushing their own personal politics or their favorite cause. History will speak for itself on its own terms.
A dominant theme in many of Genovese’s later monographs is that of religion. Eugene Genovese could not escape the pervasive morality and strong sense of Christianity that permeated the actions and the motives of the southern slaveholding society. In his most well known work Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made he found himself compelled again and again to account for the dominance of religion. As a confirmed atheist this was the last thing he was expecting. “If, at the beginning,” Genovese says, “someone had told me that religion would emerge as a positive force in my book – indeed as the centerpiece – I would have laughed and referred him to a psychiatrist. In the end, the evidence proved overwhelming, and I had to eat my biases, although not my Marxism.”
Genovese argued in Roll Jordan Roll that religion was the freedom the slaves found in their own bondage and one of the most important unifying factors of their society. “It fired them with a sense of their own worth before God and man,” Genovese said, “…The spiritual emancipation of the individual therefore constituted the decisive task of religion and the necessary foundation for black collectivity…The slaves desperately needed that doctrine to confront their masters.” It gave them the ability, he argued, to not just coexist relatively peacefully with their white masters, but gave them a sense of place and belonging, “Their Christianity strengthened their ties to their “white folks” but also strengthened their love for each other and their pride in being black people.” Genovese believed so much in the transforming ability and power of advocacy contained in the open minded study of history that he found he could not separate the slaves of the South from their Christianity. He was willing to accept the fact that there might be more to the story than the part that was politically correct to tell.
Roll Jordan Roll was the most well known and most often used by other scholars of all of Genovese’s books. It was also arguably the most influential book in his own life. It gave him, perhaps forced upon him, a respect for religion and its influence in history. With that respect came a questioning of the ideology he had been adhering to his entire life. Could a true and serious scholar stay with a party that discouraged true and serious scholarship? Could an historian remain in a party that would not accept religion as an important factor of history despite overwhelming evidence that it was? Could Genovese himself avoid Christianity which loomed over history and had such an impact on his own area of study.
He believed historians should be open to change. After all, didn’t Roll Jordan Roll written at the height of his Marxist belief bring a new and unexpected focus into his scholarship? Advocacy had its place, but Genovese felt historians did not need to force the events to conform to whatever it was they were trying to advocate or defend, ““It is one thing to lay bare the political implications of our analysis; it is quite another to whore in some ostensibly worthy cause.” He felt that if the historians reported the facts of history in an accurate manner there would be no need to stress a particular emphasis on anything. If there was an oppressed class it would be apparent who the oppressed and who the oppressors were. If there was a worthy and noble cause to support, history alone should be sufficient to support it.
In 1996 Genovese converted to Christianity quickly following the conversion of his wife. Considering the fair hearing he gave to Christianity even in the height of his Marxist atheism this could be viewed as an inevitable change, but for one so entrenched in his atheistic beliefs it was quite a surprise to Genovese if to no one else.
Two years after conversion Genovese and his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese founded the Historical Society at Boston University as an alternative for historians from the politically correct American Historical Association. Their goal was to have a place where all viewpoints were heard and where historians could learn from one another and express their biases whether or not they reflected the views of their party.
It is important to note that though Genovese aligned himself with the other Neo-conservatives especially in the founding of the Historical Society, he would never accept himself classified as a conservative. Even after his conversion to Christianity, he still adhered to a Marxist interpretation of history and had no qualms about making that clear. But that was his purpose in founding the Historical Society. It was not only a place for Marxists who could not embrace everything endorsed by the party, but it was also a sanctuary for Christians with leftist leanings, which is where Genovese has been since conversion.
The founding of the historical society was in no way indicative of a change in Genovese’s scholarship, rather it was indicative of the delayed effects of post-modernist relativism eroding the rational element of history, which allowed scholars of history to ignore learning about those they did not approve of or find relevant to their cause. Genovese and his wife rejected this type of relativism and stressed that as much as we may not like it, these historical villains and oppressors are an integral part of our heritage.
Yet even with this distinction Genovese and his wife found themselves under criticism from many leftist or radical historians after the founding of the Historical Society. Most historians thought of the Historical Society as something implemented by conservatives to re-enforce the conventional model of history according to “dead white males.” They viewed it as merely catering to the conservatives who in their opinion harbored history’s oppressors. But Genovese argues, “Our charter members include people whose politics range from the Marxist left to the traditionalist right…All we ask of our members is that they lay down plausible premises; reason logically; appeal to evidence; and respect the integrity of all those who do the same.” The Historical Society’s board members included men, women, African Americans, Caucasians, Homosexuals, and Heterosexuals. Their political views spanned from the far left to the far right. Theirs was not a pursuit of an agenda. Theirs was a pursuit of truth. Truth that embraced bias and subjectivity, but only insofar that it was recognized and was left open to change.
Two years after Genovese’s conversion he wrote another monograph entitled A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. This book was a plea to his readers to try to place themselves in the context and culture of the antebellum South and the South at war. He attempted to give his readers a sense of how the slaveholders felt going to war with the sincere belief that God was on their side and they were losing. Most slaveholders Genovese argued “accepted slavery as ubiquitous in history, as sanctioned by Scripture, and as a fact of life.”
This view of slavery was reinforced by not only their culture but by their religious leaders as well. So, when the Southerners marched against North they were affirmed in what they were fighting for by the outlandish but nevertheless sincere proclamations of their preachers and ministers. “As in every country and in every war,” Genovese said, “some Southern ministers, although fewer than often alleged, plunged into a chauvinism that verged on blasphemy, and a few actually preached that a just God could not possibly deny victory to the Confederacy.” Clearly, the southerners believed that theirs was a just cause and God was behind it. Genovese attempts to impart to his readers the crushing blow it was to Southerners to lose the war, not just in monetary terms or amount of bloodshed, but their very faith, the permeating influence in their society, was threatened. Genovese, the former sympathetic onlooker of the Christianity of the South is now connected with Christianity on a more intimate level.
Genovese’s most recent book was The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview. He began with the impact of Christian faith in the South instead of being surprised by it. Something peculiar to note is that both The Mind of the Master Class and A Consuming Fire both have titles that at least touch on faith or Christianity. Until this point Genovese had been using the term “Conservative South,” but now there is recognition of the faith he shared with the southern slaveholders.
He states in the prologue that he wants to avoid the two pitfalls of the typical scholar of Southern slave society. One is to regard the slaveholders as racists who care about nothing other than owning slaves for the sheer purpose of imposing their superiority above other races. The other is to regard the slaveholder as really not that important and slavery not as influential in society as it has been made out to be. The first pitfall Genovese has been avoiding since he began his academic life among other leftist historians, but the second is new for him. Now that he has aligned himself with conservative historians, he runs across the other pitfall that tries to downplay the effects of slavery and suggest that it was not as big or pervasive as history seems to suggest. Eugene Genovese, always the first to create controversy, will not commit fully to that idea either.
Eugene Genovese had a peculiar view on this question of objectivity. Genovese was a Marxist from birth and an atheist for the major part of his academic life, and he interpreted history accordingly. He was in no way defending the slaveholders in enslaving fellow human beings. He was in no way mitigating the oppression slaves in the South went through in the antebellum years. He just felt that to boil down the whole system of Southern slaveholding society to racism was simplistic at its best and an insult to serious scholarship at its worst.
Throughout his life Genovese believed that the only way to truly study history is to be open to what other scholars have to say even if they are completely on the other side of the political spectrum; to not limit yourself by adhering to the beliefs of a certain party or worrying about your scholarship being politically correct; and to be prepared for major fundamental change not just of your mind but of your entire belief system and life.

23 July 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front

I wrote this paper my very last semester at Covenant College. It was for Dr. Morton's Twentieth Century World History class, and it was supposed to talk about the theme of nationalism in Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." He had probably read about a dozen of these papers, but I was actually kind of proud of how mine turned out.


Nationalism and the Generation Gap
“At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim.”[1] This quote from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front sums up the problem of the disconnect between the ideological nationalism pushed by the older generation and the practical nationalism being carried out by the younger generation seen throughout the rest of the book. This is a complex story of recognizing a difference between the older generation’s idealism and what war really is; of love of country despite the realization that you alone know the horrors of all that entails; and of hatred of war yet love of camaraderie.
All Quiet on the Western Front is told in first person narrative from the perspective of Paul Bäumer, a young man of twenty, and his friends and schoolmates around the same age, caught up in a war planned out for them by their fathers. All they know is that they love their country and their fellow man, but they hate the war that decides whom they are to love and whom they are to kill. The first instance of tension between the generations is when Bäumer is thinking back on his old schoolteacher Kantorek. “The teachers,” he says, “always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour.” There is a feeling of shared disconnect among his schoolfellows who signed up under the pressure of the man they trusted and looked up to. “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty of culture, of progress – to the future…The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief.”[2] There is some amount of bitterness directed at Kantorek for pushing Joseph Behm, the only one among his schoolmates who took the longest to persuade to go into the war. Most of them were ready to go, not necessarily because they believed in the cause, but because their parent’s generation believed in the cause and had convinced them that it was the cause to believe in.
The older generation embodied in Bäumer’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, his father, and his father’s friends adhere to a sense of nationalism and duty to Germany. They honestly believe that they understand what war is like by mere observation. Bäumer finds them wrapped up in a pride that he can no longer connect to. “Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but on can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.”[3] One of the most stark examples of this kind of philosopher soldier is an older man Bäumer is talking to on his leave. After being asked what he thinks about the possibility of a break through Bäumer replies that he doesn’t think it is possible. “He dismisses the idea loftily,” Bäumer says, “and informs me that I know nothing about it. ‘The details, yes,’ says he, ‘but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge.’”[4]
This disconnect does not always play out into a type of resentment. These young men seem to merely take it for granted that they know better about the complexities of war than the generation before them. “We were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards…We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”[5] There is a strange sense of tension in the younger generation’s conceptualization of the war. “We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”[6] Bäumer has some serious words against the war and the inhumane aspects of it, “We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill.”[7] Yet at the same time when he comes home on leave, he realizes that he no longer has any place in his home town. His place is with his fellow soldiers. “I bite into my pillow. I grasp the iron rods of my bed with my fists. I ought never to have come here Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless – I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier…I ought never to have come on leave.”[8]
One of the most interesting from the younger generation is the formation of camaraderie within the troops. Instead of what they interpret as the empty rhetoric of the older generation, the younger generation embraces one another for support. The strongest example of this type of camaraderie comes at the end of a very intense battle for Bäumer. He is lying in one of the shell holes trying to motivate himself to rise up and find his fellow soldiers when he hears their voices. “At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices…they are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades. I am no longer…alone in the darkness; - I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”[9]
These two generations see two completely different sides of the war. The older generation sees the need to preserve the pride of Germany at all costs. They see death in the trenches as noble. They believe that they have a wider knowledge of what the war and nationalism was all about. The younger generation also has a deep love for Germany, but they understand what death in the trenches really is like. They know it as a wretched, burning, moaning hell. They know it from their own personal experiences that they do not feel have anything to do with the bigger noble picture that the older men see. At the end of the novel Bäumer sums up the feelings of his generation by saying, “And men will not understand us – for the generation that grew up before us, thought it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; – the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”[10]
[1] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York: Baltimore Books, 1996), pg. 194
[2] Remarque, All Quiet pg. 12
[3] Ibid., 168
[4] Ibid., 167
[5] Remarque All Quiet pg. 13
[6] Ibid., 88
[7] Ibid., 116
[8] Ibid., 185
[9] Remarque All Quiet, pg. 212
[10] Ibid., 294

06 July 2008

Attempting to Live the Examined Life

Welcome to my blog!

I have tried for years to unsucessfully start a blog, and it has worked. Each time it has been unsucessful... :) I have decided; however that it would be best for me to keep to a specific topic or theme. After some amount of thought I have found that to stick with literature or history as my theme would be most fruitful unless there is something really important that I feel needs to be in here. Also, I will have to include some of my poetry.
Unfortunately some of my posts will be a little long so I hope if I have readers they will have the time to read them. Thank you for reading!

~ BerlinPoet

The Importance of Language to a Believer

The importance of language to the believer is overwhelming. First and foremost our medium to God through Christ is by the word both in the scriptures and when the word came down to us in flesh. We were not given the capacity to see God so we must learn to encourage the proper use of language in our society in order to not lose this path of communication to God. Second, language is the key to understanding many of the doctrines we adhere to, such as the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine of sanctification. Third, language is what God has given to us so that we can know who we are. He gave us language as the tool to indentify ourselves.
Martin Luther said over five hundred years ago, “We must learn to see with our ears.” He later refers to God as a deus loquens or a “speaking God.” I understand Luther’s statements to be entreating us to take a break from our image saturated society and concentrate on what we can hear. In this way Luther thinks we can maintain the relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another the way God intended us to. This is an exhortation to Luther’s fellow men to learn to not rely on images to convey truth, but rather to use language in order to convey truth in a dialogical form and to stand behind what we say.
If Luther could see a pulling away from language and reliance on what one can see within the culture he was writing in, then how much more so would he see it now? In our technological age, information and images are crucial. We see images everyday in television, on the internet, on billboards, and in advertisements. Our generation has been born into the world of images and a faith that they hold some truth value. We do have some words around us as well, but they are not for dialogue. They are just noise surrounding us and distracting us from the truth value words have the potential to contain. There are words around us used primarily to school us. These are lists of information that suppress the individual and focus solely on what is deemed important – the information. There are words around us used primarily to get what we want or what someone wants from us. These are words of manipulation that not only deny but reject the individual and only use him or her in order to achieve goals.
But Luther was aware of the importance of language to Christians and to society as a whole. After all, this is the primary source of our communication with God. Luther stressed the importance of what has been identified as dialogue, two way communication in which the personhood of each participant and identity of each participant is recognized and respected. This is the type of communication we have with God, and Luther encourages us to cultivate this type of communication in our society.
The scriptures tell us, “No man has seen God and lived,” (1John 4:12) yet God still communicates with us through his word. Our ability to have communion with God is through His word – the scriptures. The importance of the word is stressed over and over in the Bible from Genesis where the simultaneous doubting of the word of God and the fall are no mere coincidence, to the New Testament and the gospel of John where we are told “the world became flesh and dwelt among us.”
From the beginning the only relationship we have had with God was through dialogue. God spoke the world into being. Whatever is going on now and whatever will happen in the past is not only contingent on what God says to us, but also on how we respond. Over and over again the word of God and our response to it is stressed in the scriptures, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130); “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Duet, 8:3); and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) From these scripture passages we can gather how important listening for and responding to the voice of God is.
It is important to note as well that the first time language began to be doubted was at the time of the fall when Eve questioned what God had told her and the serpent introduced monologue or manipulative speech into the world. This was the first time man actually hid from the voice of God. The first time man disregarded this intimate connection God had established.
God created us as responsive human beings when he spoke us into being. He spoke, and we responded by living. When God sent his son into the world, it is not a mere coincidence that Christ was called, “the word.” Christ was God’s word coming to us in the flesh. And even though Christ was tangible and his followers could see him with their eyes, he still exhorted them not to have faith by merely seeing, “Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20: 29) These words were spoken to Thomas who refused to believe the words of the women who were at the tomb and of the other followers of Christ, but only believed when he himself had seen Jesus’s hands and put his hand in Jesus’s side. This is exactly what Martin Luther is talking about in his statement. It is important that we see with our ears. It is important that we do not rely solely on image, because that is not the way of communication God has established.
Not only is language important for knowing God and walking with him, but it is a key component of the doctrine of creation. It dismisses the concept of primal language that evolved over time. Emile Beneviste’s in his essay Subjectivity in Language states, “We are always inclined to that naïve concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man separated from language and we shall never see him inventing it.”[1] God, in speaking man into life as a responsive human being created someone He would say “I” to and whom He would call, “you.” In order for this dialogue to happen the words “I” and “you” must be involved, and the very concept of “I” is a subjective linguistic concept. It cannot be had without dialogue and it cannot be understood on its own. It can only be understood through dialogue.
Language is also key to understanding the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification. Without the word becoming flesh and dying on the cross for our sins, we would never be justified in the sight of the Lord. Without his intercession through Christ to the Father using words our justification would be impossible. And without language we could no longer speak to God. Our walk with him through words would be hindered and we could never grow as Christians. Our sanctification would not happen. We would not be able to grow in our relationship with God.
Another important aspect of language to a Christian is the fact that we know who we are by speaking to others and to God. Emile Benveniste’s argument can be used to underscore this concept as well. Benveniste believed language is only takes place when person designating him or herself as “I” speaking to another person designated as “you” and becoming “I” when it is his or her time to speak. So when we are speaking to the Lord, we are finding ourselves and recognizing who we are. Language, Benveniste argues, is impossible without dialogue. Dialogue involves the speakers “I” and “you” but it is also important that the personhood of each of the speakers is recognized. Benveniste doesn’t even recognize information listing or the use of speech to manipulate others and get them to do what you want without recognizing their personhood as language. The thrust of Benveniste’s argument is, “Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse….This polarity of persons in is the fundamental condition in language, of which the process of communication, in which we share, is only a mere pragmatic consequence.”[2] In this way God establishes his own identity through the word. He speaks to us and we call ourselves “I” and Him, “you.” We acknowledge his being as separate from ours.
In order to cultivate this seeing with our ears, we must begin with each other. If we lose track of dialogue with one another, we will no longer be able to have dialogue with God. With the breakdown of language today through the relativity of post-modernists like Jacques Derrida and Haydn White who leave us questioning like Eve in the garden, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1), and those like Peter Ramus use the word merely to impart impersonal information, thus stripping the word of any individualism, comes a mistrust of the word as a whole. This unfortunate breakdown of language has not only caused us to distrust the words of others, but it has introduced a distrust of the only medium we have to our Lord and Savior.
Martin Luther’s words spoken so long ago still ring true today. We do need to step back from images and start taking our words and the words of others seriously. We must cultivate dialogue in our relationships with others. When we speak we must speak truth or at least as sincerely as we can, making sure to watch what we say because as Matthew 12:36-37 clearly states, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” This convicting passage is a powerful reminder of the power of our words and the respect necessary for us to have in any interaction with language. We must also work hard not to become cynical about the word. We must continue to sincerely believe in the truth value of dialogue. No matter how many times we are let down by the untruthful words of others we must continue to believe in this powerful medium God has given to us. We must never turn to images as truth containers for as Jacques Ellul so plainly states in his work The Humiliation of the Word “Images never reinforce anything but conformity to the dominant doxa (opinion).”[3] We must speak the truth and stand behind it in order to resurrect a faith in the spoken word. We must not lose touch with this important means of communication nor reject it in favor of images which merely are a representation of reality formed by our words. We must reject the use of words as mere information conveyers and the impersonalization this creates. We must reject the use of words to get what we want or the use of words by others to get from us what they want and the de-personalization that comes with that. We must learn to see with our ears.




[1] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 47
[2] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 48
[3] Jacques Ellul The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1985) pg. 26