If you ever visit Paris, it’s worth stopping by the art gallery in the Louvre. There you can see Wikipedia calls “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. But why do vast crowds of people stand in awe before a framed wooden board with a variety of oil colours brushed all over it? Because that’s basically what the ‘Mona Lisa’ is… isn’t it?
You don’t have to consider yourself a cultured person to know that my description fails to capture the beauty, artistry and mystery represented by this famous portrait by Leonardo DaVinci! This illustrates the danger when we reduce something down to its parts, then we risk missing or failing to do justice to its overall significance.
That’s not just the case with art, but with language. What is language? Some of the sceptical philosophers would tell us that it describes specific sounds produced by our vibrating vocal chords, directed by electrical impulses from the brain, carried by sound waves to another person’s ear-drum, which people in a given society recognise and have given specific meaning. For example, we associate the phonic sounds “ch-air” with a four legged piece of furniture on which people sit. Therefore language is a game that we teach our children how to play and its worth playing because it enables us express our desires and co-operate to accomplish our goals. Again, like with the Mona Lisa, this description is true, at a certain level. However, it misses so much more.
Have you ever reflected on how surprising it is that everything has come from nothing; that life has arisen from non-life; that mind exists and not just matter? The world in which we live is full of extravagant beauty and creativity, tastes and textures, colours and sounds – including the voices of children playing, choirs singing, and friends chatting. Using the gift of language we can tell each other what is going on inside our minds – whether that’s telling a joke, making a complaint, arguing a political point, expressing heart-felt love, or a simply baby telling us why it is crying and what it wants . Even though there are thousands of different languages in the world, we have learned how to reach across those communication barriers – so that although we use different words we can have a shared understanding of what is the meaning and intention behind those words.
All of these things we take for granted every single day, but the incredible phenomenon of language suggests that we live in a certain kind of universe. One in which language is not just accidental but intentional. One which makes better sense if its ultimate reality is not eternal matter but an eternal Mind. Therefore, it is interesting that the opening words of the Bible announce: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). How did God do it? “And God said: Let there be light – and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). God not only thinks but speaks – and when He does, things happen. Some of the more colourful Christian writers have even suggested that God sang the words of creation, expressing His joy as a Master Artist producing a masterpiece. We are speaking creatures who been given the gift of language by a speaking God.
The New Testament echoes these words, but applies them to Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Through Him all things were made… And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1-3, 14).
Just as a person expresses themselves through the words they say, revealing who they are, what they are like, how they think – so also God has spoken and revealed Himself to the world through His written word in the Bible and His living word in Jesus. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Although so much separates an infinite God from finite humans – think of the difference between yourself and an ant. Nevertheless, God has taken the initiative to come down to our level, to become one of us, in order to communicate clearly with us and create understanding in us.
Finally, we sometimes talk about suffering “the silent treatment” – when two people have fallen out. We also recognise that something has gone wrong in a relationship when the people involved stop talking. Sadly, there has been a break down in communication and in relationship between heaven and earth, God and humanity. God not only designed a good world with scientific truths, written in the language of mathematics, but He also designed it with moral truths, communicated to us in our language. However, the human race has decided to disregard those instructions and instead has sought to devise our own truths, pursuing meaning and happiness without God and in ways God has said are not good. Nevertheless, rather than giving us the silent treatment, God has continued speaking to this world – raising up His messengers, giving us the Bible, and ultimately in sending Jesus. Because God is pursuing us, seeking to be reconciled with us – if only we would stop running away and start listening.
David lives in Edinburgh, where he is a pastor of a city centre church and engaged in apologetics and public theology ministry. He is married to Kirsty, a doctor, and they have two little boys: Joel and Daniel (who ask the hardest questions ever!)
Advanced: Is there a Meaning in This Text, Kevin Vanhoozer.