The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Message, Medium, Meaning, Memory

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the themes I find in my inner thought life. Often, my thinking is stimulated by things I’m reading. That is the case with the current trend in my thought life. From a number of sources my “input filter” has surrounded themes of truth and meaning and forms of language.

I’ve traced these themes back to two primary sources: a topic from Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus (which I reviewed in four parts on this blog [I, II, III, IV] and published in a condensed summary at the Burnside Writers Collective), and from Don Miller’s talks at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.

Today, I am elucidating my thoughts on forms of language from Brian McLaren’s discussion in his book. In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren asks, If the message Jesus brought to the world was so important, why was he so indirect and unclear in communicating it? I agree with McLaren on the two assumptions implicit in his question: (1) Jesus’ message is important, and (2) Jesus was vague in communicating it. McLaren goes on to discuss what Jesus’ motive might be for being vague in communicating his message (You can read chapter 6, "The Medium of the Message" in Barnes & Noble sometime). Anytime you begin to speculate about others’ motives, you’re hard-pressed to make a strong case.

I think McLaren makes a good case as to how and why Jesus’ method is effective. This affirmation is not to say that Jesus’ motive was to this end, however I agree that his method likely accomplished the ends that McLaren cites. But now I’m talking about it without giving you enough to agree or disagree. So, avoiding any more prerequisites, here are my thoughts on forms of language, formed and informed by McLaren’s discussion.

McLaren identifies two specific forms: technical language and evocative language. Technical language is what you get when you read an owner’s manual or a medical guide. When the writer talks of bolts and gears or valves and nerve endings, s/he is speaking of those things precisely. S/he isn’t speaking in metaphor where gears and nerves represent something else but only those things exactly: bolts, gears, valves, nerve endings. In technical language, words correspond exactly to real things using precise names and official titles.

Evocative language holds down the other end of the spectrum. I think a more “technical” term might be metaphorical or analogical for this type of language, as I understand it. In my own thinking about language, when I use the term evocative, I really mean metaphorical. Evocative itself comes from the root evoke which means to cause to bring out or to act to elicit a response. These ideas are certainly encompassed in this language form. We all learned about metaphor in high school writing, during the poetry unit. Metaphor and its sibling, Simile, use one term to represent or be compared with another. For example, we might say that “life is empty” or “life is like a box of chocolates.” This is simple evocative language. It’s not that life is actually like a glass without anything in it. We mean something else, something deeper. We’re not reducing life to a box of Fannie Mae candies bought for $9.99. We’re using that idea to convey a feeling or a truth about something entirely unconnected. Evocative language touches upon deeper issues, conveying meaning and truth into deeper places in us. This type of language goes beyond mere comparisons though. It pushes into themes in movies, literature, poetry, theatre, and speeches.

If you’ve seen The Da Vinci Code, you’ll remember Silas the albino monk being used by Opus Dei, the extremist Catholic sect, to carry out murders and so forth. He has two flashbacks during the movie. In one, his stepfather yells at him, “You’re a ghost!” In another, he saves a man’s life; the man turns to him and says, “You’re an angel!” These images aren’t terms describing Silas with technical precision. Instead, they are evocative terms with different meanings. They create emotional weight with the moviegoer; this emotional inertia helps us to connect beyond a superficial level.

That’s the power of evocative language. It speaks to something beyond our rational mind, or rather, encompassing more than our rational mind. Evocative language draws together emotion and reason and imagination and perhaps other human faculties; in this broader range, evocative language touches our souls in ways that precise technical language cannot in as few words. Evocative language can say in ten words, what it might take 40-50 technical words to say.

A while back, in iPod Spirituality and Finding Meaning Again, I compared two preachers using distinctly different styles. Pepe used primarily technical language, while C.H. Spurgeon used evocative language much more readily. There I argued that Spurgeon’s ability to handle language so deftly lent him to the stronger, more effective sermon. Ravi Zacharias, in his podcasts "Just Thinking," is probably the best speaker I've heard at using both forms very effectively and appropriately. (He'll disarm you with his accent, then he'll strike you with his words.)

Today, listening to another of Spurgeon’s podcasts, he said this: “I’d rather be God’s dog than the devil’s darling.” This is an example of evocative language. (More examples.)

Now, let me try to use solely technical language to communicate this same idea:

God is good and the devil is bad. I value good things over evil ones. God is so much better than the Devil that no matter how high a position or how close a relationship the Devil offers to me, it is still better to be in the lowest relationship or most distant relationship with God.

Perhaps more could be said to articulate Spurgeon’s evocative statement in clear, technical terms. Let me point out two things, three actually. (1) Notice which one was most succinct. Evocative language can say in 9 words what it takes 56 technical words to say. (2) Notice which one creates a greater emotional response. Evocative language causes emotional and visceral reactions; these biochemical reactions move beyond electrical brain impulses into real physical, emotional responses to the word pictures created. (3) Which one is more memorable?

For these three reasons alone, evocative language is clearly superior to technical language. Evoking emotional responses in a few words make ideas more memorable.