“The tongue has the power of life and death.” –Proverbs 18:21
The power of words
I don’t think it’s over-dramatic to say that words are like nuclear power. Nuclear power can light an entire city or obliterate that same city. It depends upon the way in which and the care with which that power is used.
Every child knows the line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Every person over eight years-old knows that’s not true. Words carry tremendous power to draw people closer together or to alienate them. To build people up or to tear them down. To heal or to wound. To give life or to unleash death.
It is essential for Catholics to understand the power of words and the power of love. But most of all, it is essential to understand the power of the Word, the God Who is love.
I want to begin at an odd starting-point, however. There is a series of comedy books for which I have an inordinate affection. It is the series of Jeeves novels by P.G. Wodehouse, an English author of the early-to-middle twentieth century. The stories are about Reginald Jeeves, who is the prototypical fictional super-butler…though, technically, he is a valet…and his master, a young, idle, and dim-witted but winsome minor aristocrat named Bertie Wooster.
Wodehouse was one of the most gifted authors of the twentieth century. And he watched the world torn to pieces around him during two world wars, the Great Depression, and decades of unremitting cultural and moral decay. And what was his response? To what purpose did he dedicate his formidable talents?
Not to wartime propaganda. Not to writing treatises on political theory. Not even to writing serious fiction. At least, not “serious fiction” in the ordinary way we think of that term. Instead, he churned out book after book, telling stories about two insignificant characters doing the most astoundingly trivial things.
But the saving grace of the Jeeves stories is in their language. Wodehouse took his almost painfully inane plots and dialogue and clothed them in the most exquisite, perfect English prose.
Actually, with a little imagination, there are lots of lessons we could glean from the Jeeves novels. They are about chaos and order. About global troubles and domestic tranquility. Even about sin and grace and love.
But the lesson they teach most clearly and emphatically is about the power of words. The power of words to bring characters and stories to life. The power of words to take trivial plots and turn them into noble monuments of human expression and edifying parables about human nature.
“With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape.” –Proverbs 11:9
“The world today is flooded with words, yet we thirst for truth.” So begins Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s 2021 pastoral note on digital communication, The Beauty of Truth. If P.G. Wodehouse lavishes the highest English prose on trivial plots, today’s world floods even the weightiest issues with “trash talk,” to borrow an expression from the sports world.
Today, such words pour forth from media outlets of all kinds, even some purportedly Catholic outlets. Careless words. Antagonistic words. Provocative words. Derogatory words. Manipulative words. And outright lies.
And we face this flood of words every day, from the first time we check our phones in the morning to … well … the last time we check our phones before we go to bed at night. All day long we are bombarded with messages. And most of those messages are trying to manipulate us.