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The Word and the World
An Essay for Advent
Tiffany Eberle Kriner

I got cancer—a bad case, actually—right around the time that I learned to read. The cancer was a nightmare that I have mostly blocked out. (Short version: painful tumor, head and neck surgery with a beastly recovery, radiation that permanently affected my facial appearance, and two years of chemotherapy—the worst part—without anti­nausea meds.) Reading was a dream that helped me forget. Books were a way to get out, away from my body.

When chemotherapy meant whole weeks during which nothing would be possible but drinking red KoolAid (no Gatorade or Ensure in those days!) and throwing it back up again, then One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish might help. (If you read it hard enough, long enough, again-and-again enough, it almost becomes like prayer.)

Or the book with my name! You know, the one about the two dogs, Biff and Tiff, where Biff the big dog teaches Tiff the puppy all about how to be a dog. I loved that one. My parents appreciated how it reinforced what I needed to do:

Sit, Tiff, sit!
Drink, Tiff,
drink!
And Tiff is
sitting. And Tiff
is drinking.

And it helped. Sort of. (At least until I couldn’t find “And Tiff is throwing up again.”)

Reading helped on good days, especially when the books got better. Raggedy Ann beckoned me along with her and Andy, or some band of fairies from Andrew Lang’s stories spirited me to the Red or Blue or Green Fairy Book. Words whirled me away from my body and the world, it seemed like.

But even then the world would rush back in; the body would push its way back into my consciousness. Some days, after all, I was too sick to read. Some days I watched Sesame Street, even when I was far too old for it and could only lie there in misery. Some days the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood episode was one that I’d already seen a million times, and I was having trouble believing the Neighborhood of Make­-Believe, anyway.

I still kept trying, though, to use the word to get away from the world. Gosh, I must have pretended to be Anne of Green Gables for at least the next decade—more if you count skits at summer camp where my red hair and temper fit me for the role. And how romantic it all was!

Me (longingly) to the devastatingly handsome Brad (he was too tall to be a convincing Gilbert, but never mind): “I don’t want diamond sunbursts or marble halls. I just (pause) want (pause) you!”

As I grew older, often the word meant escaping a different body than my cancerous one: the Body of Christ. After church, when my parents would stand around yammering with other members of the church family, I’d run away to the car, to my own words. Laura Ingalls Wilder, maybe, or some other book I’d read already dozens of times. Probably the description of frying doughnut twists in Farmer Boy. It was text I wanted—those precise, delicious snippets, not the snipes of my sibs, either blood sibs or sibs in Christ. I wanted the word, not the world.

I got called back from Almanzo Wilder’s fictional fritters by my growling stomach and by my good parents. They’d find me gone from church, in the cheerlessness of the winter-cold car; they’d call me back. I’d get a chalky peppermint from the pastor or greet Uncle John Barone, a saint never seen out of a suit-and-tie, who’d touch my face—the side with the scar—and ask me if I loved the Lord. We’d pick up a real dozen doughnuts from the A&P on the way home—cherry tail-lights and long johns and jelly-filled—and cut them into far too many pieces, fractions, to share. The real body and the body of Christ would call me back to the world, away from my private word.

At family reunions, when I got shouted down from my room or wherever I’d snuck off to, a different kind of word emerged. These were words about my grandfather, soaking his sax reed in a shot glass, playing gigs at the Officers’ Club in the Aleutian Islands during the Korean War (when he wasn’t serving as a dental hygienist). Words about my grandmother, running away from home and floating on a door down the Genesee River. Or words about my uncle, a butcher in Utica, New York, who used to pound veal for a known hit man of the mob. Words about my dad as a teenager—the time he and his buddies really really almost got that kid holding four frosty mugs of Tom Wahl’s root beer in each hand to check the time on his watch. Or the story of “Anderson,” enshrined in the family book of stories for when he, just after being warned by the teacher to be extremely careful carrying the only overhead projector in all of St. Mary’s High School, dropped it in an explosive, echoing crash.  The teacher’s howls of “Andersooooooon!” echo in the halls of fame as they did that day in the halls of St. Mary’s, I assure you.

In the company of those characters, words plunged me into the world. Hearing the words and telling the words felt good sometimes, but the world was hard. There was always the pain of loss, the cancers that seemed to keep getting us, one by one. It was easier to take comfort in the other worlds, the fictional stories whose shapes I knew from beginning to end. Sooner or later, I’d run away again, somewhere over the Reading Rainbow.

How astonishing, then, to consider the incarnation: a Word for the world! Far from escaping the world, the Word builds the world and becomes in the world. The first words of the Gospel of John seem just how I’d have thought about it—the Word transcendent: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s far enough above the dirty round. But in a total plot twist, the Word of God actually makes a world: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” The Word makes the world through himself—with himself. And he doesn’t abandon it. Rearrange the syntax of that last phrase with me: things come into being with him. The Word is with the world he makes.

There’s more. The Word makes the world become new—by his own becoming, his growing up in the world. The whole first chapter of John is powered by the electric charge between coming and becoming. And in the lightning line, the perfect flash that lights up the night: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” St. Athanasius, in the fourth century, describes it like this: “For the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below and in the depths and in the breadth: above, in creation; below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell; in breadth, in the world.”

Now, it’s totally possible, when reading the gorgeous parallelism of Athanasius, to find the religious­ cliché-o-meter beginning to quiver a bit. Even the above lovely bits about the Word in the world—so elegant and capacious—could seem like just another kumbaya, “He’s-got-the-whole-world-in-his-hands” Kool-Aid. Even Baby-Jesus-in-the-Manger can seem a kind of escape to some calm, bright, silent, starry night. The smart kids didn’t drink it at back at Christian camp, and they’re all grown up now. 

Ta­Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me hits on just this sort of Kool-Aid problem—especially in America. He calls it the Dream. Religious people in America, he says, are “lost in the Dream” of a God-ordained, democratic nation. They can’t see the truth about all the Memorial Day cookouts, neighborhood associations, tree houses, and Cub Scouts (and we might add church picnics) they think are the truth of Christian America. In reality, Coates says, those pieces of the dream have been built by—and are being maintained by—violence against black bodies, violence that our society continues to allow. Escaping into word-dreams has its costs. Namely, it costs the world, and everyone who can’t afford to escape.

But my point about the incarnation is not that. My point is not even that those Sunday doughnuts, broken with my family, were some kind of lay communion (though I think they probably were). The Word in the world is not set apart for the privileged few who can get the treat. The Word in the world is not some pie- (or doughnut-)-in-the-sky story to run away to when the injustice of the world or the devastation of our own lives seems too much.

My point is that the Word takes readers toward the world. The Word takes us toward the injustice of the world, toward the devastation of lives and bodies, both our own and others’. And the Word doesn’t end the world’s story there: the world’s meanings are not crushed or frozen on the page. For the becoming of the Word—who became flesh, who grew in wisdom himself—is making the world new. In the Word, we readers in the world groan and struggle. We move, we act, we read toward the community of the new creation.

Because there was never a real problem with the words themselves. Even Kumbaya. It was always how they were read.

 

Tiffany Eberle Kriner is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author of The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading (Fortress Press, 2014).

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