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God in the Grammar
A Review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe
and Preaching the Luminous Word by Ellen F. Davis
David K. Weber

I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in Grammar.”1
                                         —Frederick Nietzsche

Why did Nietzsche worry about grammar’s connection to God? He thought the religious herd would wrongly believe that God makes sense of existence as grammar makes sense of a sentence. How then does grammar make sense of a sentence? Consider the real-life example from Monty Python’s movie, The Life of Brian. Brian (Graham Chapman) is a contemporary of Jesus who has been mistaken for the Jewish Messiah. Needing to establish his revolutionary street cred, Brian, under the cloak of darkness, paints walls with anti-Roman graffiti. Just then, a centurion (John Cleese) happens upon Brian. Rather than arresting him, the centurion angrily studies Brian’s grammar. “What’s this, then?” asks the centurion, “Romanes eunt domus? ‘People called Romanes they go the house’?!” The sentence makes no sense because Brian has forgotten the rules of noun declension and verb conjugation. The centurion offers a stern grammar tutorial and corrects Brian’s graffiti to read “Romani ite domum,” (Romans, go home). Having succeeded in structuring a sentence that makes sense, the centurion tells Brian to “write it out 100 times.”

Wolfe coverGod’s connection to grammar will take a bit more than a paragraph to explain. I begin by turning to Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech,2 in which Wolfe enjoys telling stories about characters who do not accept the “speech divide.” The two main characters, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, have advanced theories that, to date, have failed to explain speech in a way that overcomes the distinction between members of the animal kingdom and members of the kingdom of speech. In fact, Wolfe’s takedown of Darwin is so ruthless that a National Public Radio Weekend Edition interviewer worried that Wolfe had given credence to (insert gasp) Biblical creationism. Wolfe calmed the interviewer’s jitters by affirming that speech is “an invention by human beings,” and that there is not “a shred of whatever” to support the view that speech originates with “an extraterrestrial power.” Confirming this view in his book, Wolfe also enjoys telling the story of Bible translator Daniel Everett—who turns out to be Noam Chomsky’s unlikely nemesis in that Everett’s faith diminished as his linguistic sophistication increased. The God/grammar connection is not obvious to Wolfe or Everett.

Like almost every character in this story, Wolfe is an atheist, except that he dislikes atheism because he dislikes every ism. Isms like Darwinism attract characters like Thomas Huxley—Darwin’s Bulldog—who “became such an ardent Darwinist not because he believed in Darwin’s theory of natural selection—he never did—but because Darwin was obviously an atheist, just as he was.” Nietzsche, mixing Darwinism and atheism, paid “Darwin and his theory the highest praise,” when he declared that if “‘there is no cardinal distinction between man and animal,’ then ‘God is dead.’” The effect of God’s death, Nietzsche observed, would so “‘demoralize humanity throughout the West,’” that it would pave the way for the rise of “‘barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods,’” which we now know as Nazism, Communism, and Fascism. These isms would sponsor “‘wars such as never have been fought before’” which would bring about the “‘total eclipse of all (traditional) values.’” Nietzsche thought this was the good news.

Wolfe thinks that speech is “one weird trick” that categorically divides the kingdom of speech from the animal kingdom. “There’s no telling,” he says, how we first learned to code and decode “t-r-e-e,” because there are “no traces of any evolution of language through the sounds that apes make, or dolphins, for that matter.” Speech seems to have “just popped up into the mouths of human beings from out of nowhere.” This view was echoed by a Chomsky-led group of linguists who admitted that efforts to explain “the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity” have been “a colossal waste of time.” Speech has yet to be explained in evolutionary terms, and Darwin’s dogma that “human beings are nothing but animals” still lacks scientific support.

To be sure, human beings do seem to be nothing but animals. Genetic studies demonstrate that human and chimpanzee DNA are 99 percent indistinguishable, with the human/animal connection confirmed by neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. And, after explaining “man’s opposable thumb, upright stature, and huge cranium,” in evolutionary terms, Darwin could reasonably expect that an evolutionary explanation of speech would follow. Once that happened, Wolfe writes, Darwinism would displace Catholicism as the “Theory of Everything,” which explains “everything in the world to be part of a single and suddenly clear pattern.”

Giving an evolutionary explanation for the origin of speech troubled Darwin throughout his career. Wolfe quotes Max Müller, a German linguist and Oxford professor, who argued in 1861 that “Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it” because speech forms “a hard and fast line between man and brute.” Furthermore, Müller presumed that the science of language would “enable us to withstand the extreme theories of evolutionists” and defeat evolutionary science. Alfred Wallace—whose field studies had been suspiciously scooped by Darwin—wrote in his book Darwinism that natural selection could not account for the complex brain functions necessary for human speech. As such, speech pointed to “a superior…. controlling intelligence.” Darwin’s response: “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

The MIT linguist Noam Chomsky has advanced theories explaining the origin of speech. Chomsky was named in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s list of “the 100 Most Influential Philosophers of All Time.” Wolfe was not. Perhaps this, or their political differences, explains the entertaining animus that drives Wolfe’s takedown of Chomsky. Wolfe thinks Chomsky is a genius and an intellectual. Genius is a term of regard; intellectual is not. Chomsky’s genius is certifiable. As a graduate student in his twenties, he took linguistics “and hardened it from a spongy so-called social science into a real science, a hard science.” Chomsky had “scientifically” discovered the “‘deep structure’” in grammar, which is to say that he had “‘physical, empirical, organic, biological’” scientific evidence supporting his thesis that humans have a “‘language acquisition device.’” If you recall, this, along with other explanations of human speech, proved part of “a colossal waste of time.”

This admission of a failed theory was a tacit acknowledgment of intellectual maleficence. Chomsky’s fame exploded on the public stage with a virtuoso destruction of behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s theory of verbal behavior. Wolfe explains how Chomsky charged Skinner with ignorance of the “remarkably complex phenomenon” of speech, and went on to expose the clever ways Skinner disguised ignorance with “the technical vocabulary of laboratory experiments—‘controls,’ ‘probabilities,’ ‘stimulus,’ ‘response,’ ‘reinforcement’….to creat[e] the illusion of a rigorous scientific theory.” Sprinkle in terms like “‘probabilities,’” and nonsense takes on “the tang of statistical accuracy.” And, if ever cornered by persistent questions, increase “‘loudness, pitch, and frequency.’”

Wolfe thinks Chomsky is guilty of the same rhetorical disingenuousness as demonstrated in Chomsky’s famous 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Arguing against America’s involvement in Vietnam, Chomsky declared that “‘It is the responsibility of intellectuals…to speak the truth and to expose lies.’” What seems platitudinous is in fact the pronouncement by “an angry god raining fire and brimstone down not merely upon worldlings committing beastly crimes but also upon the anointed angels who had grown soft, corrupt, and silent to the point of complicity with the very forces of Evil it is their sacred duty to protect mankind from.” In other words, according to Chomsky, telling the truth is not what all decent human beings ought to do. It is the special province of intellectuals who alone have the specialized scientific skills to discover and apply “the truth.” Now, one reviewer observed, “every plodding English department adjunct and uninspired life sciences prof imagine themselves not as instructors but as “intellectuals…”3

Wolfe’s most disliked ism is clericalism, which is now manifested in the scientist/intellectual “clerisy,” or intelligentsia. As a high priest of this clerisy, Chomsky faced critics whom he saw not as interlocutors but as heretics. This impressive list of heretics includes “the frauds”: B. F. Skinner, Elie Wiesel, and Jacques Derrida; “the liars”: Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Hitchens; and “the charlatan,” the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. You can see why Wolfe so enjoyed reporting that Chomsky’s undoing came at the hand of Daniel Everett, a graduate of the (insert sneer) fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute’s Bible translator program. Everett made two important discoveries in his study of the Amazonian Pirahã speech: First, “Good night” means “‘Don’t sleep, there are snakes,’” and second, the language has no recursion, or a way to nest one idea within another. The second discovery was “the final nail in the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely influential theory of universal grammar.”

No doubt you recall what you were doing the moment you heard that the theory of universal grammar died. On that day sentences lost their sense of meaning because to be verbs chose not to be. Their ended the confusion by taking possession of they’re and there, and dangling participles finally let go. All facetiousness aside, on the day Chomsky’s theory died, nothing in fact happened, because our capacity to code and decode t-r-e-e is a weird trick that marks or makes us human. 

Consider again Nietzsche’s suspicion that the kingdom of God covertly resides within the kingdom of speech. If God is in grammar, then the weird trick that makes us human would be the weirder trick that makes us holy. This seems to be the view of Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis in her 300-plus-page book of sermons and essays called Preaching the Luminous Word,4 which spells out the “conviction that…the word of the living God…(is) given to us in human words so that we may ‘live by them’” (Lev.18:5). I will consider this conviction in terms of understanding and enjoying the Bible’s luminosity.5

Davis coverPerhaps a variation on a common analogy will clarify the distinction between understanding and enjoyment. Imagine that you are a child—or a moth—that has spotted a beam of light coming from a high-powered flashlight. Understanding means being drawn to look at the light, which can be enlightening and blinding. Enjoyment means turning the light outward in order to see everything else by that light. Very generally, scholarship looks at the light, and preaching shows what everything else looks like by that light. This formula of scholarship and preaching is encrusted in every seminary curriculum and the cause of so many sermons that are endured rather than enjoyed. If the kingdom of God’s presence makes the kingdom of speech less weird, then, as I read Davis, something has gone wrong with our understanding and enjoyment of the Bible’s luminosity.

What has gone wrong is that we mis-understand the Bible because we misread the Bible because we do not read the Old Testament. The point is made in a short passage by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Imprisoned and awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer needed to decode l-o-s-s in a way that he could also love “‘life and the earth.’” So he defined loss as “‘the resurrection of the dead and a new world.’” Not r-e-s-u-r-r-e-c-t-i-o-n as a vapid wish, as it is so often expressed in boilerplate Easter sermons. For Bonhoeffer, the resurrection was the culmination of a history that ran from the Old Testament through the New Testament and to the end of history. The resurrection is an event, on the far end of a coherent history, that includes God’s law as “‘binding’” and that law-breakers are God’s enemies who are slated for “‘wrath and vengeance.’” Bonhoeffer wrote that “‘Only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and the love of enemies touch our hearts.’”

Bonhoeffer’s resurrection radically contrasts with the current, breezy Marcionism6 that marginalizes the Old Testament. Two examples: first, thinking the vengeful Old Testament God was defeated by the peaceful New Testament God; and second, thinking that the New Testament Gospel absolutely rejects the Old Testament law. Bonhoeffer’s resurrection gave him consolation because it licensed him to decode l-o-s-s without denying his wrath and vengeance at the Nazi sponsored evil. Instead, it showed him a path where his wrath and vengeance participated in God’s wrath and vengeance, which is a stage on the way to God’s forgiveness and love for the enemy. Only by walking the whole arduous path of experiencing and then transcending real wrath and vengeance is there any hope of enjoying the real forgiveness of real enemies. This means, says Bonhoeffer, that we should not read the Bible in a way that would “‘perceive things too quickly and too directly.’” Davis demonstrates how to read the Old Testament in this way by considering the life of Moses and of the book of Isaiah.

In the biblical biography, Moses begins as an abandoned baby floating down a stream in a wicker basket and ends on the Mount of Transfiguration giving consolation to Jesus before his crucifixion. This path from stream to mountain makes no sense until we see Moses as a liberator, a law-giver, and a defiant, failed leader who was barred from the Promised Land. Why was he banished? The Bible says in Deuteronomy that God blamed Israel and in Numbers, God blamed Moses. Either way, Moses was banished and someone was to blame. Davis considers the Numbers account. Moses was at fault because he lost sight of a truth he previously understood with clarity and heroic courage. Though raised in privilege, he was not blind to the suffering of the Hebrew slaves. Though familiar with power, Moses saw through Pharaoh’s illegitimate tyranny and sided with God’s liberating authority. However, over time, Moses came to think too highly of his success and so became “embittered” by his failures. In bitterness, he struck a rock with his staff, and God responded, “‘Because you did not show faith in me, you shall not bring this congregation in the land that I have promised them.’” Moses became “an obstruction and danger to the people.” He had lost his faith and could not lead a movement that moves “from faith to faith.” If he did not believe, how could he lead? 

Davis notes that Franz Kafka thought that Moses “suffers this most bitter disappointment simply because he is human, and to be human is to inhabit a world that does not match our dreams and desires.” Had Moses defined being human as Kafka did, his despair would have seemed tragically beautiful. But Moses inhabited the strange biblical world where being human means becoming holy. It is a world where the resurrection means that “our dreams and desires” are more real than our failures and disappointments. In Kafka’s world, Moses’ bitterness is reasonable, but in a resurrection-defined reality, his bitterness required a forgiveness that put him in the center of the Promised Land at the center of the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus’ crucifixion. This restoration began soon after Moses was banished. He continued to lead God’s people to the Promised Land until his death, which “does not occur for some fifty more chapters.”

The other example of Davis’ scholarly skill in slow reading Scripture is her decoding Isaiah’s sense of vocation, which begins with Isaiah’s reply to God’s call, “Here am I…” If decoding t-r-e-e is a weird trick, decoding Isaiah’s v-o-c-a-t-i-o-n will prove to be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a steroid-popping enigma. One problem is that Isaiah is not one but three books, authored by a prophetic tradition that “took shape at multiple hands over a period of more than two centuries.” Another problem is that readers of Isaiah tend to gravitate to the “upbeat” oracles of salvation in Second and Third Isaiah with the happy images of lions lying down with lambs (happy for the lions, at least), and the cute picture of a child leading followers beside a nest of poisonous snakes. Davis argues that decoding vocation only by the light of the oracles of salvation produces an incomplete and incoherent picture of vocation. A truer picture of vocation means reading the whole book of Isaiah, inclusive of the judgment oracles. For Davis, this means addressing eight interrelated and overlapping themes. I consider each in turn.

Theme 1: The Holy One of Israel. As the seraphim proclaimed that God is holy, holy, holy, Isaiah came to understand that human happiness desires God’s holiness. Isaiah understood, but Israel did not because they decoded happiness in terms of “wealth and military might.” After having his unclean lips cauterized by a burning coal, Isaiah accepted the weird vocation of speaking to an audience who was “incapable of hearing.”7

Theme 2: The Justice and Righteousness of God. Isaiah’s vocation was to pump words like justice and righteousness into the air in hope that “all humankind will learn justice and righteousness,” and that “knee and tongue submit to the one whose nature is righteousness.” How do words compete with money, pleasure, and power? The words justice and righteousness are names of desires that lie deep in our human nature. These deep realities can lie undisturbed while others suffer injustice and unrighteousness. But the moment we are victims of injustice and unrighteousness, we spontaneously demand the swift restoration of justice and righteousness.   This is when the prophet was most likely to find an attentive audience, ready to understand and enjoy  God’s justice and righteousness. 

Theme 3: The Judgement of God. Just to keep things straight, judgment and justice come from the same word, mishpat. Loving justice seems possible; loving judgment does not. After all, “Judge not” is at the top of our favorite Jesus passages. And yet, judgment, as Davis preaches in a sermon called “The Good News of Judgment,” is a sign that God is present, clearing away the rubbish of empty “holy days” in order to establish the holiness that is the desire of human happiness. We need crisis before we welcome judgment. Judgment is not the crisis. It is a sign of God’s presence initiating crisis resolution by labeling the causes of the crises—idolatry, lies, love of pleasure and power, and fake peace. Judgement is not damnation; it is demolition that clears a space for a better place.

Theme 4: Zion. Holy, holy, holiness seeks location, location, location. Zion is the Lord’s mountain location, “where nations stream to learn from YHWH’s Torah of justice and righteousness.” This mountain contrasts with the realpolitik of the city of Jerusalem, which cleverly forges flimsy alliances to give easy access to desired idolatry. When put to the test, Jerusalem’s false fullness flames out. Then judgment will be welcomed as a sign of God’s presence in the demolition of purging and edification in teaching, which gives “comfort to mourners” and “restores its righteousness…‘to the end of the earth.’”

Theme 5: Vocation Fulfilled within History. Words can weirdly change how we decode t-i-m-e. Isaiah’s vocation time transfigures chronological time. Chronological time requires the quick fixes of money and power because time is short. Vocation time moves slowly and indirectly because it “gains dimensionally”; not by leaps and bounds but in fits and starts. The “cumulative witness of the four (Servant) songs” voices vocation time, where the “vindication by God” moves to fulfillment along a broken path of “exhausting labor, humiliation, death.” Vocation time rejects the “illusion that everything essential…is easily discovered,” but rather works with words to “gradually” build within the single individual’s soul a “competence, confidence, and even love” for the real things that have names like justice, judgment, righteousness, and Zion. This cumulative—rather than chronological—momentum is calendrically marked by the Church Year, ritually celebrated in the liturgy and repeatedly energized by boring preaching—that is, the kind of preaching that, week in and week out, bores into the depths of the Word’s luminosity.

Theme 6: A Remnant Will Return. How does Isaiah decode r-e-m-n-a-n-t? Not as refuse but as the basic building block of a cumulative momentum of making us holy and whole. The remnant recognize that “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”8 Isolated, solitary individual remnants go nowhere, while remnants joined by the desire for (w)holiness return, “energetically, to pursue their vocation to be ‘the ones left in Zion and in Jerusalem [who] are called holy.’”

Theme 7: Trust and Shalom. Over time, if words like justice and righteousness prove to be truthful names of our deep desires, remnant persons and God will forge bonds of trust, which will somehow bring about peace. Wealth and power seem to be more tangible solutions to our anxiety, as characterized by King Ahaz’s useful “military defenses and alliances” and convenient coexistence with “foreign idols,” and “syncretistic cults.” Usefulness and convenience are calculations, which means they do not depend on trust and so cannot forge bonds of trust and will not bring about peace. Speaking to anxiety-ridden students, Davis preached that deliverance from anxiety means learning to “trust that another intention and action underlies yours and will bring your efforts to a fruitful conclusion” (297). Only trust “enables Israel to receive the divine blessing of shalom.” which flows like a river. Directed by borders and accumulating momentum, it moves towards fulfillment.

Theme 8: The Ultimate Fulfillment of Vocation. A vocation orients one’s existence “wholly and publicly to the new reality YHWH is bringing into being.” This means an unrealized reality that often seems unreal orients our existence. The unreal is not undesirable. To be human is to desire the peace that comes when death is swallowed up and we are “free of weeping and calamity.” Doubt does not destroy desire; it renders desire unbelievable. As such, our peace depends on being able to trust that our desires draw us toward the holiness that is our ultimate human fulfillment. This essential trust somehow depends on words and the Word performing some weird tricks that happen in preaching. In practical terms, the fulfillment of our deepest human desires for holiness depends on persons becoming preachers, because they are drawn—like a child or moth—to look at the Luminous Word and find abiding enjoyment in reporting to the rest of us how everything else looks like by that light.  

Understanding the speech that makes us human draws us to enjoy the humanities. Understanding the speech that makes us holy draws us to enjoy preaching. Neither the humanities nor preaching are much enjoyed by many these days. Reading Wolfe and Davis reveals just how much enjoyment the many are missing.

David K. Weber is lecturer in theology at Valparaiso University.

 

Endnotes

1 Cited in: Alasdair MacIntyre. Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 1990. (98).

2 Tom Wolfe. The Kingdom of Speech. Little, Brown and Company. 2016.

3 Caitlin Flanagan. “Tom Wolfe Raises His Voice in an Account of Human Speech.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/books/review/tom-wolfe-kingdom-of-speech.html?_r=0

4 Ellen F. Davis (with Austin McIver Dennis). Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays. Eerdmans. 2016.

5 C. S. Lewis develops the distinction in the essay in terms of looking at a light beam and look along it. C.f., “Meditation in a Toolshed.” http://www.pacificaoc.org/wp-content/uploads/Meditation-in-a-Toolshed.pdf

6 Marcionism “rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Christ was not the Son of the God of the Jews, but the Son of the good God, who was different from the God of the Ancient Covenant.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09645c.htm.

7 Isaiah states, “Woe is me, for I am undone!/Because I am a man of unclean lips,/And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…” Isaiah 6:5.

8 Benjamin Franklin.

 

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