When I worked at Starbucks after a closing shift I would sit and hang out on the patio by myself and read or write for a few hours. It was a nice way to unwind after what I’m certain was probably an awful shift. I’m certain because working at Starbucks is awful, be nice to your miserable barista, tip well, and forgive them for not being able to spell Paul correctly.
The poem I shared yesterday, Lake of Fire, Hill of Ash, was inspired in part from one of these evenings reading on the Starbucks patio. I had been sitting there minding my own business, looking profound, and two girls sat down on the other end of the patio to chat and have a Bible study. This was also a common experience, there’s a megachurch just a quarter mile south of this Starbucks, so Christian Hipsters (My People) would often find themselves studying scripture at our store.
The conversation these ladies were having was striking to me. They were discussing a recent guest speaker who had shared his views on the coming apocalypse. And the girls were talking about it with glee, and in relation to their romantic endeavors. No, joke the second stanza of the poem is almost verbatim.
I’ve been studying the end chapters of Revelation (you know the good and weird stuff) for a sermon I’ll be preaching in a few weeks and the thing about the apocalypse and the end of the world is that it is not casual. Check this out:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords.
And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.” Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. Revelation 19.11-21
Even if you’re on the winning side this is not a scene that should stir in us glee and romantic desire. It starts with Jesus drenched in blood, vomitting a sword, followed by angel armies, and ends with birds eating the corpses of the slain. For the Christian this should inspire confidence, but not glee. Glee is the wrong emotion.
I don’t fault the girls – I did at the time – but I don’t now fault them for their reaction. In the poem, I take the church to task for its poor misuse of language but I think the problem is far more widespread than that. I think culture at large has intentionally and unintentionally diminished language. And I think it will be the death of us all.
The preservation of language is of immense spiritual, political, emotional, interpersonal importance. Poetry, fiction, prayers, scripture have enormous value before even their aesthetic and artistic value. The argument “I don’t have time to read novels” or “I don’t understand poetry, there’s no point in trying” are arguments for self-degradation.
Author Madeleine L’Engle in her book “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art” writes:
We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted. Our freedom dwindles- we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than “the way things are.” … I might even go to the extreme of declaring that the deliberate diminution of vocabulary by a dictator, or an advertising copywriter, is anti-Christian.
The Christian finds it foundation in the person of Jesus Christ, “The Word” in the first verse of the first chapter of John’s gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. We worship the first Word, we’re a people of the book, faith comes from hearing words. Preservation of language is Christian charity.