Pen as Sword - Social Commentary

The Meaning of Language … communication?

Hamachidori“, by Ryutaro Hirota, played by Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra & Kazumasa Watanabe, from the album “Konomichi―Favorite Japanese Melodies (Japanese Melody Series)” (2004)

This is what -30 to -40 looks like …

So, what to say … first, a week ago this morning I slipped on the ice while walking in my driveway and fell on top of my leg as it folded under me, thus breaking my ankle.

That gentle “crunch” as I settled onto the ice was the give away but I chose to ignore it and “shake it off” and proceed to drive to my lunch date with an old service friend an hour and a half away and ignore the pain and tough it out in the interest of having a pleasant social gathering. Always push through and complete the mission, right?

On Wednesday last, my daughter insisted that I go to the hospital with her and get it X-rayed to prove that “It was only a serious sprain”. As life would have it, I was wrong … I admit it … and both my doctor and my daughter insisted that I repeat that several times. I. Was. Wrong. And the next day, Thursday, I found myself in surgery in the nearest city getting things repaired with plate and pins and screws.

Now, I sit in my favorite chair under doctor’s orders to keep the ankle elevated and to not put any weight on it until the next doctor’s appointment on March 14th. This is not only a pain in my ankle, but a right royal pain in my A__ since virtually everything I do including something as simple as visiting the washroom is hugely complicated by “Don’t you dare put ANY weight on that ankle!”.

Sigh … what is one to do.

Well, I guess this is one of those times in life when “tough” is another word for “stupid”. I guess I accept that. Most of what I do for work is something I can supervise over Facetime while others less crippled actually punch the keys, and the rest can just wait, I guess. My first wife of 40 years or so just laughs at me and says “I guess you will be giving up “Control” for Lent.”  I reply, “I guess that it’s nice to have “history”, to which she replies that she just wishes there wasn’t so much of it. Ha! spoken like a true loving wife.

Which brings me to the topic of “History”. What does one do when one can’t get out of the chair without enormous effort? Well, in my case I blog … This post may not be of much interest except amongst those of us who actually care about the details and precision and what things actually mean, as opposed to “just having a pleasant conversation over coffee with our friends”.

I like the term “praxis” meaning “that which people do habitually, characteristically and usually unreflectively“, as a wonderfully concise summary of our polite daily narrative. It gives me a nice handle on the state of action, conversation and thought, or the lack of same, in our social media society.

I have had an on-again, off-again, love/hate relationship with the use of our English language as a means of alleged “communications” for at least 40 years now.

After spending most of the 70’s as a practitioner (Rad Sea 251) of military communications, with it’s huge emphasis on precision and accuracy and warding off confusion, no matter the status of the current shit-storm, even to the extent of using a phonetic alphabet and spelling words and coordinates out in detail, I find myself still habitually thinking and speaking in annoyingly precise ways.

It is part of the very fiber of how I think and communicate. After all, the consequences of “getting it wrong” back then had a high probability of a Blue on Blue with predictably bad results. It is hard to shake those old life-saving habits.

I have found since then that the civilian world shows a distressing lack of precision and understanding of the meaning of common words, used every day, and in the communication of thoughts which when examined, have no relation whatsoever to the words in use to express the “feelings” of the speaker except perhaps in some vague syllabic sort of way, the more syllables the better.

The speaker(s) lack a basic understanding of what the words they use moment by moment actually mean in English is a never ending source of distress and misunderstanding. Should one raise any objection to this misuse of the language one is immediately vilified as a “pedant”, supposing that term exists in the speakers lexicon, and worse if the vocabulary is lacking.

“Red Dragonfly” by Kobudo, from the album “Ototabi”, (2013)

One very common example is the now popular “modern” journalistic use of and confusion of the words “honing” and “homing”, used interchangeably and it seems in use to mean a general sense of something bad coming that we can’t shake off, or of being on the right track depending on context. For just one example of many, at CNN :” Sources say Turkish investigators are honing in on a Saudi intelligence officer who allegedly led the torture and murder of “Washington Post” columnist Jamal Khashoggi.”

I sometimes question the writers in the comment column of their articles … in one recent occurrence, when asked about the confusion, “Do you mean “homing” as in “the missile is homing in to blow us to hell”, or do you mean “honing” as in “I am honing my blade in preparation to slitting your throat”? the latest writer I called on it got quite upset with me and not only refused to clarify the confusion but continued to repeat the obviously confusing misuse in subsequent writing. What is one to do? Pray, pray, and pray some more, I guess.

I am currently reading “The Resurrection of the Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God” by N.T. Wright, from “Fortress Press” . It is a joy to read, what I have in the past referred to as “Brain Candy”.

And Dr. Wright spends a significant part of the first 70 pages or so clarifying this exact problem of meaning and the need for clarity in the context of historical writing and theology …  and that same confusion is equally prevalent in daily social exchange and is arguably more important, since in the immediate sense, history is only important to historians.

This is so much fun that I am simply going to quote from the book and let the chips fall where they may (your mileage may vary):

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What, though, do we mean by ‘historical’?20 ‘History’ and its cognates have been used, within debates about Jesus and the resurrection, in at least five significantly different ways.

First, there is history as event. If we say something is ‘historical’ in this sense, it happened, whether or not we can know or prove that it happened. The death of the last pterodactyl is in that sense a historical event, even though no human witnessed it or wrote about it at the time, and we are very unlikely ever to discover when and where it took place. Similarly, we use the word ‘historical’ of persons or things, to indicate simply and solely that they existed.21

Second, there is history as significant event. Not all events are significant; history, it is often assumed, consists of the ones that are. The adjective that tends to go with this is ‘historic’; ‘a historic event’ is not simply an event that took place, but one whose occurrence carried momentous consequences. Likewise, a ‘historic’ person, building or object is one perceived to have had particular significance, not merely existence. Rudolf Bultmann, himself arguably a historic figure within the discipline of New Testament studies, famously used the adjective “geschichtlich” to convey this sense, over against “historisch” (sense 1).

Third, there is history as provable event. To say that something is ‘historical’ in this sense is to say not only that it happened but that we can demonstrate that it happened, on the analogy of mathematics or the so-called hard sciences. This is somewhat more controversial. To say ‘x may have happened, but we can’t prove it, so it isn’t really historical’ may not be self-contradictory, but is clearly operating with a more restricted sense of ‘history’ than some of the others.

Fourth, and quite different from the previous three, there is history as writing-about-events-in-the-past. To say that something is ‘historical’ in this sense is to say that it was written about, or perhaps could in principle have been written about. (This might even include ‘historical’ novels.) A variant on this, though an important one, is oral history; at a time when many regarded the spoken word as carrying more authority than the written, history as speaking-about-events-in-the-past is not to be sneezed at.22

Fifth and finally, a combination of (3) and (4) is often found precisely in discussions of Jesus: history as what modern historians can say about a topic. By ‘modern’ I mean ‘post-Enlightenment’, the period in which people have imagined some kind of analogy, even correlation, between history and the hard sciences. In this sense, ‘historical’ means not only that which can be demonstrated and written, but that which can be demonstrated and written within the post-Enlightenment worldview. This is what people have often had in mind when they have rejected ‘the historical Jesus’ (which hereby, of course, comes to mean ‘the Jesus that fits the Procrustean bed of a reductionist worldview’) in favour of ‘the Christ of faith’.23

Snow”, by Kobudo, from the album “Ototabi”  (2013).

N.T. Wright

Confusion between these senses has of course bedevilled this very debate about the so-called ‘historical Jesus’, the phrase being used by some to mean Jesus as he actually was (sense 1), by others to mean what was significant about Jesus (sense 2), by others to mean that which we can prove about Jesus, as opposed to that which we must either doubt or take on faith alone (sense 3); by others again to mean what people have written about Jesus (sense 4). Those who, as I mentioned, have taken the phrase in sense 5 have often rejected the Jesus not only of that sense but, apparently, of the previous four as well.24

“Jesus and the Victory of God” constitutes, in part, a response to this position. But we must now face one very specific, particular and in some senses peculiar case of the problem. In what sense, if any, can Jesus’ resurrection be spoken of as ‘historical’?

Second, how did people in Jesus’ day, both Gentiles and Jews, think and speak about the dead and their future destiny? In particular, what if anything did the word ‘resurrection’ (anastasis and its cognates, and the verb egeiro and its cognates, in Greek, and qum and its cognates in Hebrew) mean within that spectrum of belief?12

Chapters 2 and 3 address this question, clarifying in particular—a vital move, as we shall see—what the early Christians meant, and were heard to mean, when they spoke and wrote about Jesus’ resurrection.

As George Caird once pointed out, when a speaker declares ‘I’m mad about my flat’ it helps to know whether they are American (in which case they are angry about their puncture) or British (in which case they are enthusiastic about their living quarters).13

When the early Christians said ‘The Messiah was raised from the dead on the third day’, what might they have been heard to be saying? This may seem obvious to some readers, but it was by no means obvious, according to the evangelists, when Jesus said similar things to his followers, and a glance at contemporary literature will show that it remains far from obvious to many scholars today.14

As well as the question of meaning (what did this kind of talk mean at the time?) we must consider the question of derivation: what, if anything, did the Christian shaping of ideas and language about Easter owe to the wider context, both Jewish and non-Jewish?

Chapter 2 examines the non-Jewish world of the first century with these two questions in mind; chapters 3 and 4, developing the brief discussion in the first volume of this series, the Jewish world.15 Let me then spell out somewhat more fully the brief, almost formulaic account given a moment ago of how the argument develops from there.

I shall come at the main question of Parts II–IV by asking: granted the wide range of views about life after death in general and resurrection in particular, what did the early Christians believe on these topics, and how can we account for their beliefs?

This method recognizes that all knowledge of the past, as indeed of everything else, is mediated not only through sources but also through the perceptions, perceptions, and hence also the personalities, of the knowers.

There is no such thing as detached objectivity. (To say, therefore, that we can investigate other historical claims in a neutral or objective fashion, but that with the resurrection an element of subjectivity inevitably creeps in, is to ignore the fact that all historical work consists of a dialogue between the historian, in community with other historians, and the source materials; and that at every point the historians’ own worldview-perspectives are inevitably involved.)

But this does not mean that all knowledge collapses into mere subjectivity. There are ways of moving towards fair and true statements about the past.”

Wright, N. T.. Resurrection Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (pp. 8-29). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

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Anyway, that’s enough fun for now. It is encouraging to know that there are other folks out there who see the current state of confusion in communication as problematic. I suspect the usual suspects calling me a “pedant” are not realy that sure what exactly “pedant” means anyway.

So for those who got this far, you must be amongst the blessed literate on this long journey.

Cheers

Joe

Ahhh,  time for another stress free “nice conversation with my friends”. Who cares what the words mean anyway, they just sound so “pleasantly conversational”.

But what would coffee be without a little scripture?  Paul would have recognized our current Canadian Political landscape … here is part of his letter to Timothy:

… But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …

Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was.

But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured.

And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2Ti 3:1-13)

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