It is not simply that we do not know our own language or how to speak or write, it is that many have decided that this is either non-essential or perhaps even a demonstration of dreaded white privilege. So in plan of an exchange of ideas, we have protests that erupt into riots and mobs. We have litmus tests that defy nuance and instead force people to come down on one side or another of an issue that is framed in such a way that there are only sides and no winsome exchange of information or ideas. Books are still being written, published, and sold but I wonder if they are being read? We are certainly less aware and less informed of the great books of the past and that includes the Bible. We struggle at communication because words no longer mean something, because we have no education or erudition to speak or hear words, and because great wisdom of the past is either refused or refuted in the whim of the moment. Compare and contrast political speech today with the great communicators of the past and recent history. Where are the lofty cadences of a Martin Luther King to turn us away from our screens and to ponder the remnants of racism and prejudice that refuse to go away? Where are the carefully considered words of a JFK or Ronald Reagan to console us in sorrow or ennoble us to greater futures? Where are arguments designed to win over our opponents or the undecided rather than simply shock our enemies or rally our friends?
This crisis is not only cultural or political, it is religious. We live at a juncture in which we have learned to phrase what we believe and confess in wiggle words that will not offend but neither will they inform. Look at the genius of the creeds and how with an economy of words they speak clearly and boldly what we believe and confess. Would it be possible to frame the faith so concisely and clearly today and then obtain agreement from a majority of bishops that this is our faith? Lutherans can look to the Small Catechism or the Augsburg Confession and see how it is possible to teach and confess the faith in simple yet profound terms. Catechisms are not growing smaller but larger and the manifold increase of words has not rendered them more effective nor has it increased their eloquence. Would it even be possible to write the Small Catechism today or an Augsburg Confession? Look at the great hymns of old and compare them to the little ditties that will be sung once or twice but not remembered past their moment. Will there be another Abide with Me or A Mighty Fortress or For All the Saints written that will be passed down as the treasures of faith and piety as these have been?
We went through a terrible time trying to modernize the language of the liturgy. Rome had to redo its own translation of the Mass some years ago because the one put out in the wake of Vatican II lacked not only poetry but faithfulness to the ext. The LCMS had some jarring phrases in the Worship Supplement of 1969 and so did the ILCW in its trial forms that became LBW and LW. Even the collects suffered to the point where they had become short but not so pithy collections of the lectionary themes in prayer form. Where success had come it has shown up more from the restoration of older forms and words than new versions promoted to replace what the 1970s bequeathed to us. It is not easy to write for an age in which words do not have universal meaning and people can connect a word with a larger reference from Scripture or tradition. On top of that, there is no confidence that the people reading or singing those words will understand or appreciate the eloquence, poetry, or truth expressed.
This is surely a problem in the classroom but it is also a problem in the pulpit. With sermon time now at a premium, making words go further means anticipating that words can be used in code form to communicate ideas in short form. Without this, it compresses what can be said from the pulpit and what can be received. Sermons become less an artful application of the Word of God to the people of God and more the presentation of a single idea. This is especially true when one considers how few Bible passages the hearer might recognize or which phrases have Biblical, confessional, or catechetical context.
Maybe we are in the midst of many crises but one of the more important ones before us is our inability to advance the cause of real communication. For that, we are suffering as a people, in our culture, in our politics, and in our churches.