By Benedict Augustine
“’Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
“Don’t tell me! Show me!” This is a line many teachers use often when explaining to students how to develop the points in their essays. To this, I often add, “Don’t use evidence only to prove your point, but also to illustrate it.” At the beginning of the year, all the students simply want to offer a series of bullet points—that is, if they have any points to make about a topic—and allow their reader to fill in the holes. They have to learn the hard way that if I am their reader, I will fill those holes in logic and explanation with angry comments written in red ink and top it off with a low score for the whole essay.
A similar problem that students have in writing involves their misuse of quoted textual evidence. They think that the quotes they cite require no additional explanation. Another remark I often have to make: “The quotes don’t explain themselves! You explain them! Why are they there? What are you telling me by using them?” Again, they think their reader will simply infer their analysis and explain the quote for them. As you can imagine, when I am the reader, I have to go to work with my red pen again.
People who don’t write regularly or work much with language might excuse this as so much stylistic twaddle from a boring pedant. However, the idea behind illustrating a point and explaining one’s evidence goes far deeper than attending to mere linguistic formalities; these things form the basis of communication and, by extension, the basis of trust.
If one doesn’t illustrate his point, he likely doesn’t know it. If he can’t explain the quote that he so wittily references as some kind of support, he is probably putting on airs. However, he can get away with this sloppy rhetoric because he knows people will fill in the blanks. He proposes something nice or pleasant, a better healthcare system or a cleaner world, and leaves the details on achieving such a thing to his hopeful audience who either blithely ignore the need for details, or make a much less popular argument for the tiny minority who bother to listen.
The supreme irony about language and rhetoric is that the less conscious we are about it, the more we foolishly believe and trust in it. Despite what people may believe about their common sense and need for evidence, most of them will still trust words over actions, words over people, and words over themselves. As cliché as it sounds, words can create reality if we’re not careful. For example, words can effectively turn a human being into a “clump of cells,” murder into “a woman’s right,” and psychological enslavement into “liberation.”
Obviously, the political and social sphere teems with such double-talk and propaganda, but this alsohappens at work and even with the Church. I’ve seen people time and again use words create pure illusions that completely contradict reality. They talk themselves into thinking their plan worked, that people are happy, and that they have nothing to change about themselves. Clever Christians with a gift for words can turn “neglect” into “mercy,” “sacrilege” into “authentic worship,” and “piety” into “intolerance.” This way, people can avoid solving difficulties; they only have redefine it and stow it away into confused jumble that everyone will forget soon enough, including themselves.
If I have learned anything teaching English, I have learned what words can do and what they cannot do. Words can express reality, and even influence one’s perception of reality, but they cannot create or replace reality. Only one person’s word creates reality: that is God’s Word. Men can only repeat what God has already said in some way with His creation, or with His revelation. When they seek to create realities of their own out of the hot air of their breath and vocal cords, they can only perpetuate lies. With their lies, they produce heresies, dictatorships, and never ending train of suffering and death.
It used to bother me that Jesus never wrote anything. When He tells John’s disciples what He does, I remember saying to myself, “Why doesn’t Hejust tell them He’s Jesus and be done with it? Why can’t He just write His story, eliminate any doubts about who He is, and spare us the hassle?”
But then I thought a little more about this idea. Would Jesus telling everyone, “I am God’s Son!” really prove anything? Would the Gospel of Jesus really remove doubts? If anything, Jesus having to rely on words, or on His own testimony seems suggests a lack of truth. Mohammed wrote the Koran and proclaimed himself a prophet. People believed him because he said so… and would kill or subjugate those who doubted him.
And even if I believed Jesus, like other people who believe their gurus or their prophets, would I even know what I’m believing? Just like quotes require explanation, claims of divinity require the same. Concepts like “Son of God,” “Messiah,” “Christ,” or “Son of Man” all require a fair amount of context and a great mass of witnesses explaining what they all mean, hence we have the Bible.
Fortunately, Jesus gives us something to work with in His miracles, which act as words He performs rather than words He publishes. His miracles show Him to be the savior Isaiah speaks of in his prophecy (they prove the point). More importantly, His miracles show what that means and what His followers should imitate (they illustrate the point).
Jesus trusts John’s disciples to understand all this, and He trusts us to do the same. Once we dispense with our words, and listen to His words, God’s Word, we will understand, and, finally, we can then respond in kind.