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The Power of Words — A Witness

The estimable Michael Dirda, writer and editor for The Washington Post Book World, affirms the power of language in his review of The Book of Common Prayer: The Elizabethan Prayer Book, edited by John E. Booty.

Against the modern depreciation of language, Dirda comments on his experience hearing the Christmas story read from the Gospel of Luke: As a boy, I would hear these words spoken aloud toward the end of December, year after year, and they never failed to deliver a shivery thrill of pleasure. I used to wonder why. The sentences were utterly plain, both in diction and syntax. Neither did they possess any narrative excitement, since I knew the story already, indeed knew it far better than any other in all the world. But the language — like that of so many other passages from the Bible — enchanted me with what I now think of as its deeply felt seriousness.

He explains: The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Even among our stylists, we prefer breeziness and irony, sometimes laced with snarky wit and street vulgarity. This “in your face” writing somehow feels personal and honest, more sincere or authentic than an elevated and poetical diction. No one wants epithets like “pontifical,” “sermonizing” or “artificial” attached to his writing. Nonetheless, there are times when only the full organ roll of liturgical prose can match the glory or sacredness of the occasion.

To his credit, Dirda recognizes the deep Christian roots of this tradition — and the influence of Christianity upon the very development of the language itself: In English there are five main sources for this kind of religious eloquence: The King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the hymns of writers like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and others, and the classical traditions of oratory and homily. What links them all is a Shaker plainness and cleanness of diction, just barely covering profound spiritual conviction and emotion. This is, in short, the speech of men and women doing the Lord’s work, honoring him and praising him with due reverence, ceremony and fervor.

He acknowledges the influence of figures such as George Whitefield (“so magnificent a speaker that the atheist philosopher David Hume declared that he would travel 20 miles on foot to hear him”) and the power of preaching: In our era of so much bland speech-making, we sometimes forget about this sheer power of oratory. Great preachers even now preserve its tradition, one in which human elocution alone, backed by passionate conviction and a desire to save souls, can bring people to tears, to their knees or to their feet.

Michael Dirda is one of my favorite literary critics. His newest book, Bound to Please, is a wonderful collection of reviews and essays. It currently claims a deservedly prominent place behind my writing desk, where I can sneak a few pages of reading when I should be writing.

Those of us who take words seriously will welcome Dirda’s comments. We need to be regularly reminded of the stewardship of words that is the Christian’s duty. As Paul reminded Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” [2 Timothy 1:13, English Standard Version].