Words on a Page

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One of the perennial frustrations in contemporary political discourse is caused by the linguistic dishonesty of the human heart. For example, the Constitution says certain very specific things about what can and cannot be done, and our current crop of solons blithely disregard such “words on a page” in order to do whatever it is they want to do. They talk about the Constitution as though it still had some meaning, but they still do whatever they want to do. To use the illustration of one political writer, the Constitution is the Queen Mum of American politics. She gets trundled out on the balcony to wave at the adoring crowds from time to time, but nobody ever does what she says.

But this is not said as a right-wing jeremiad. I am not launching an attack on dishonest constitutional interpretations. My point is that the Church always leads in any society in which she is present, and in many cases, the corruption of a society is the result of following the corruption of the Church. In short, dishonest interpretation of a document is something that the Church has taught our nation. The Church today is our central problem.

I have seen many more examples of this kind of linguistic dishonesty from Christians than I have from non-Christians. This is routinely done with scriptural interpretation, interpretation of confessional documents, letters, sermons, and so on. This happens because the believing Christian is stuck with the results of his exegesis. He knows that he has to act in line with what was said; there has to be a conformity between the words and his life. But if such conformity would be inconvenient, then the twisting of the words soon begins.

Non-Christians are frequently not stuck with the results of their exegesis. They can say St. Paul said thus and such about the ordination of women, and wasn’t St. Paul an idiot? Unbelieving exegetes sometimes have a better understanding of what was said, because they feel no pressure to bring their life in line with what was said. But a believing Christian is often another story! He has to bring the two together, and some Christians soon discover it is easier to change their interpretation of a document than to change their hearts or minds. In other words, the words often give way before the stubborn heart does. I once spoke with a man who had written the words, “This is only a proposal” in a document. In talking with him later, he denied that it was “only a proposal.” Why? Because it is easier to brazen out the linguistic problem than it is to change one’s heart.

And the central point is that until the Word is fully in the heart and mind, it is all just words on a page. And we can’t complain when the pagans imitate us. There were women in pulpits long before they were in the cockpits of fighter jets — and the Bible prohibits both.

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