God Is the Words: Draft 3

See explainer of this project here.

My 12 year-old daughter tells me she has figured things out. All the things. Life itself. This is typical for Bel — inspired by hokey Instagram memes, she likes to try spelling out the meaning of existence in a sentence or two.

This time, it’s: “Life is like a story, and you believe you’re one of the characters. But you don’t really start living until you figure out that you’re the author.”

“That’s pretty good,” I say. I usually ask followups. “So what about God? Is God the publisher?”

She pauses, but just for a breath. “No. God is the words.”

Her Instagram meme drafts are usually jokey, intentionally dim-witted. This one strikes me as profound. “Where did you get that?” I ask.

“I just thought of it.”

“That is kind of profound,” I say.

“It is?” she says.

When I was a 20-year-old English major, I took a critical theory course that undermined everything I believed in by showing me that everything I believed in was words. I assumed words described real things–“chair” described chairs and “sun” described the sun and “Jesus” described a real first-century Jew who died for my “sins,” which described not just wrong actions but a certain kind of wrong actions that evidenced the state of my condemned-then-saved soul. I believed in “God’s Word,” the Bible, which was filled with words that were precise, cohesive, fixed, dependable. I believed this in spite of the daily experience of reading the words of Jesus, which quite frequently left me perplexed.

My critical theory course was the first clue that I was not crazy, that there might be a problem in the language itself. Chairs do not express chair-ness; the sun does not express sun-ness. Gaps exist between thing and name. Ferdinand de Sassure and Derrida diagnosed the gaps and theorized about what existed inside of them.

My classmates and certainly my professor seemed to enjoy this breakdown of language. For me, it was terrifying. If words were not certain things, how could God’s Word and all the words therein be certain? How could I grant them my belief? I could not. This news was not welcome. God was the words, the words he had written in his Word. Sure, I had been confused, but the confusion had belonged to me; I was the problem. I assumed that someday I’d understand the words again, my questions would die down. If the problem was with the words themselves, if words were not fixed things but made by humans who did not even understand the making, my questions were never going to go away.

I had a way of praying that was wordy and wordless. It’s known as “speaking in tongues.” If that phrase is familiar to you, you’re likely thinking of the vocal praying that sounds like gibberish: Shouldaboughtahonda is what Christians say when they’re lightly mocking speaking in tongues. It’s the prayer language of the angels, indecipherable to human ears.

But here’s just one of many ways is which the words of God’s Word are not fixed things. In the Bible, “speaking in tongues” is a phrase describing the miraculous ability to pray in real human languages that the pray-er has never learned. The person to whom speaking in tongues is indecipherable is the one praying.

I knew what the Bible said about speaking in tongues, but my church and Christian community said something different, than the gibberish sounds were what speaking in tongues really sounded like, and I went with that. I prayed in tongues, the language of angels. God was especially in these words. When the words of God’s Word confused me, when the words about God we all used confused me, sometimes I would try to speak in God’s unintelligible language, words that were not words at all. God was in the sound of these words.

One day I decided it was sin to force the sounds. I told God I would never again pray in tongues unless he made the words pour forth. To date, he has not done so.

Some years later, while in graduate school, I took a seminar on [] with the poet Geoffrey Hill. I knew little of Hopkins and less of Hill, but both got my attention on the first day of class. Hill shuffled in, assembled some papers behind a lectern, opened a (yes) well-worn leather-bound Hopkins collection, then looked into some middle distance and recited from memory “The Wreck of the Deustchland.” This look 15 minutes. Once done, he paused, paced back and forth a bit, and recited it again.

At least, that is my memory. Maybe he referred to the page a time or three. It doesn’t matter–he had the words, all the words. He spent that semester teaching us about language by teaching us about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Language, he once lectured, is broken; all things are fallen from their perfect created state–this is what Christianity teaches. This is the tradition’s explanation for the way things are. Things are broken, and we are meant to repair them. Poetry is the reparation of language. Poetry is an act of mercy. Poetics–the tk of tk–is the work of the gospel.

Words are tools made of soil and branch and water and air–they are made of elements, fashioned into raw material, shaped into ideas. Words can destroy. Words can give life. Words can die, and words can rise again.


The novelist Paul Auster once wrote a book about a boy who was raised without language. His father used the boy as the subject of an experiment: How would we make meaning without words? Would we still have an identity? Would we be human?

These are all the right questions. The boy TK.

(Had I read God’s Word differently at the time, this news may have been less surprising: Man gave name to all the animals, and the names were given things, created by a guy who barely knew what he was doing.)

I’ve been working with a couple colleagues on a writing project about a “rota,” a medieval device used for prayer, learning, and reflection. The device several sections of Scripture — one from Isaiah + the Our Father + the Beatitudes + key moments from the story of Christ. It divides these sections into individual parts and lines them up next to each other, so “Forgive Our Debts” is lined up with “Resurrection” and “Knowledge” and “Mourn.” These deep wells are reduced to the fewest number of words possible. No other instruction is given — just the words, arranged just so.

Two things about this.

The words are so pregnant. {more}

The Church Fathers saw these words as sacred things, but also as prompts to action and interaction. They did not kneel before them so much as hold them while kneeling and thinking and wondering and working on ideas. The words were ingredients of a meal of meaning, and they could be used this way and that way, experimented with. God was the words, and he had presented himself in them and said, “Here I am. Take me.”

God Is the Words: Draft 2

See explainer of this project here.

My 12 year-old daughter tells me she has figured things out. All the things. Life itself. This is typical for Bel — inspired by hokey Instagram memes, she likes to try spelling out the meaning of existence in a sentence or two.

This time, it’s: “Life is like a story, and you believe you’re one of the characters. But you don’t really start living until you figure out that you’re the author.”

“That’s pretty good,” I say. I usually ask followups. “So what about God? Is God the publisher?”

She pauses, but just for a breath. “No. God is the words.”

Her Instagram meme drafts are usually jokey, intentionally dim-witted. This one strikes me as profound. “Where did you get that?” I ask.

“I just thought of it.”

“That’s kind of profound,” I say.

“I know,” she says.

Bel has named my belief, my confusion, and my hope.

As a 20-year-old English major, I took a critical theory course that undermined everything I believed in, because everything I believed in was words. I believed words described real things–“chair” described chairs and “sun” described the sun and “Jesus” described a real first-century Jew who died for my “sins,” which described not just wrong actions but a certain kind of wrong actions that evidenced the state of my condemned-then-saved soul. I believed in “God’s Word,” the Bible, which was filled with words that were precise, cohesive, fixed, dependable. I believed this in spite of the daily experience of reading those words.

My critical theory course was the first clue that I was not crazy, that there might be a problem in the language itself. Chairs do not express chair-ness; the sun does not express sun-ness. Gaps exist between thing and name. Ferdinand de Sassure and Derrida diagnosed the gaps and theorized about what existed inside of them.

My classmates and certainly my professor seemed to enjoy this breakdown of language. For me, it was terrifying. If words were not certain things, how could God’s Word and all the words therein be certain? How could I grant them my belief? I could not. This news was not welcome. God was the words, the words he had written in his Word. Sure, I had been confused, but the confusion had belonged to me; I was the problem. I assumed that someday I’d understand the words again, my questions would die down,


Some years later, while in graduate school, I took a seminar on [] with the poet Geoffrey Hill. I knew little of Hopkins and less of Hill, but both got my attention on the first day of class. Hill shuffled in, assembled some papers behind a lectern, opened a (yes) well-worn leather-bound Hopkins collection, then looked into some middle distance and recited from memory “The Wreck of the Deustchland.” This look 15 minutes. Once done, he paused, paced back and forth a bit, and recited it again.

At least, that is my memory. Maybe he referred to the page a time or three. It doesn’t matter–he had the words, all the words. He spent that semester teaching us about language by teaching us about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Language, he once lectured, is broken; all things are fallen from their perfect created state–this is what Christianity teaches. This is the tradition’s explanation for the way things are. Things are broken, and we are meant to repair them. Poetry is the reparation of language. Poetry is an act of mercy. Poetics–the tk of tk–is the work of the gospel.

Words are tools made of soil and branch and water and air–they are made of elements, fashioned into raw material, shaped into ideas. Words can destroy. Words can give life. Words can die, and words can rise again.


The novelist Paul Auster once wrote a book about a boy who was raised without language. His father used the boy as the subject of an experiment: How would we make meaning without words? Would we still have an identity? Would we be human?

These are all the right questions. The boy TK.

(Had I read God’s Word differently at the time, this news may have been less surprising: Man gave name to all the animals, and the names were given things, created by a guy who barely knew what he was doing.)

I’ve been working with a couple colleagues on a writing project about a “rota,” a medieval device used for prayer, learning, and reflection. The device several sections of Scripture — one from Isaiah + the Our Father + the Beatitudes + key moments from the story of Christ. It divides these sections into individual parts and lines them up next to each other, so “Forgive Our Debts” is lined up with “Resurrection” and “Knowledge” and “Mourn.” These deep wells are reduced to the fewest number of words possible. No other instruction is given — just the words, arranged just so.

Two things about this.

The words are so pregnant. {more}

The Church Fathers saw these words as sacred things, but also as prompts to action and interaction. They did not kneel before them so much as hold them while kneeling and thinking and wondering and working on ideas. The words were ingredients of a meal of meaning, and they could be used this way and that way, experimented with. God was the words, and he had presented himself in them and said, “Here I am. Take me.”

God is the Words: Draft in Progress

During Lent this year, I am writing for 30 minutes each day. I’d love to have something complete to publish after 30 minutes–that is the goal. But if it does not happen–and given my approach to writing, I am not sure it will happen even once–I am going to publish drafts in progress. All of it will appear here, though I may publish complete pieces at Medium or pitch to other publications. 

My 12 year-old daughter tells me she has figured things out. “Life is like a story,” she says, “and you believe you’re one of the characters. But you don’t really start living until you figure out that you’re the author.”

She likes to try out these Instagram-y sayings. I like to ask followups.

“That’s pretty good,” I say. “So what about God? Is God the publisher?”

She pauses, but just for a breath. “No. God is the words.”


Bel has named my belief, my confusion, and my hope.

As a 20-year-old English major, I took a critical theory course that undermined everything I believed in, because everything I believed in was words. I believed words described real things–“chair” described chairs and “sun” described the sun and “Jesus” described a real first-century Jew who died for my “sins,” which described not just wrong actions but a certain kind of wrong actions that evidenced the state of my condemned-then-saved soul. I believed in “God’s Word,” the Bible, which was filled with words that were precise, cohesive, fixed, dependable. I believed this in spite of the daily experience of reading those words.

My critical theory course was the first clue that I was not crazy, that there might be a problem in the language itself. Chairs do not express chair-ness; the sun does not express sun-ness. Gaps exist between thing and name. Ferdinand de Sassure and Derrida .

But I did not receive this news with gladness–it was terrifying. If words were not certain things, how could God’s Word and all the words therein be certain? How could I grant them my belief?


Some years later, while in graduate school, I took a seminar on [] with the poet Geoffrey Hill. I knew little of Hopkins and less of Hill, but both got my attention on the first day of class. Hill shuffled in, assembled some papers behind a lectern, opened a (yes) well-worn leather-bound Hopkins collection, then looked into some middle distance and recited from memory “The Wreck of the Deustchland.” This look 15 minutes. Once done, he paused, paced back and forth a bit, and recited it again.

At least, that is my memory. Maybe he referred to the page a time or three. It doesn’t matter–he had the words, all the words. He spent that semester teaching us about language by teaching us about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Language, he once lectured, is broken; all things are fallen from their perfect created state–this is what Christianity teaches. This is the tradition’s explanation for the way things are. Things are broken, and we are meant to repair them. Poetry is the reparation of language. Poetry is an act of mercy. Poetics–the tk of tk–is the work of the gospel.

Words are tools made of soil and branch and water and air–they are made of elements, fashioned into raw material, shaped into ideas. Words can destroy. Words can give life. Words can die, and words can rise again.

(Had I read God’s Word differently at the time, this news may have been less surprising: Man gave name to all the animals, and the names were given things, created by a guy who barely knew what he was doing.)

another smilingI am an editor and writer. I’ve published essays, profiles, news reports, Q&As, and books and movie reviews — plus occasional blog posts and listicles. My work has appeared in a range of publications including the Wall Street JournalWashington Post, CNN.com, NewsweekFinancial Times, SlateChristianity TodayKilling the BuddhaBooks and Culture, Patheos, and The Shambhala Sun. Not all of my pieces are listed on this site, but some of my favorites are listed under “Some Things I’ve Written.”

Most of my writing is about religion and something. I have a Ph.D. from Boston University in religion and literature, and my main interests have been with the intersection of religion and the movies, or sports, or politics, or novels. For my dissertation, I studied the relationship between Hollywood and contemporary Christianity by looking for Christian villains in film. (There were a lot of them).

I’ve published a memoir, My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion. I also wrote an ebook, The Tebow Mystique. I tweet, but mostly I read.

If you would like to get in touch, please see the Contact tab to the left.