The Shaping Power of Language

The new semester is well underway, and rather than just give you a list of the classes I’m taking, and the books I’m supposed to be reading this semester, I want to reflect a bit on a powerful undercurrent that is already building into a possible riptide for this semester.

My courses are trying to change me.

Specifically, the courses I am in and the readings assigned in these courses are trying to transform the way I speak. Let me explain:

On Monday afternoons, I am taking a class on the Prophets. The stated goal of this course is to “Increase our prophetic voices for ministry.” We are reading portions of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, which, more than giving information about the Old Testament prophets, is a complete experience and real engagement with the heart of the prophets. I can already begin to feel my blood boil in prophetic anger when I read their furious, fierce indictments; I can almost feel their emotional weight on my shoulders when I read their sweeping laments. My mouth is being fitted with the tongue of a prophet.

On Tuesday mornings, I am in “Seminar on Contemporary Theologians.” This whole course is devoted to reading and reflecting on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. Aside from his fulsome look at what God’s relating to us — as “Creator, Drawer-to-Consummation, and Reconciler” — means for “what we are, who we are, and how we are to be,” reading Kelsey is already making me be as precise as possible in how I speak (as evidenced by this impossible-to-read sentence). I am becoming more and more precise, not only in how I speak about God, but more importantly, in how I speak about myself and other people. This precision could easily be misinterpreted as a desire to sound smarter, but I think it’s more about care. What we say and how we say it are incredibly importantly, especially as people of the Word (incarnate first, written second); we should care.

On Wednesday and Friday mornings I have “Practices of Discipleship.” The readings for this class are going to stretch and grow and fill out my current understanding (assumptions?) about the importance and impact of our shared Christian practices. I am most excited to read James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. The seminary is literally abuzz with this book: it is currently assigned in no fewer than 3 different classes; the only other book to enjoy that degree of circulation in Western’s community, that I am aware of, is Calvin’s Institutes. It’s a big deal.

And Thursdays are full days: “Christian Ethics” in the morning, and in the afternoon, “The Reformed Church in America’s Standards of Unity.” These are my only required senior-level classes this semester, and I kind of see why. The format and the content both assume that we know what we’re doing. Ethics is really advanced material, with a lot of philosophical underpinnings that I’m not sure I get; however, I do really value that Western requires us to have some moral framework before we enter ministry. My hope is that we can have some very dynamic conversations over case studies soon: discerning the right action through a difficult subject is always easier with others. And Standards is really just a fancy way of saying Confessions. This is a half-semester course on the Reformed Church in America’s confessions of faith: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Confession of Belhar. I will certainly know these confessions theologically, but more importantly, the course is inviting me to see myself as a confessional Christian, meaning I read Holy Scripture with the whole Church, across time and throughout the world.

So, to recap/culminate: I can almost feel myself being conformed to the patterns of all these authors’ best insights and instruction, into a prophetic, precise, practical, ethical, confessional voice. And I am so excited about it! I am excited because I think this is a voice that just might sound more like Jesus’. And that’s the goal: to become like Jesus. Well done, Western.