Semiotic Grace: The Word Beneath our Words

March 11, 2013

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If you are someone who loses his temper, or says things you don’t mean, or says mean things that you do actually mean, or wish you had said something in response to someone and then rehearse at night all the little speeches you would like to deliver, if you are a person who talks to anyone about anything, then I hope this sermon will give you some help and some hope.

There is a New Yorker cartoon of a husband and wife in the middle of a heated argument, the husband stiff and arms crossed in a chair, the wife standing over him, elbows out. The caption reads, “Let’s stop this before we say a lot of things we mean!”

Saying things we mean is harder than we think. Think about all the times you’ve said what you don’t mean to say. Times when you’ve been misunderstood or wrongly interpreted. How many times in your own arguments do you say, “I didn’t mean that” or “you’re not hearing what I’m saying!”

And, as we get older we can no longer remember what it is we even want to say or the words to use to say them! As an aging friend said recently, life becomes a guessing game of charades. We couldn’t think of the word “sushi” the other day, so we resorted to “you know, raw fish with rice and really hot green stuff.” I’ve been having so called “senior moments” since I was about 18.

When you think for a minute about the frailty and susceptibility of language, then you wonder how anyone communicates with anyone at all. When you think of a word being a signifier of some object, like the word “tree” for what you think of as a “tree”, then you realize the journey the train of communication must go on, then it’s no wonder we have difficulty getting our meaning across.

You’ve got to think about what you mean by “tree” then speak it, then the person you’re talking to has to hear what you say, then reinterpret the meaning according to her understanding of “tree”. When you throw in modifiers like “cherry tree” or “old growth forest tree” then the further you muddle things up.

But tree is easy compared to conceptual words like “truth” or “humility” or “desire.” What I mean by truth, even if I know what I mean by truth, may have no connection whatsoever with what you mean by truth. So in so many cases, “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Then when you factor in all the subconscious psychological influences in any given conversation: the latent grudges, the just under the surface bigotries, the fact that something about her reminds you of your mother or your rascal stepson, not to mention the libidinal heat that smolders in every direction, then any mutually understood meaningful bridge between any two people becomes nothing short of a miracle. We need grace in our semiotics.

I’m trying to explain a simply version of deconstructionism. The deconstructionist believed that everyone is so steeped in his or her own experience, that no signifier (word) could be coupled with that which it is trying to signify (meaning with any kind of integrity or mutually understood order). There just are no still points of meaning in a turning world.

Faulkner named his first masterpiece The Sound and the Fury, from Macbeth’s speech that life is nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Later in life Faulkner called the book his “most splendid failure.” Recognizing the limits of language, (about which, ironically, I’m preaching) he believed that every book fails to truthfully communicate what the author intends. But The Sound and the Fury came the closest.

Purposefully, the central figure is Benjy, an idiot, who speaks without reference to time. As my friend James Wilson says, Benjy’s incessant moaning, howling, and screaming is the “Sound and fury” which becomes the background noise of the entire novel– This is the howling which Faulkner describes as the sound of “all mindless, tongueless human agony under the sun.”

Benjy’s example is obviously extreme, but it points to our shared condition as people, much of what we do and say is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Just look at congress. Or just look at your own family.

It takes its toll. When I speak in anger at my son or in judgment at Christie, even when I long to communicate love and grace, I widen the gulf between us. Marriages fall apart because men and women cannot talk about sex, or money or children. It’s terrible to go to bed with unresolved conflict; one never sleeps well.

This grim reality puts in profound relief the miracle of any kind of meaningful, and hopefully loving connection with anyone else, as well as our total need for help. We need someone, something else to give significance to our signifiers, to give meaning to our words, to give us still points in a turning world. After all, we just prayed in our collect last week that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Our story from the scripture this morning delivers this help. It is one of the best- known stories told by the divine storyteller and surely the story that tells us all we really need to know about God. The story is The Prodigal Son, of course. It might also be known as the Gracious Father, for in the end the story Jesus tells is about God’s grace. I want to focus on one part of this story: the son’s speech to his love struck father upon his return from derelict living. All the while keeping in mind the hobbled efficacy of talk, which is limp, at best. Maybe that’s where the maxim emerged: talk is cheap.

The prodigal son’s talk was cheap. The fact is that he had spent all his money of profligate living and found himself close to dying. Only then does it occur to him to go back to his Father. His apology/repentance is just his playing the only card he had left. And it’s pretty lame. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Granted, the content seems sound enough, but I would guess the tone was robotic. It may have sounded like siblings who are forced by parents to say “sorry” to one another after fighting. “So – rry.” The signifier is totally detached from any real meaning. And, perhaps more to the point, he wouldn’t have said anything at all if he still had two nickels to rub together.

And yet, here’s the astonishing thing, it just doesn’t matter that the son’s talk was nothing but sound and fury. It appears that the Father didn’t even hear it! He was out of breath from sprinting out to meet his bedraggled boy and caught up in the chorus of joy beating in his heart.

It’s doubtful that the boy returned with “true faith and hearty repentance” as we say the preface to our absolution. But it doesn’t matter, just as the fact that none of us ever really has perfectly true faith or perfectly hearty repentance. What matters is the Father’s forgiveness and absolution, which depends entirely on Him – His heart and His faith.

It’s God who gives meaning to our sound and our fury. It’s God who takes the fractured talk between people and makes the miracle of real connection. The tower of Babel, the first deconstructionist story, is not the end of the story.

There is also the story of the Word, who was in the beginning with God, who is God and who was made flesh, and who told a story to the hearts of all who long for Love to throw his arms around us and throw a party for us too, even when we can’t or don’t say what we mean. Or when we do say, unfortunately, exactly what we mean. I’ve got to believe that Jesus drives the train of our talk, and is the track laid down for its passage. The semiotic grace is this: there is a Word beneath our words.

Philip Yancey talks about a small town orchestra’s version of Beethoven’s 9th, an obviously sublime symphony. The orchestra’s attempt is, quite frankly, not very good. But, don’t blame Beethoven because the orchestra struggles. As Yancey points out, that ensemble’s version may be the only Beethoven some Coloradans will ever hear. And like our talk, our repentance, our attempts to communicate, it’s good enough. God’s grace permeates our failure to communicate. It’s that deep. In God’s gracious ears, He hears a masterpiece in our splendid failure.

Addie Bundren, the nihilistic mother in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, says, “But to them that sin is just words, salvation is just words also.” The Word Made Flesh, who told the story of God’s grace, tells us that salvation is more than words. Do you wonder where the Christ figure is in the story of the Prodigal Son? He is in the fatted calf that was sacrificed, so the family could come together, to drink and laugh and celebrate and talk with meaning and with love.

Amen.

(Note: “Semiotics” – a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics)

Bible References

  • Luke 15:18 - 18