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Missing Words
As we struggle to be relevant in our culture, Carol Shield’s book reminds us that if we speak the same language as our culture, we won’t influence it for God.

There are moments in life when you see a truth in a startling new context. For me, such moments are often experienced in the reading of a good novel. I find that good fiction trains me to be attentive to life. Its value is found not so much in the descriptions of external action— he went there, she did this – but in the hidden internal process brought to light through words – why he went there, and what she felt when she did this. Novels show us how life must be interpreted to be lived well.

The late Carol Shields was one of our best Canadian writers. Her novel, Larry's Party, particularly resonates with me in my work as a Canadian pastor. It's the story of an ordinary Canadian man ("Larry, Larry, ordinary") and his journey in search of life, Larry grows up in Winnipeg (the quintessential Canadian city?), lives through cultural fads and the changes of life, marries and divorces a few times, pursues his career, and at midlife wonders what it's all about. It's a rather sad tale, not tragic in the classic sense, but it's easy to see that Larry is perplexed. Maybe we could say that he is wistful – read the book and you can hear a giant sigh. As a pastor I want to pray with Larry. I want to take him to Starbucks, listen to his story and point him toward hope. And I can because, although Larry is fictional, he is everywhere. He is the "Larry nation" of ordinary middle-aged males—working, accumulating, trying and failing, playing, getting angry, growing old and waiting ... for what?

It was the chapter called "Larry's words" that lit my imagination. In her determination to pay close attention to everything that is Larry Shields examines something often overlooked – his words. Larry, of course, uses words to get along in his life: the everyday exchange of information, the contemporary buzz words, the regular peppering of vulgarities. But there is something profoundly missing. Larry has no words to access the larger picture of life and, because of that, he is cut off from great things. Then Shields says this:

There is in the English language a roll call of noble words. Nation. Honor. Achievement. Majesty. Integrity. Righteousness. Learning. Glory. Larry knows these words – who doesn't? – but almost never uses them. These are the words of those anointed beings who take the long view. Whereas he lives in the short view, his close-up, textured, parochial world, the little valley of intimacy he was born into, always thinking, always knowing he's thinking. Living next door to the great words, but not with them... *1)

Shields points out that our vocabulary often reveals the alternating poverty or richness of our lives – a truth so stunningly obvious, it is easy to miss. Larry's perplexity is revealed in his diminished language. His lostness is plainly seen in his everyday words.

This is not really a difficult concept. Our words reveal us. They not only tell who we are but what we want to be. Our words name our hopes. What cannot be said remains un-hoped for. Shields says:

It strikes Larry that language may not yet have evolved to the point where it represents the world fully. Recognizing this gap brings him a rush of anxiety. Perhaps we're waiting, all of us, he thinks, longing to hear "something" but not knowing what it is. *2)

Shields gave us a great gift in her acute attention to the average, middle-aged Canadian male because, as I read this, I suddenly know how I can help Larry. I can radically supplement Shields' list of noble words. I suggest the word "resurrection." Sitting with Larry in the comfy chairs at Starbucks, I would somehow work it into the conversation. Just like in the '60s when someone wanted to give the world a coke, I would like to give Larry. and the Larry nation he represents. the word that changes everything: resurrection. Will his imagination be piqued? Will this new word draw him toward its promise? I know that his life is at stake in the offer. Resurrection is the centre of the church's witness (see Acts 2), and it is the word for ordinary Larrys from Winnipeg who cannot figure out what their lives mean.

Carol Shields' novel reveals a gaping hole in the experience of ordinary Canadians. And as the church struggles to be relevant to our culture, it is a reminder that the way forward will not be found in the diminished vocabulary of the culture. We cannot expect that speaking the same language as the culture will make any difference. Instead, our calling is to communicate the truth of the Gospel through its distinctive words. We would do well to begin with "resurrection." As Larry reminds us, life remains perplexing until we embrace this most startling and 'transforming of all truths: in Jesus life itself has been revealed, the life that has overcome death, the life that has already entered the glory of God's eternal kingdom. Resurrection is the word for it.

I see it as our mission to keep the vocabulary of the greatest words alive. Try it this week: use the word "resurrection" in a conversation. Don't wait for Easter.

Endnotes

1) Larry's Party. Carol Shields. Toronto: Random House, 1997.
2) Ibid.

Robert (Bob) Osborne lives in Calgary, Alberta, with his wife Susan. He is a pastor and teacher, and a lover of good books.

Originally published in testimony, February/March 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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