I just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary book Landmarks. He tells us what he is up to in the first sentence: “This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.” He goes on to explore the works of Anna Shepherd, John Alec Baker, and John Muir, among others, whose writing is “so fierce in its focus that it can change the vision of its readers for good, in both senses.” I know that I say about many books that they are good or even very good. However, I don’t usually say they are great. Macfarlane’s book is great.
He gives us a little background on why he undertook this project. He says that while he was working on one of his glossaries for the peaty landscapes of Scotland a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. He writes, “A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of entries no longer felt to be relevant to modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, canker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”
When asked about the changes, the head of children’s dictionaries at OUP said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance … that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays the environment has changed.”
Macfarlane comments, “there is a realism to her response – but also an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the rural environment might be so unproblematically disposable.”
It’s not just a problem for children. Many of us are losing the experience of the natural environment and the precise language used to describe it. Our desecration of nature is linked to our loss of exact and exacting language for our environment. Macfarlane’s Landmarksis a first step towards his desire for a “Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.”
I couldn’t help but reflect that in the church today we are also in danger of losing precise language for our Christian religious experience. The dumbing down of theological education and the strategy of much of our church leadership to speak in vague generalities in order to supposedly reach the unchurched results in a rather thin and often banal message about “meaning,” “purpose,” and even “spirituality.” The failure of this approach shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not so much that people find this message objectionable as they find it boring.
The Christian tradition has developed a rich language for the experiences of creation, covenant, sin, grace, forgiveness, faith, hope, love, justification, sanctification, perseverance, glorification, and blessedness. I suppose this historic attention to the particularity of experience is part of the logic of incarnation. The universal God, the creator of heaven and earth, meets us in the particularities of the history of Israel and supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This God doesn’t meet us in generalized and ethereal messages, but in the flesh and blood of a human baby. The posture of the wise men is instructive: on their knees, close-at-hand, devoutly scrutinizing the infant Lord.
We need the precise and exacting language of the Christian faith to devoutly focus our attention on the God who meets us in creation, in Christ, and in the particularities of our own lives. To lose these landmarks is to lose our way.