What Words Cannot Express

The Christian Century, one of the few worth-reading Christian magazines of our time, has proposed an interesting exercise in theology.  They have given some authors the challenge to express the gospel into seven words or fewer.  “It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few words.  What is the essence of the essence of Christianity?” (Christian Century, September 5, 2012, p. 20.  To read all the efforts to put the gospel into seven words or fewer, go to http://www.christiancentury.org/7words).

An interesting exercise, indeed.  It is quite illuminating, for instance, to read how Carol Zaleski defines the gospel as “He led captivity captive,” M. Craig Barnes as “We live by grace,” and Ellen T. Charry as “The wall of hostility has come down,” just to mention the first three theologians that offer their distillation of distillations in the magazine article.

There is something disconcerting in the reading of the answers, though, beginning with the natural instinct of the reader to say: “Yes, that’s true, but the gospel is also…”  Of course, after reviewing the 15 “essences” of the gospel that are portrayed in pages 20-25 of the magazine –and the many others in the web page–, one gets a “broader” picture.  Then, the question comes to mind about the purpose of the compilation of these 7-worded manifestos of “the essence of the essence,” as the editors call these declarations.  What is the function of reducing the gospel to seven words if in order to understand it fully you need a compilation of declarations?

I have to agree that in the age of Tweeter, the Christian Century’s challenge is a commendable one.  Commendable, yet futile.

If the gospel is about words, it is about just one word, one strong four-lettered word: LOVE.

Anything of the gospel that is worth mentioning can be related in one way or another to love.  But gospel-love itself cannot be reduced to a word.  The theological issue of the centuries has been how to subsume Christian love into words.

Whatever we have learned of the gospel, it is that the gospel is not about words.  “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:20 NAS) .

The gospel is not about words, but about the incarnate Word.

The “essence” of the Word is about incarnation.  The gospel is about the imitation of that incarnation.  The gospel is not about what we say, it is about what we do.  There are no words that can replace incarnation.  It’s like a kiss: If you have to explain it, it loses its meaning.

The Jesus Christ event was not important for what Jesus said, but for what Jesus did.  “Though he was rich,” writes Paul, “…for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9 NRSV).  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he said of himself (Mat 20:28 NRSV).

Jesus was a great teacher, indeed, and a captivating speaker.  His most important teachings, however, were not conveyed in words, but in action.  In the evening of the Last Supper, he taught a last enduring lesson to his maverick disciples by wrapping a towel around his waist.  None of the great apostles he had gathered had been ready to be the feet washer of the others that evening; then Jesus taught them the unforgettable lesson of the humility and service that is required to be worthy of the gospel by washing one-by-one their dirty feet.

Jesus did not need words.  He taught in deed something completely unexplainable: The essence of the gospel is being the loving servant of the others (Eureka: it’s seven words!).

Perhaps the time has come for us theologians to learn how to express our theology without words.  Traduttore, traditore.  When we “translate” the non-verbal essence of the gospel into words we betray the most sacred essence of the gospel, we betray love.  Perhaps it is time for us to learn that theology is not something that we declare, but something that we do.

The gospel is a work of love.  Entering the kingdom of love is entering the kingdom of something that words cannot express.  Not even our most distilled theology.

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