The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Word
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The Word

Language in many forms

At the very beginning of the Book of John – one of the four records of the life of Jesus Christ, and the last of the four to be written – these words are found:

In the beginning was the word…

The word. Language. Representative tools of communication. That thing we use to understand, share, and express all the things of life. From the seen to the unseen, language holds an important place in our ability to relate. Without communication, relationships stumble. Without language – any kind of language – communication is impossible.

There are many kinds of languages. We recognize body language as a physical way of communicating. There are signed languages and spoken languages. Music is considered a language, too. Some people groups communicate complex messages through the rhythms of the drum. In others, oral histories are passed down through song. This is to say little of codes like Morse or Braille, that bring to life a particular language through a different method (sounds or sculpture in these cases).

For a few weeks now I’ve been involved in a gathering exploring foreign languages. Namely those that are related to the Bible. This hasn’t been a “learn Biblical Hebrew” class, as much as it has been an exploration of Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. I have added my own desire to work with modern day Arabic to the mix as my parents are from Beirut, Lebanon. As we have explored, we have encountered differences between the written and spoken versions of the languages. We have seen how ideas get taught differently in cultures where the written word is primary and most people are literate, and cultures in which the spoken word is primary. This particular difference has piqued my interest – particularly as it relates to tap dance and oral traditions in general, where little if anything is written down.

When The Word is Written

When I was in high school, my teachers taught us using an educational theory based on an idea by Albert Einstein. The theory goes something like, “It is not important to remember everything. It is only important to remember where you can find what you need.” We didn’t have to remember any formulas for math, physics, or chemistry, for example. It was assumed that we could find the formulas we needed when we needed them. At test time, they just put the needed formulas on the first page of the test. What we were being tested on is knowing what formula we needed for what problem. It was a matter of application rather than memorization. Of course, this idea of teaching would fail quickly if formulas could not be written down.

At one time, writing down words was a costly and arduous task. Whether in stone, on papyrus, or even early book publishing, the cost of resources and the skill necessary to execute the task of scribing or printing was restrictive. With restriction comes curation. People had to decide what words would be printed and what words would not. The printed words had to be important, preferred, or valuable. On the other side of the equation, few had access to the mechanism of printing. The words that made it into print were seen as important or valuable because everyone understood the restrictive nature of the process.

Today we live in world that has many more written words than anyone could consume in one lifetime. Instead of restrictive, the process of printing words – either virtually or physically – is expansive. Many have access and many engage in the writing and publishing process. However, I think the perception of the written word remains similar to times in which printing was more restrictive. Many still hold the written word in high regard.

Consider the example of someone in conversation stating a proposed fact. I can easily imagine their conversation partner asking for their source, expecting a publication as the answer, rather than a person. The New York Times, a popular Substack, an encyclopedia (even the online version), still carry weight. Seeing people in the same way as printed sources feels awkward. However, that is exactly what happens in cultures where words aren’t written down.

When Words aren’t Written Down

I used to spend hours at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. Before the days of online shopping this haven of music and movies was the place to shop. New releases became available at midnight Wednesday morning, you could preview music at listening stations, and their staff knew the music. This last aspect was key for me. On many an occasion I would venture to the basement level where the jazz collection was kept. I’d find a staff member and ask them about a song. All I needed to do was hum the melody. Without a name of the song, the composer, or artist’s name, the staff member would begin searching. They would hum the rest of the song for me to make sure we were on the same page. They would name the tune and we’d both go to work finding the recordings – ultimately selecting an album by an artist I already knew, or by their recommendation. These staff members were priceless to me as I explored the world of jazz. They were walking libraries of the history of the music. They were human versions of Shazam, and so much more!

In cultures in which the spoken word is held in higher regard than the written word a few things are different. Those who remember (the historians, storytellers, or elders, for example) are held in highest regard. It isn’t the author but the orator that is given attention. It isn’t the scribe but the re-teller of stories that is trained and required for continuity of life. The idea of communal activity becomes a high value. Activities done together as religious ritual, seasonal activity, even celebration, are known for what they are – ways for the community to support who they are together, as they live through every aspect of life. These communal activities take the place of individual study, reading, and research – in fact they are the way study, learning, and research happen.

The way people communicate is also different. Speakers relay ideas and important information through words that are already connected to the lives of the people they are speaking to. Through analogy, parable, metaphor, even fable, formative lessons, oral histories, and worldviews are transferred from one generation to another. Instead of only stating facts that have to be memorized, important truths are conveyed through narratives that are immediately connected to the lives of the community.

The way people listen is also different. They listen from a place of immediacy. Without the ability to go back to the book, so to speak, there is a fleeting nature to words being heard. Everyone knows that the words being spoken will never be heard in precisely the same way ever again. Hearing the same stories repeatedly is not a problem, rather expected, even needed. If the orator is a traveler, and the words compelling, it is common to have a desire to follow the orator, for the sake of hearing the words again. It also isn’t expected that the words be precisely the same. The words are carriers of something much deeper – something almost inexpressible through words alone. The way of listening in turn, becomes attuned to searching for this core. Instead of hanging on the specificity of the words, the listener is trying to answer the question, “What are the words trying to say?”

When Words are Embodied

The most powerful form of the word is the embodied word. Why? Because when words are embodied, the distance between the idea the words represent and the action they are meant to instigate is the shortest.

Words are carriers of ideas, regardless of how they are organized – written, spoken, or embodied. Words can be strung together as a story, fiction or non-fiction, a description, list, metaphor, poem or any other kind of structure. The culture of the written word provides some distance between the word and the reader. The reader is in charge of their relationship to the written word. If the reader opens themselves up to a book, the words within that book are more affecting. If they don’t, the words are rendered less powerful, tasked with opening the heart of the reader before any affection might take place. Regardless, the reader need not respond to the words in real life. They can close the book and never return to the ideas. Reading can simply be an acquiring of information – no application necessary.

When words are spoken, the words are relational. The listener is responding to the context and speaker as much as the words themselves. They have an event connected to another human that frames the words being shared. When considering the words, there is consideration of the person as well. The personality (as much as the skill) of the speaker has an effect on the power of the words. There is, in a very real sense, a physical affect experienced in the act of hearing. The physical affect requires a response. Do you stay to listen? Do you leave? Does an emotion arise? The distance between the words we hear and an action is closer here than when we are reading.

When words are embodied, it is the action that is being responded to. Words come later, and only if needed. The words used to represent an idea are now visible in the actions taken on account of living out an idea. For example, the idea of humility, written about extensively over the years, is witnessed in the actions, even the life, of a humble person – perhaps acting with little regard for their public position. Similarly, the idea of generosity is found represented in the action of someone freely giving – even the thing they themselves want – to someone else in need. The relationship between word and action becomes one between action and action. So close is the distance that we may find need to pause and use words to reflect on time spent in this mode of interaction.

The witness of the action is powerful. Witness generosity, for example, and the idea of generosity is enlivened in a way that written or spoken words cannot do in the same way. The idea has cut through all the other ideas of how the world might be with a single action. The reality of its possibility is incontestable. Any idea we might hold of people being self-centered and protective for example, now has to contend with the witnessed reality of generosity in action. Such encounters require much more work to discount or brush aside, than a proposition of generosity delivered through written or spoken words.

The Thing

Here’s the thing. We all embody the ideas we actually hold. Our actions, and the organized actions of the world around us, are the embodiment of particular ideas. For example, we have locks on our doors because we do not trust our neighbors to respect the boundaries of our homes. We plop down on our couch because we trust the couch can hold the weight of our bodies. If we desire change, one of the ways we can start is to articulate the ideas behind our own actions. It may take some time to do this as they may be buried under years and years of life. Assumptions that this is just the way things are done carry weight. However, by inquiring about what words we have already embodied, we might begin to reinvest in those which we believe to be good, and interrupt those which we deem destructive to ourselves and others.

While each state of the word is good – written, spoken, or embodied – knowing how each works and applying each well, can do wonders for our own journey. Honoring the power of the embodied word, using the immediacy of the spoken word, and leveraging the consistency of the written word can be a powerful way to work with the ideas we live by.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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