Friday, November 24, 2006

AT: The Power of Words

Imagine living without words. How would you form a thought? How would you communicate a desire? How would you commune with a God who is himself the Word? I can’t begin to fathom it, and maybe you can’t either. But let’s consider someone who knew firsthand what it was to live without words.

Every schoolchild is familiar with Helen Keller. We’ve all been told of her amazing accomplishments in spite of the fact that she was both blind and deaf. But until I recently read her autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” I didn’t really consider the consequences of losing both sight or sound before having the chance to develop the use of language. While Helen retained some images from the first 19 months of her life, she was otherwise confined for years to what she called “the still dark world in which I lived.”

As she grew older, Helen felt more and more deeply the desire to connect with other people. But she didn’t have the means to bridge the chasm that separated her from the outside world. She recalls poignantly the misery of such isolation, of the tears and angry outbursts that resulted when she could not make herself understood.

Then came the day when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, held one of Helen’s hands under the water spout while signing “w-a-t-e-r” into the other hand. Annie Sullivan spelled the word again and again until suddenly, as Helen describes it, “the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

With words, she could communicate, she could understand and be understood, she could think thoughts that were more than simply “wordless sensations.” But more than that, it was through words, claims Helen Keller, that “I was restored to my human heritage.”

When God created men and women in his own image, that included the ability to use language. The God who spoke the universe into being gave to humankind alone the ability to communicate with words.

That’s an amazing gift and an immense responsibility. With words we not only express ourselves in seemingly innocuous ways, but we build up and we tear down, we heal and we destroy, we bless and we curse, we tell the truth and we tell lies. Observing the consequences of man’s free-willed use of this God-given gift, Solomon wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

Think about it. Words--both spoken and written--are the building blocks of ideas, and ideas, once ingested, become a part of us. That’s probably why Solomon, in his wisdom, warned us to be careful of what we read--and goodness knows that even in his day, “the writing of many books is endless” (Ecc. 12:12).

A one-time acquaintance of mine, Larry, was a friendly and successful young man who was heavily influenced by mystical thought. He suggested to me once that I might benefit, as he had, from reading the works of various New Age thinkers. Not long after our conversation, Larry was found dead in his home. His suicide note explained that his present incarnation was simply too painful. He was ready to move on to his next plane of existence; he wanted to reincarnate into a better life here on earth. The words Larry absorbed from the New Age gurus were lies, and it cost him his life. Worse than that, it cost him eternity.

On the other hand, one of the steppingstones for C.S. Lewis on his journey to faith was the fiction of George MacDonald. While reading a copy of “Phantastes” one night, Lewis explains that “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” Likewise for William Murray, son of Madelyn Murray O’Hair and one-time poster child for atheism in America. One of the great influences in his coming to Christ was the book “Great and Glorious Physician,” by Taylor Caldwell, a fictionalized account of the biblical Luke. Both Lewis and Murray were born into eternal life, in part because they believed the words that pointed to the Word Made Flesh.

As writers, we’ve got some pretty powerful tools at our disposal. As writers who are also believers, we can offer words of life. We can speak the truth in love. That’s our calling, our privilege, and our responsibility.

You can learn about Ann Tatlock's books at


At 7:27 AM, Blogger matt e. said...

Nice post Ann. Of course, writers love words since they are the building blocks of their craft. It would seem that God loves words too since He has chosen to communicate with us primarily through a book.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Brenda said...

Wonderful post, Ann. Who better than Helen Keller to illustrate the power of words to change a life. Helen also said, "Once I knew only darkness and stillness…my life was without past or future…but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, AND MY HEART LEAPED TO THE RAPTURE OF LIVING."

So many readers clutch their empty lives, but pick up a book for entertainment or to escape reality. If the words they read present truth in its richest form, they might find their own hearts leaping to the "rapture of living". And, like you said, what a privilege and joy it is to have life-changing words at our disposal. I love what God says about words: "Pleasant words promote instruction" and "are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." (Proverbs) What a beautiful goal to set before us as we write - words that bring sweetness, instruction and healing to our readers. And by the way, Ann, your books have enriched my own life in these ways. Thanks so much.

At 12:57 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for a great post. I love The Miracle Worker by William Gibson--the three act play. It's great for studying the craft of writing--dialogue, beats, scene set-up, etc.

Annie Sullivan wrote in 1891:

"At another time, she (Helen Keller) asked, 'What is a soul?' 'No one knows,' I replied; 'but we know it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes...'But if I write what my soul thinks,' she said, 'then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.'"


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