Kevin writes: The Language of Life

In the 10th chapter of John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. The narratives of the gospels also provide us with wonderful stories and pictures of how Jesus brought life into the world and how he gave that life away to others. These stories of a first century life written for a 2nd century audience have the texture of antiquity.

The scientific revolution of the modern world gave us the language of science. With the industrial revolution we needed more precise ways to communicate events. Poems worked great for the ancient Greeks and stories served the early Christians well, but moderns need statistical data and precise language.

When we talk about life, however, the language of the moderns struggles. Gunderson attempts to bridge the gap between the ancient language of life and the scientific language of the moderns in his book The Leading Causes of Life. One of the causes of life, according to Gunderson, is agency. Agency is the capacity to do, but as a cause of life, it is more than just capacity. Agency represents capacity within our most important relationships and within the story that defines us. Capacity-Leadership-Opportunity, according to the Congregational Health Ministry Survey conducted by the NCC, is the fire triangle within which congregational health ministries bloom (10).

Agency is one of the foremost areas where we can quickly begin to engage the public health, science language. I will demonstrate with quotes from two different scientific articles how quickly the language of life struggles when forced into the precision of scientific language. Two main areas where we struggle with this language engagement are the areas of grant writing and conducting of scientific studies. In their article, “Health Programs in Faith-Based Organizations: Are They Effective?”, DeHaven, et al. conduct a literature review to determine the effectiveness of faith based health programs. In order to quantify their findings, they defined church involvement: “Church involvement was coded as ‘faith placed’ if health professionals used the church to test an intervention and ‘faith based’ if the program was part of the church’s health ministry. Programs were coded as ‘collaborative’ if they combined faith-placed and faith-based features” (1031). In a book edited by David Satcher there is a chapter on “Faith Based Initiatives”. In this chapter Stryahorn shows that the “research fails to show that faith based social services provide long-term, holistic service delivery solutions, evidence exists that faith based organizations can provide short-term and effective health promoting activities and interventions” (, 495). Both of these articles use the same words, but are not always describing the same things. The language of agency gets parsed almost beyond recognition. How do we measure agency? Is it possible?

Trying to measure agency forces us to put the language of life into the quantifying language of science; however, this often reminds me the student in Dickens’ novel, Hard Times. In a chapter entitled, “The murdering of the Innocents,” the boy student defines a horse as a: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth”. The description is quantifiably correct, but doesn’t capture the essence of the creature that is a horse. The language gains clarity, but looses life.

As many of our post-modern thinkers have suggested, life is difficult to define in quantitative terms. Life is narrative. Because effectiveness has to be measured so that we can receive funding and analyze our own effectiveness we must continue to struggle with language. As people of faith we are people of story. Is there some way that we can find a different way to measure that doesn’t submit the language of life the parsing scalpel of science.

I am reminded of a poem by former poet laureate Billy Collins in which he describes people trying to “get at” the “meaning” of a poem. Collins claims that, as an artist:

“I want to water ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on shore.

The more scientific people, however, treat the poem differently.

“But all that they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They began beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”

When I read some of these attempts to measure the effectiveness of bringing life, I can’t help but believe we are somewhat like the meaning-hunters in Collin’s poem or the student in Hard Times. Instead of parsing life in such a way to make it scientifically measurable, perhaps we can find a way a new way to measure. In the movie, “Smoke”, the story is told about measuring smoke. The argument, among the characters of the movie is that nobody can measure. One character, however, quoting William Raleigh contends that you could measure smoke. To prove his theory, he began with a balance scale. On this scale he weighed his cigar. Then, he lit the cigar and smoked it. He carefully placed all of the ashes on the scale. When he had finished the cigar, he placed the butt on the side with the ashes. The difference between the weight of the original cigar and the weight of the ashes and butt, he concluded, was the weight of the smoke. Measuring life may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Can we find a better way to measure the effectiveness of our life giving efforts?


About garygunderson

Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative
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