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A curse and a gift

Words can be twisted, but God uses them to tell straight truths

A curse and a gift

(Gustave Doré/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis)

How does one write heaven?

John Milton, setting out to "justify the ways of God to men" in Paradise Lost, faced the challenge of representing not only heaven, but hell, the great gulf, and the unfallen world. The first section of the poem lays out the landscape of chaos, where Satan and the other fallen angels land on a lake of fire after their expulsion from heaven. After recovering from the shock they organize themselves and decide what to do next.

Book Two describes the fiendish council: Do they try to regain heaven or build a rival kingdom? Revenge themselves on God, or go their own way? Satan has heard rumors of a new world the Almighty has created: Why not infiltrate and conquer it? Finding approval for his plan, he beats a path between hell and earth, and in Book Three the scene changes to heaven: "Hail, holy Light . . ."

I'm indebted to Dr. Seth Lerer, instructor of a course on John Milton produced by the Teaching Company, for showing how Milton stylistically marks the boundary between the regions of light and darkness. Heaven is a world without text, rhetoric, or figurative language. There's no need to dissemble or embellish; things are simply stated as they are. God is a speaker, and what He says, is. Satan is a reader, or rather a misreader of pre­existing texts, and what he says is either a lie or an accusation.

Milton's lavish and figurative descriptions of Satan and his kingdom led William Blake to speculate that he was of the devil's party without knowing it. But perhaps the blind poet understood something about his medium that Blake did not.

The most evident characteristic of humans, as opposed to other creatures, is language. How we acquired it, what sets it apart from mere signals, what it means for the development of thought and culture, is a subject for volumes. Suffice it to say here that language was given so that God could communicate with us. God's first recorded communication to Adam was an invitation to enjoy the garden coupled with a command to avoid one tree. The second was a question: "Where are you?"

In between those two, Adam fell, and words were the tool used by Satan to bring it about: the "straight talk" of heaven made serpentine, slippery, spurious. "Did God say that? He must mean this." He is a misreader, as Milton suggests, and Eve followed his lead; though it's not recorded, she must have used the same twisted arguments to convince Adam.

Ever since, language is a mixed blessing: on the negative side, the choice tool of demagogues, dictators, and back-seat seducers. Everyone whose head hurts after a presidential debate knows how vocabulary and syntax, false analogy and non sequitur can make a false position seem true. But God still uses language to communicate with us. The word, spoken and written, calls us in very straightforward terms to repent of our misreading and look to the Word. "Where are you?" He calls; then invites, "Come to Me."

Creation groans for the day of redemption. In another poem, "The Morning of Christ's Nativity," Milton imagines the earth holding its breath as heaven bends down: "But peaceful was the night/Wherein the prince of light/His reign of peace upon the earth began . . . ." Even the ocean, realm of chaos, "now hath quite forgot to rave/While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave."

That line recalls the outstretched wing of the Spirit, brooding over the dark waters of the void before light was spoken. What nature anticipates so breathlessly is a new creation, very small and very quiet, a divine seed planted in the human wreckage that will take root and grow and spread its branches and eventually flower for the healing of the nations.

We know this because God tells us, with words. The gift and curse of our language is under redemption as we are, to some day run true and straight once more.