In the first lecture I give to students in my freshman writing class, I ask students to “consider the source” of their writing. I argue that writing begins from the building blocks of language, which are words. I explain to them my belief, based on my faith in the Bible, that all words come originally from The Word, Jesus, who “was God” and “was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1–2), and whose first act was to speak the universe into existence (Gen. 1:3). Though I promise they will learn some important techniques and processes and principles about writing throughout the semester, I urge them in this first lecture to get in touch with the Source of language as the best way to improve their use of language. “To improve your writing,” I say, “try prayer.”
The Bible has much to say about how we use words, emphasizing the deep responsibility we have as bearers of the language God has spoken forth to frame the universe we inhabit. Jesus, himself, says, “Men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37). Of course, it is all too easy for us to corrupt God’s good purposes in sharing the gift of language. We see this corruption, I believe, in the story of the Tower of Babel or when we fail to keep a “tight rein” on the tongue as James advises (James 1:26).
But when we connect with The Word, the source of language itself, we have the wondrous ability to use words not only wisely and well but beautifully and brilliantly. Teachers always fall back on mystical language when describing the best writing. Rubrics always fall short of capturing what poetry is capable of. Teachers write in the margins, “Amazing,” “Brilliant”; or they underline an eloquent sentence and praise it as “sublime” or “exquisite.” The writing has gone beyond the rubric because the student has somehow reached that mystical fountain, that wellspring ever fresh, that pure source where language bubbles up always rich, always surprising, always flashing and splashing, overfilling the cups of our expectations.
We have long had penalties in place for the most irresponsible uses of language—lying, slander, plagiarism, hate speech. But these were seen mainly as defects of character, and rules have been, for the most part, clearly drawn around these offenses. The new challenge for students is in some ways subtler, like the serpent twining around the Tree of Knowledge. Generative AI is tempting students with powers that promise to make them god-like, opening the door to the universe of discourse on the internet, promising to absorb, then arrange and assemble this astounding storehouse of human wisdom into paragraphs, essays, screenplays, and even, for their teachers, lesson plans. But in taking this fruit, are we relinquishing the responsibility God has given us to care for the gift of language he has given? What Eden might we find ourselves outside of?
Some have compared Generative AI to the use of a calculator in mathematics. Just as a calculator is a mechanical aid that saves time in math, so ChatGPT is a mechanical aid for language composition. In math, if you know the equations you need to use to get to your goal, there seems nothing amiss with using a machine to add, multiply, and divide the numbers.
Similarly, if you know the ideas you want to communicate in an essay, you can type your thesis and your supporting points, as well as research parameters, into Generative AI, and it simply adds words together, like numbers, to construct the essay. But surely we understand that words are not the same as numbers. While numbers, like words, are abstractions, they possess little-to-no ambiguity. The symbolic qualities some numbers have, such as three, seven, or twelve, are completely lost within the context of mathematical problems when they stand for simple quantities. Any word, beyond the most basic of articles or prepositions, carries with it the weight of cultural context, history, and connotation, which makes the construction of any sentence into an art. Diction—the process of selecting words—is more akin to an artist choosing colors on a palette than a math student typing numbers into an equation. Take, for instance, this one very simple sentence: I walked to the store. Think of all the permutations that can be achieved by substituting synonyms for “walk” and “store.” One could mosey, saunter, plod, creep, scoot, traipse, or ambulate to the supermarket, emporium, or boutique.1 The dizzying array of choices available for framing almost anything we say or write calls us toward an extraordinary responsibility.
But there’s more to our responsibility to language than just the fact of the pluripotent meaning of words and their wide range of connotation. The use of language involves us in an art of ideas, and while there may or may not be some Platonic realm in which ideas exist in and of themselves, in our human experience, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to cut the knot that ties words and ideas together. It is for this reason that thinkers like Coleridge and Hegel speak of poetry as the most spiritual of the arts. While painters use the medium of paint to express their ideas, and sculptors use marble, and musicians use bare sounds, poets use words as their medium. Words are much less tied to physical reality than marble or paint, or even sound, and they are bound up more tightly to the ideas—the spiritual realities—which they express. Words correspond, therefore, much more closely, as a medium, to the soul of humanity.2 The medium of language is the most naturally expressive outlet for the human spirit. What happens when that medium is offloaded into software programs?
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell rages against the creep of groupthink into writing in an age when everything has become politicized. Orwell says that political correctness (to use our phraseology) “will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent.”3 ChatGPT raises the stakes on Orwell’s problem. His anxiety stemmed from twentieth-century mass media and the buzzing hive of voices constantly filling our ears. Orwell says it is too tempting to simply throw “your mind open and [let] the ready-made phrases come crowding in.”4 He likens these ready-made clichés to a bottle of aspirins “at one’s elbow,” tempting us with a promise of stress relief when it comes to finding the right words.5 ChatGPT is the same bottle of aspirins turned into steroids, promising to construct novellas, sonnets, five-act plays, and full-scale research projects out of a few meager prompts.
And yet the Word, Christ, still stands. The Word still says that we will be judged by the words we utter. Who will judge ChatGPT’s words? Will we be held responsible for what it spits out? Orwell says that opening ourselves toward the groupthink of political correctness threatens to turn us into non-reflective robotic dummies. Could it be that when we divorce ourselves from our use of language, we create a split within ourselves, between body and spirit, between form and content, thing and idea? When the machines have captured the soul, we become the machines. Will there be an Eden for us then?
- Credit goes to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher for this list of synonyms for “walk.” When I visited the aquarium years ago, a sign was posted that read: “Please do not walk, mosey, saunter, stroll, toddle, tread, traipse, troop, ambulate, prance, dance, tramp, skip, lumber, plod, slog, stride, trudge, run, scurry, beat feet, scamper, scoot, crawl, creep, or step on the plants. Thank you.”
- Coleridge writes, “Poetry also is purely human; for all its materials are from the mind, and all its products are for the mind.” Hegel, likewise, says, “Poetry is the universal art of the mind which has become free in its own nature, and which is not tied to find its realization in external sensuous matter, but expiates exclusively in the inner space and inner time of the ideas and feelings.” See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “On Poesy or Art,” Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1850-1950, ed. Melissa Kwasny, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 35; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. Bernard Bosanquet, (London: Penguin, 1993), 96.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” The Norton Sampler: Short Essays for Composition, 5th ed., ed. Thomas Cooley (New York: Norton, 1997), 398.
- Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 398.
- Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,”, 400.