A scene in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad depicts two men, of different cultures and different tongues, trying to communicate with each other via an interpreter.
Roger Baldwin, played by Matthew McConaughey, speaks English. Cinque, played by Djimon Hounsou, speaks Mende. At one point, Baldwin says to Cinque, “Well, I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have.”
The interpreter indicates a problem: “I can’t translate that.”
“Why not?” asks McConaughey’s character.
“Because there isn’t a word for ‘should’ in Mende. Either you do something or you don’t.”
This exchange illustrates how an entire language functions as a “terministic screen” or a screen of words. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke held to the idea that the words a person uses “select” and “deflect” one’s reality.
The absence of a word in one’s language typically means absence of an idea. Absence of an idea means absence of a reality. In this way words deflect reality, just as they select or shape it by their very existence.
The word “should” helped shape Baldwin’s reality and an idea which made sense to him. It did not shape Cinque’s reality. Indeed, there wasn’t even a word for it in his language.
The idea of a “terministic screen” has broader implications. These screens operate within languages as well as between them.
For example, imagine a Latin teacher saying to an architect, “Get a load of that post-positive preposition with a preceding genative!” The architect might not readily comprehend the meaning. Conversely, the architect could speak of flanges and trusses and joists, and the Latin teacher might grapple with understanding.
This, of course, is an example of jargon–a “specialized language” used by members of a particular community, be it vocational, geographical, ideological or otherwise. Jargon, too, selects and deflects reality for us and others.
As members of a Christian community, we should ask ourselves, “Do we employ terministic screens that select and deflect our reality?” Let us assume Kenneth Burke is correct and we do employ such screens.
The question then follows, “What sorts of screens do we employ?”
“Jesus came into my heart.” “I got saved.” “I’m born again.” “Jesus’ blood washed away all my sins.” The “Christianese” dictionary, which sometimes seems endless, selects our experience even as it deflects it.
Were this the logical end to Kenneth Burke’s idea, the disruption would be minimal. We could simply rephrase our verbal witness and try to remove the screens.
But it is precisely this point at which we must be the most vigilant. Our screens do more than hinder our communication of the truth. They disguise the truth we have yet to recognize.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.