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The Word Made Flat

People need poetry to inspire a sense of vision; a pity that so much jargon clutters the view

The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) has done us all a favour by exposing the most irritating cases of management jargon; dare I say it under the circumstances, they have named the elephant in the living room. The most grievous include:

. Touch base
. It’s on my radar
. Flag up
. Low-hanging fruit
. It’s a win-win situation
. It’s a no brainer
. Best practice
. Take it to the next level

It is easy to poke fun at the laboured and prosaic use of language in the corporate world, but most of us have been guilty of these or similar transgressions at one time or another. At their best, they make for a more democratic idiom; few people have the depth and subtlety of language to express themselves with newly-minted phrases. A common vocabulary enables us to blend with others and to make ourselves easily understood; it is a mark of understanding and belonging. In the same way, however, it can be used to hide our lack of comprehension, creating the impression we have all the skills of a manager when we are simply mimicking others like a child feeling its way in conversation with an adult.


People need vision to inspire the institutions they share and it is at this point that banality flounders. Poetic thinking and language are called for, yet jargon is so pervasive that it mars even our imagination, as when we call for ‘blue skies thinking’. Biblical language is suffuse with poetic imagery; when speaking of the things of God, he and we have little alternative, for to define his relationship with the world in unambiguous human prose is not possible. We master that which we define, hence we are always left groping after God. The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has inventively suggested that the inscription of Hebrew from right to left on a line – emerging from the priority of the right-side of the brain – is a mark of the creative and poetic mind and thus perfectly suited to God’s revelation to the world.


The beauty of biblical language is the infinite sense of possibility. Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. This telling idea speaks of how vision must relent before the messy compromises of power; the presidency of Barack Obama is a pertinent example of this, for his cautious press statements lag far behind the lofty rhetoric of his campaigning. For Christians and those who express leadership in the Church there is a related risk. We are called by God in poetry but we resort to ministering in prose. We are often unable to translate the exalted word God speaks to us into the habits and conversation of life without losing a sense of transcendence. Jesus would upbraid his followers for being dull and it is possible not much has changed in a couple of millennia.

Language is only a part of this failing, naturally. The Church needs people who can muster the Gospel with all the beauty their language affords but of more concern is the lack of poetry in the lives we shape. Christian distinctiveness is shown in the fruit it bears; when our lives fail to do this, we are like symbols of the management speak we profess to despise. Instead of lifting people’s eyes to a higher purpose, our lives become trapped in the banality of sin.


We might give one cheer for management jargon because it gives us an accessible idiom with which to reach one another; we should give three cheers for the beauty of God’s word to us. The Church’s vision should be poetic, even if we manage its life sometimes in prose.

Then again, perhaps none of this would apply if only Eve has resisted that low-hanging fruit.



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