The Lesson of the Stonewood

Language can be a slippery thing. But it can also be surprisingly powerful – and not always in a helpful way.

Case in point: the lesson of the stonewood.

It comes from the islands of the South Seas, where the indigenous people have long built their huts out of natural materials. To construct the hearths for their fires, they used a native wood called stonewood – the hardest wood in their forests, hence the name. And it worked, to an extent. But every two or three years, the stonewood hearth would catch fire and burn the hut down. They’d rebuild, but they’d always do the same – they made their hearths of stonewood.

That is, they built their fireplaces out of wood. Why didn’t they learn their lesson?

Anthropologists point to the power of the word. Because they were using stonewood, they were tricked into imagining it was, well, kind of like stone, and maybe this time it wouldn’t burn.

The lesson is that the words we use can limit and define the way we see the world and its possibilities, the way we think about things.

Surely, though, we moderns are smarter than that?

Maybe not. We tend to assume common definitions of words, but sometimes there are limits built into those definitions. And so the lesson of the stonewood for me is to use words carefully, but to try to look beyond the dictionary. In faith life, that means thinking carefully about some of the words we bandy about with impunity:








They all mean something – and we think we agree on what it is. But maybe there are more capacious ways of using those words, and maybe God – who in my theology is always thinking bigger than you and me – wants to see us think bigger as well. To think beyond limits, even the limits of the words we use.

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