James 3:1–12

Testing the Tongue

Commentaries by Rod Pattenden

Works of art by Emmanuel Garibay, Warren Breninger and Unknown artist

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Emmanuel Garibay

Salin, (transmit, translate, sift, or relay), 2019, Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm, Collection of the artist; © Emmanuel Garibay; photo: courtesy of the artist

The Tantalizing Tongue

Commentary by Rod Pattenden

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There is something delicious about the sound of whispering in the ear. It is intimate, secretive, and conveys a sense of privileged empowerment.

Filipino artist Emmanuel Garibay has caught this effervescent moment of delight where a listener catches the first breath of a new disclosure. We can just make out the glisten in the listener’s eyes, the pleasure that is awakening in their face, and the movement of their hair. There is a physical sense of ecstasy as we read the signs of the body filling up with this morsel of special knowledge. Information is power, especially in an environment where there is mistrust, rumour, and suspicion.

In the context of the social and political life of the Philippines there is a strong colonial imprint that orders social class and access to information. The status quo is well preserved by those in power. Speaking otherwise is not welcome, therefore rumour and secrets proliferate. In his work Garibay will often use irony and even parody to deflate the power of those who speak with assumed authority. His works often puncture the self-importance of the religious and political norms of his culture. This work reminds us, as listeners, that we are invited to engage an ethical framework, and not simply operate as an echo chamber for gossip.

The title of this work in Tagalog is salin which could be translated ‘to sift’. This is the human capacity for discernment, where one weighs up the relative truth of claims being made in the public realm. Listening is not just a matter of paying attention to the interesting, or even scandalously juicy, bits of the story, but to sort out the trustworthiness of the words, the speaker, the trajectory, and resultant affect of such speech. In a media-driven culture spin is the only constant. Words become a means to draw our attention away from the truth and facts of the matter. We are told what we want to hear. Crowds tend to form around shared anxieties. Crowds want their questions to be turned into a chorale of sweet and comforting tunes, that are easy on the ear. James 3:5 reminds us that ‘the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great exploits’ (NRSV). Such boasting needs careful scrutiny by a well-tuned ear.



Garibay, Emmanuel. 2011. Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay, New Haven: Overseas Ministry Study Centre)

Unknown artist

Scold's bridle, c.1500–1775, Iron, Science Museum, London; A31704, Photo: Science Museum, London

The Tied Tongue

Commentary by Rod Pattenden

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This formidable object was designed to be worn around the head. Called a branks or scold’s bridle, the manufacture of such headpieces arose in Britain from the 1500s and their use spread across Europe, until they were last deployed in the workhouses of the 1800s.

This object was designed as a form of social control through public shaming for those with wayward tongues, such as those thought to be gossips, those speaking insults or malice, or those who simply nagged or complained too often. The headpiece was worn as part of a public procession ordered by a magistrate. Many of these objects included a small length of metal that could be inserted into the mouth to firmly press the tongue down, so no speech could be uttered. In this state the wearer could neither drink nor swallow properly for the duration of this public parade of shaming.

In practice these scold’s bridles were used mainly on women. In this cultural period women were less able to speak in public or even to speak for themselves. This object was clearly designed to silence those women who had used their tongue to speak, and in speaking to assert any independence, wit, or wisdom that questioned the order of things.

Employing the tongue is a natural human response to dismantling pomposity and power. For subjugated people there is a tendency to speak otherwise, to find through scoffing, irony, or coded speech a means of asserting freedom from those who seek to enforce their silence.

This object is rather terrifying evidence of a form of control based on gender. One can only imagine the circumstances of the many women who would have been forced to wear this particular headpiece and their resulting public humiliation. In contrast to the forced silence this object threatens to achieve, there is a time for swearing, cursing, and cantankerous speech, especially if it is in the face of oppression and inhumane control. There is a time for tongues to be let loose. As the novelist Arundhati Roy (2004) states: ‘There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.



Roy, Arundhati. 2004. ‘The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, 4 November 2004’, www.sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=279 [accessed 5 September 2019]

Warren Breninger

Gates of Prayer, Series II, Grid 1, 2005–14, Mixed media on C-type paper, 230 x 240 cm, Collection of the artist; © Warren Breninger, rec-152259 BSB-704-191

The Tumbling Tongue

Commentary by Rod Pattenden

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Australian artist Warren Breninger has long been concerned with the gestures of the human figure. The human form in his work, carries the mundane and earthed experience of flesh while also expressing a connection to what is holy and divine. This is forcefully presented in this work, made up of multiple panels, giving the viewer a close-up view of the mouth and its wildly expressive tongue that spells out a range of emotions from ecstasy to horror, and every possible state in between. It is as if the tongue is aflame, ‘set on fire’ (James 3:6).

Like up a filmic close-up, these works draw us in to the intimate space of the mouth, the place where humans spit their insults and express their deepest intimacy. These are the gates of prayer where every human person expresses their frustration, pain, delight, and hope. The artist turns off the sound in this moment and invites us to contemplate the tipping of the tongue, at times in power and at other times lost in blubbering gibberish. We are invited to look into this space that is a site both for the sacred and a place for resounding curses and declarations of violence.

Prayer when uttered out loud lets loose the primal desires, hopes, and frustrations of the human body. It creates stuttering in the finest speeches and interrupts the best prepared intercessions. Prayer is grief, fear, desire, and love, as it tumbles out ecstatically through human lips. The instability of this moment is heightened through Breninger’s process of working somewhere between photography and drawing, emphasizing certain gestures or in turn erasing, scraping back the glossy surface of the paper. The image seems wet, dissolving, still in a state of change. The apprehension of this unstable space causes anxiety for the viewer who would prefer a commanding moment that establishes control.

Rather than being pushed to the edges of the frame, such anxiety might serve as an instructive place from which to speak or pray. Through such limping speech it might be possible to recover our deepest humanity with respect and tenderness. Despite its sometimes appalling nature, our fleshly speech might be the place where we hear the simple syllables that spell out the meaning of love. Love is always a better flame.



Artist website: www.warrenbreninger.com.au

Emmanuel Garibay :

Salin, (transmit, translate, sift, or relay), 2019 , Oil on canvas

Unknown artist :

Scold's bridle, c.1500–1775 , Iron

Warren Breninger :

Gates of Prayer, Series II, Grid 1, 2005–14 , Mixed media on C-type paper

A Dangerous, Dancing Organ

Comparative commentary by Rod Pattenden

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The letter of James is full of practical wisdom and this current section begins with advice for those who teach. These remarks begin in a measured tone but very quickly rush into a cascade of images that uses the most evocative language found in this letter. Speaking about speech becomes an exhilarating verbal exploration of the exploits of the tongue, set alight with expressive power! This tumbling rhetoric is urgently seeking to demonstrate the capacity of the tongue for good and for evil: ‘the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits’ (James 3:5 NRSV).

The author is restless to find an adequate metaphor for this dangerous and dancing organ, needing to be bridled like a powerful horse through the mouth, or operating like a tiny rudder on a large ship, or able to set aflame a whole forest. Speech, the author warns, can be a spring of water, a fruit tree, or a reservoir for drinking water. The alarming summary is that the tongue has enormous potential for destruction: ‘It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (3:6 NRSV).

The urgency evidenced in this passage points to the underlying anxiety of the writer. The author wants the audience to taste on their own tongue the dangers and delights being described, and in turn to curb them before they get out of control. We may recognize in our own contexts such anxieties as they are part of the media-saturated environment in which we now live, where we debate freedom of speech and live within the noise of political spin and ‘fake news’.

Emmanuel Garibay’s painting depicting the delight of gossip points to the seductive power of secrets. It invites an awareness of the processes of discernment that are required to know when to speak and then to know when not to speak. A speech can gain short term power for the speaker and yet render permanent injury to the one spoken about, or in turn even the speaker, through a retribution in kind. All it takes is a word! Garibay draws attention to that moment where words become a morsel that feeds a hungry vacuum for information, serving to empower the listener, above any appeal to truth or objectivity. ‘Biting the tongue’ is a phrase that well describes the moment where wisdom chooses silence as the best form of speech.

It is often through speaking that we reveal our innermost selves. Through a joke or a ‘slip of the tongue’, we reveal the deeper drives and passionate struggles of human responses. It is a site where the logic of rational speech is undercut by the slur of passion and unconscious awareness. Warren Breninger’s disturbing symphony of wagging tongues invite us to look in the mirror to acknowledge the deeper drives that infiltrate a well-mannered exterior of eloquent phrases. We are open, woundedly so, vulnerable, and yet also capable of profound delicacy through a simple stretch of our lips that leaps into the heart of another, as a sign of love.

We live in a media-driven culture where words proliferate. It requires diligence listening to identify those who have been rendered silent. In a sophisticated society lauding the capacity for communication there are still those who are bridled, who wear masks that silence their voices from agency in the world they inhabit. The cruel practices of an era that is past are a reminder of the current practices of limiting the freedom of people who are labelled as different. For some it is a time to be unbridled, for tongues to be let loose, for irrationality to consume the neat logic of oppression.

For those living in this media-driven context, discernment is essential in all the realms of speech, in both our private and our public lives. In modern Western societies, the Christian faith tends to be relegated to the realms of the private spaces of family and individual ethics. But when the letter of James asks ‘does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?’ (James 3:11 NRSV), the question pushes us into the public spaces where water is nourishment for all, and where the common good is established.

Unfortunately, the public square is where comfortable words have become the norm. In terms of our common future, we ask the question, should we accept the advice that everything is ‘OK’, or are we in a period of crisis, that needs both our words and our actions?

Today is sometimes a day for speaking, and sometimes, it is a day for silence. Only wisdom will know the difference.

Next exhibition: James 4:13–5:6

James 3:1–12

Revised Standard Version

3Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. 2For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? 12Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.