Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.



8 thoughts on “Word Care as Culture Care

  1. Good post, Bob. I also delight in finding just the right words to convey a thought or feeling. (If the word is new to me, all the better!) At the same time, I respect the power of words and how profoundly they can impact people around us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great book. McEntyre has a website.
    Here is an interesting essay by her, “Dogma and Disagreement” published in 2009.

    She concludes with this paragraph –
    “In the course of explicating propositional claims and the texts that support them, we always run some risk of reducing faith to a matter of intellectual assent. We risk forgetting that it is first and foremost a lived relationship with a living God-one who not only told the truth but who, more shockingly, proclaimed, “I am the truth.” This astonishing act of identification changes the terms on which we are to understand truth: truth is rooted and grounded in an intimate life of learning to love Jesus, who both stands revealed before us and is hidden in mystery until he comes in glory.”

    Words. Conversation. Relationship. Knowledge. Disagreement. Great riches here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, I always appreciate how you extend the conversation through posts like this. The paragraph you quote is wonderful in speaking about how words, truth, and relationship connect in the person of Christ. Now, I’m off to the websites you’ve provided. Again, many thanks!


      • And of course, not just in Jesus – also in disciples, apprentices of Jesus, and all of God’s creatures, made as we all are in the image of God. Sadly, not all will acknowledge this, but all of us are agents embodying truth and knowledge in academia and everyday life through all the relationships we enjoy.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Fran, thank you for your encouragement, and for sharing your work with me. I have to say “no” because of the number of things I’ve previously committed to review. Best wishes on your work. We can never write enough about the mercy, grace, and goodness of God! Bob


  3. Pingback: Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies | Bob on Books

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