Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Summary: Explores, in a culture of “spin” and poisoned discourse, practices for caring for our use of words, that they may be used well and true.
If you have been following this blog recently, you know how highly I think of this book. Written prior to the latest spate of “alternative facts,” agenda journalism, and the publication of “fake news,” McEntyre’s book explores the abuses of our language, the deadly consequences to which this may lead, and the responsibility of all who preach, teach, and write to care for the language. She summarizes with elegance the theological case for such care:
“Peter’s admonition to ‘be sober, be watchful’ applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”
What follows in this book are twelve “stewardship strategies” by which we might care for the words entrusted to us and the wider use of words in our culture. McEntyre, who is a retreat leader as well as English professor, gives us, as it were, formational practices that usher us into the careful use of words. She begins with the simple truth that we must start with loving words. Whether they be single words in themselves or the elegant and arresting expression of words in literature, it makes sense that the care of words begins with loving and delighting in their felicitous expression. She then leans into the challenge of truth-telling, giving the example of asking her students to define terms in common parlance: liberal, conservative, patriotic, terrorist, and Christian. Imprecision and hyperbole make it possible to lie with words, or at least to be obscure in our meaning. This chapter is paired with one on not tolerating lies, in which she shares the questions she teaches her students to ask.
The next chapters (“stewardship strategies”) might come under the heading of cultivating our skillful use of words. She urges us to read well, including the incorporation of the practice of lectio divina into our reading. She writes about the importance and delights of good conversation, cultivating the skills of asking good questions and attentive listening. She explores the richness of story, not only those we read but the life stories of those in our families and communities, that give perspective and offer challenge as they are told.
Two of my favorite chapters followed. One was on loving the long sentence, contrary to what you hear from most writing teachers and editors. She contends that “long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to a point.” The other chapter is on practicing poetry, something missing from my life. After reading this, I picked up a collection of Seamus Heaney poetry, having thoroughly delighted in his rendering of Beowulf. She then wrote about a practice I hadn’t given much thought, that of translation. She observes that all of us who use words are translators, conveying a thought (whether our own or another) to a particular audience. Those who have to learn more than one language and translate between languages uniquely appreciate this challenge.
The final three chapters seemed to me to be overarching stewardship strategies to be used in conjunction with the others. One was simply to play with words and ideas and see where they will take you, which is sometimes to unexpected places. I like this because often I discover what I think about something as I write. The second is to pray, both in our own words and those of others and to listen. And this leads to the third, which is to cherish silence where words of clarity and grace and power may come.
What made this work so rich was that one has the sense that McEntyre has lived into the strategies she commends to others. More than this, to read this book is to read words that have been cared for, and chosen for their ability to teach us to love them, and others like them. McEntyre does what she advocates. I found myself wanting to love words more attentively, read better, converse more thoughtfully and write with greater clarity. I found myself wanting to discern with greater acuity the coarse and cavalier ways words are used to poison discourse and spin webs of deceit, and to resist these ways of twisting God’s good gift of words to humanity.
“A book for our times” almost seems too cliché, and yet it is accurate to describe how important this work is for all of us who care for words, care for culture, and long for better conversations about the common good. It is not enough to aspire to such things. McEntyre’s “stewardship strategies” show us how to translate aspiration into action in our care for words.
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