Review: Where the Eye Alights

Where the Eye Alights, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021.

Summary: A collection of forty Lenten meditations drawn from words or phrases from scripture and poetry, inviting us to pause and attend.

“Lent is a time of permission. Many of us find it hard to give ourselves permission to pause, to sit still, to reflect or to meditate or pray in the midst of daily occupations–most of them very likely worthy in themselves–that fill our waking minds and propel us out of bed and on to the next thing. We need the explicit invitation the liturgical year provides to change pace, to curtail our busyness a bit, to make our times with self and God a little more spacious, a little more leisurely, and see what comes. The reflections I offer here come from a very simple practice of daily meditation on whatever has come to mind in the quiet of early morning.”

Marilyn McEntyre, p. v.

These opening words, in McEntyre’s Preface to the forty meditations in this book, gave me permission to pause and sit with her as she reflected upon the things on which her eyes alighted. For McEntyre, who loves words and their careful use, it is words and phrases upon which her eyes alight and which she invites us to join her in considering. Most come from scripture, some from poetry. Her reflections sometimes help us see the strange in the familiar. Isn’t it strange, for example that Isaiah 30:15 pairs “repentance and rest”? For most of us, repentance does not seem very restful. McEntyre observes:

“And repentance, to return to Isaiah, allows you to rest. I think of the many times I’ve heard–and said–some version of ‘I’m wrestling with…” “I’m struggling with…” “I’m working on…” changing a habit, coming to terms with self defeating patterns, releasing resentments or guilt or old confusions. Repentance allows us to rest in forgiveness, regroup, and rather than wrestling, float for a while, upheld while we learn to swim in the current, or walk unburdened, or do a dance of deliverance, day by day releasing the past and entering fully, with an open heart, into the present where an open heart is waiting to receive us.”

Marilyn McEntyre, p. 11.

Another reflection draws upon a Christian Wiman poem title “Every Riven Thing.” She reflects on the rivenness of our lives amid our own griefs and fraught politics: “We live among–and are–what is riven, cracked, and split, having to revise our understanding of ‘healing’ and ‘wholeness’ as we age into inevitable learning that those words don’t mean a fairy-tale ending, or closure, or even a denouement at the end of the last act.”

Thus she draws us into the reflections of Lent when we remember we are dust (another reflection). We consider what it means to be a people prepared, the loving listening of obedience, and the moments of epiphany that come as each of us wait and watch. She invites us to consider prayer as a place and in the movements of prayer open ourselves to the Spirit’s coming upon us. The reading for Good Friday guides us through the Stations of the Cross, providing guided prayers for each station and may be used at any time one prays the stations.

Each of the reflections are two to four pages long. Since the Sundays of Lent are not included in the forty days of Lent, there are no reflections for Sundays (although I’m sure some of us would use Sunday as a makeup day!). A marginal note indicates the week and day of each reflection. An attached ribbon is included in the book for marking one’s place.

I’ve come to love the combination of elegant attention to words and perceptive attention to life I find in each of McEntyre’s books. I recognize this review comes after Lent. While most appropriate for Lent, this book may be used for devotional reading at any time, or taken for reflection if you are accustomed to take personal retreats. If nothing else, if you purchase it now, you will not have to cast about wondering what you might read next year. Just keep it some place “where the eye alights.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Make a List

Make A List, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create.

Have you noticed how we like to make lists? From to-do lists to grocery lists to brainstorm lists to lists of favorites to guest lists–these are just some of the everyday lists we create. I know from blogging that we enjoy reading others’ lists. These posts always draw greater numbers of viewers. Perhaps it is the curiosity of how my list might compare to theirs.

Marilyn McEntyre, whose book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, would be on my top ten list of non-fiction works, is the author of this book that should be a delight to any list-maker. For one thing, each of her reflections on lists and their role in our lives includes a list of list ideas. Her first section, on Why Make a List? is a list of reasons for making lists. A few of these: to discover subtle layers of feeling, to name what we want, to clarify your concerns, to decide what to let go of, to get at the questions behind the questions, and to play with possibilities (there are more).

You may be getting the idea that McEntyre sees far more in lists than a practical function of getting things done. She writes:

When you make a list, if you stay with it and take it slowly, take it seriously but playfully, give yourself plenty of permission to put down whatever comes up, you begin to clarify your values, your concerns, the direction your life is taking, your relationship to your inner voice, your humor, your secrets. You discover the larger things that lists can reveal.

She believes lists are mirrors into our interior lives, ways we may learn, ways to listen, perhaps even to the Spirit, ways of loving, letting go, and even praying (after all, as she later observes, what is a litany but a list, usually a long one!). Lists can be a reflective and formative practice leading to greater self-understanding, and when we gift them to others, as she will talk about, a way of expressing love.

The second part of her work is on The Way of the List-maker. She explores how we might refine the kinds of lists we make, particularly along the lines of greater specificity and depth, from the basic to do list, to lists that clarify our values, to lists of words and phrases that have evocative power in our life, to a list of laments. She observes that some of our lists may even turn into a kind of poem. She talks about love lists where we enumerate what we love about another.

The third part is titled “Play Lists” which might be a play on words. She begins with a master list of lists that very well could be a playlist for list-makers. But I also think the aim of this section, as she has mentioned elsewhere is to make list-making playful, a kind of mental play that might take us into undiscovered country. She suggests “why” lists beginning with one of my favorites, why read. An interesting one, autobiographical in character is “What tennis teaches.” Another one is “What’s fun after fifty.” To give you an idea of lists she suggests after each reflection, here are some that follow “What’s fun after fifty”:

  • Fun I never thought I’d have
  • Slightly guilty pleasures
  • Why it’s fun to spend time alone
  • “Fun” I don’t have to pretend to have anymore
  • Deepening pleasures.

As you can see, this is both fun and serious, in the sense that these lists take us into what matters in our lives.

Finally, an appendix offers a grab-bag of additional lists. One that I think very appropriate for those who speak of “adulting” is a list of “What every adult should be able to do.” “What’s worth waiting for” is worth reading and meditating upon. Some are amusing, especially for those of us who have been there. One of the items on “Times to practice trust” is “When the DMV licenses your daughter.”

What makes this book so good is not only the great list ideas, perfect for a retreat day or other reflection time, but also the insights from McEntyre’s own life of making and reflecting upon lists. She often gives words to realities in our own lives we haven’t yet named. Yet she also gives plenty of space in her list suggestions to name our own realities, to listen for the unique ways we may hear both our own inner voice, our true self, and the invitations of the Spirit. Here’s a book to put at the top of your “to be read” list!

The Month in Reviews: March 2017

Caring for Words

One theme I saw in this month’s readings concerned the question of how Christians ought engage a society, particularly American society. In the last month or so, two important books have been published with very different perspectives and approaches: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Philip Gorski’s American Covenant. I reviewed both of these books in March and the “review” links below will take you to the reviews. John D. Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion explored a similar theme, as does, on more of a note of praxis, David Gushee’s A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends. Two books I read took a different approach, both along the theme of “care” and were among the most personally moving books I read this month: Makoto Fujimura’s recently published Culture Care, and an older work by Marilyn McEntyre on Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.

Then there was the eclectic mix of books that reflect my interests and “to be read” pile. Ed Larson’s Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory was my science read for the month–a surprisingly non-polemical work from a secular source. There was science fiction from Robert Silverberg, a novel by Canadian author Robertson Davies, and my re-reading (thanks to the Dead Theologians group) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In presidential biographies, there is A. Scott Berg’s Wilson. On the theological side, I reviewed Kevin Van Hoozer’s important book on biblical authority, a very practical book on conflict resolution by Lou Priolo, a delightful discussion of “Jesus Behaving Badly” by Mark Strauss, and a wonderful set of sermons on the cross by Christopher J. H. Wright, just in time for Good Friday.

So here is the list of sixteen books reviewed in March with links in the titles to publisher’s web pages and a review link at the end of the summary if you want to read the whole review. evolution

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific TheoryEdward J. Larson. New York: Modern Library Chronicles, 2004. A history of the development of evolutionary theory, including both the antecedents to Darwin and Russell and the extension of this theory, the controversies, both past and present that it provoked, and the genetic discoveries that have further revealed the theory’s mechanisms. (Review)

letter-to-anxious-christian-friends

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, David P. Gushee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Written as a series of letters, this is an exploration of what it means as a Christian to both love and be anxious for one’s country as people of faith committed to the global kingdom of God. (Review)

culture-care

Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A call for a different kind of engagement with culture, one of care, of becoming generative, rather than engaging in war or battle, to foster beauty in our common life. (Review)

Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After BabelKevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. A proposal that the five Solas of “mere Protestant Christianity” provide a framework to check the interpretive anarchy for which Protestant Christianity is criticized. (Review)

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969). A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago. (Review)

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Civil ReligionJohn D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes. (Review)

Wilson

Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013. A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man. (Review)

Resolving Conflict

Resolving ConflictLou Priolo. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2016. A practical guidebook to the biblical prerequisites and principles of resolving conflicts between Christians both in home and church contexts. (Review)

Caring for Words

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 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. (Review)

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (with an introduction by James M. McPherson). New York: Vintage Books/Library of America: 1991 (originally published 1852). Stowe’s classic novel depicting the evils of slavery, the complicity of North and South, and the aspirations and faith of slaves themselves. (Review)

American Covenant

American Covenant, Philip Gorski. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. Traces and argues for an American civil religious tradition combining prophetic religion and civic republicanism that avoids the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism. (Review)

Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the FleshJohn Sanders. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. A survey of how the field of cognitive linguistics lends insight into how we understand theological matters ranging from morals to the nature of God to understanding the Bible. (Review)

Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving BadlyMark L. Strauss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Explores some of the disturbing acts and statements of Jesus, that actually reveal his counter-cultural message and mission. (Review)

The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinel, 2017. A proposal that in the face of pervasive cultural decline that has led to political, theological, and moral compromise within the church, it is time for Christians to consider a kind of strategic withdrawal patterned on the monastic movement founded by St. Benedict. (Review)

To The Cross

To The Cross, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Transcripts of five expository messages on gospel passages pertaining to the passion and death of Christ. (Review)

The Lyre of Orpheus

The Lyre of OrpheusRobertson Davies. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. The project of a gifted but difficult graduate student to realize an unfinished opera of  E. T. A. Hoffman uncovers darker and hidden aspects in a number of the central characters who join in undertaking the project. (Review)

Best Book of the Month: Without question, it is Marilyn’s McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I appreciate my friend Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books for recommending (and selling) this book to me! In turn, I haven’t stopped telling people about it from the moment I started reading it. The topic of our care for words and for truth is certainly a top priority in our time if we are to preserve a just, free, and open culture. McEntyre addresses this with cogency and grace, and practices the care for words in her writing for which she advocates.

Best Quote of the Month: While reading Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care I came to this personal statement of faith and calling that left me saying, “Yes! Yes! YES!”:

“I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent van Gogh was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the heavens declaring the glory of GodEmily Dickinson was not a Christian poet, and yet through her honest wrestling, given wings in words, her works, like Vincent’s, like Harper Lee’s, like Mahalia Jackson’s–speak to all the world as integrated visions of beauty against injustice.

    “It is time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in. It is time to follow the Spirit into the margins and outside the doors of the church” (pp. 84-85).

Coming Soon: Tomorrow, I will be posting a review of Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers, a collection of theological biographies of Orthodox thinkers over the last couple centuries. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism is a plea to return to the evangelicalism of Carl F. H. Henry. Not sure yet whether I buy the argument! I’m working my way through a long biography of Edward VII, the playboy son of Victoria as well as a fascinating account of the life of Hermann Rorschach, and the inkblot psychological test he developed. Because of our Dead Theologians group, I am re-reading C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. A few others on the TBR pile include Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship, James Emery White’s Meet Generation Z, Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther (It is the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg castle door), and Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope on lessons learned from his experiences in the Obama White House.

Here’s to a good month of reading!

 

 

 

Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

Caring for Words

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn 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.

Previous posts on this book:

Word Care as Culture Care

A Poet in Your Pocket