Writing as Naming

fashion woman notebook pen

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I came across a statement this morning that captured why I write. It is from one of my favorite writers, Tish Harrison Warren, in a new book co-edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon GroundShe writes:

When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words, we help shape reality” (p. 73).

Both my outer and inner worlds often feel inchoate. Whether it is making sense of what I am thinking and feeling, describing the gist of a discussion among colleagues, or trying to discern some thread of meaning in the chaos of modern existence, I find myself turning to writing.

I write to know what I think. Sometimes I write to figure out what I think. When I review, I write to crystallize in a few words the thousands of words I’ve read in a book. Sometimes writing is the way I sort out my own sense of how I should live in pandemic times. I give words to reality, and at least shape how I will engage that reality, if not the reality itself.

Writing as naming is communal as well. It certainly is in a medium like that which on which you read my words, or in magazine articles, newspapers, and books. Our writing gives shape to reality not only for ourselves but for others. One of the tests of good writing for me is whether others recognize the reality I’ve tried to name as their own. I love it when someone writes back and says, “you found words to describe what is was like for me.”

More than that, writing as naming, when done well clarifies how we will work together. Lawyer friends of mine tell me that this is at the heart of a good contract. I’ve learned a great deal about getting the words right from my attorney friends. It is equally important on a work team as we discern and decide what we will work on together, and what we each agree to contribute to that work.

I’ve never been a writer of fiction, but I suspect this is part of what drives these writers. They are not just telling a story. They are creating a world. I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created Middle-earth, fashioned languages, and a whole mythology of origins and cosmology. That is some serious naming!

For babies to receive a name, a mother must give birth. Many writers describe the labor of giving birth to words that name as akin to the birthing experience. Finding the right words and phrases, the right composition of paragraphs is hard. There is such a difference between “almost right” and “just right.” I think any of us who write feel we rarely totally achieve that end. Sometimes, it feels that the beautiful or pithy thing we want to say is out there, just beyond our grasp. One thing for sure: for writers, words matter.

Why then do we do it? I think it comes back to what it means to be human. We are naming creatures, gifted with amazing language powers far exceeding any other creature. While not all of us are drawn to writing, all of us use words to describe our world. Writing simply allows us to deliberate our words (hopefully) and to extend them in space and time, extending them beyond the circle who can hear our voice, and the ephemeral moment of our utterances.

This helps me understand a bit more why I write.

Booknerds are Wordnerds

20191104_1607096941876627413392270.jpg

“Booknerds are Wordnerds,” Photo © Bob Trube

It’s not universal, but if you meet a booknerd (or are one), chances are good that underneath there is also a wordnerd. By that, it means you enjoy learning new and unusual words, or have fun with puns, you like a good turn of phrase or you play word games like Scrabble or Words with Friends, or love to immerse yourself in a good crossword puzzle.

Recently, my “Question of the Day” at the Bob on Books Facebook page was “Curious to see if lovers of books are lovers of word games like Scrabble? Are you?” A number responded and I tallied 109 “yeses” and 22 “nos” to my totally unscientific poll. The number of responses however, and the margin, as well as common sense, suggests there is something to this.

Reading is a celebration of words strung into sentences or verses, paragraphs or poems, engrossing or informing us. Studies such as this one point to a relationship of reading and vocabulary growth. Like many of you, when I came across an unfamiliar word and asked the meaning, a parent or teacher usually said, “there’s the dictionary; look it up.” We do love when authors use words well. Some of us also write, and know the difference between the right word, and the “nearly right” word.

I’ve discovered that the kinds of word games we like to play reflects our personalities. Some of us are much more solitary, preferring word searches, word puzzles, and crossword puzzles. Others of us are much more social and love games like Scrabble or Words with Friends. For some, our love of words spills over into love of facts and we like to play “Jeopardy” or Trivial Pursuit. There are certain games we are passionate about. One person loves to play Scrabble though he rarely wins. Another wrote, “Words with Friends for fun; Scrabble for blood.”

Scrabble was the game most mentioned, which may just be a function of the way I asked the question. Next came crossword puzzles followed by Words with Friends. There were a few other old standards including Boggle (one of my favorites) and Upwords. Bananagrams, CodyCross, word search puzzles, Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy also garnered multiple votes. The most interesting and unusual game was FreeRice, a multiple choice quiz game, that includes a vocabulary version, that donates 10 grains of rice for every right answer to the World Food Programme (this is not an endorsement of the game or organization).

One of my old favorites is Fictionary, because there is no game to buy. All you need is a dictionary that people take turns searching for obscure words that everyone else makes up “fictional” definitions while the real one is mixed in and then people try to guess which is the real one. I’ve gotten hours of laughter from that one!

Not everyone who loves to read loves word games, and that is fine. Some just like reading more and seeing word games competing with reading. The most frequent thing I saw were people who did not feel they were good at spelling. I wonder if there were some bad memories there. I heard someone recently who was a music teacher say that those who thought they couldn’t sing well were often told they couldn’t sing as children. Maybe the same applies to word games.

For many of us, though, our love for books and our love for words and games with words, go hand in hand. Is that so for you?

 

Review: Hidden in Christ

hidden in Christ

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s BelovedJames Bryan Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2013, 2019.

Summary: Thirty short reflections on different key words found in Colossians 3:1-17 on what it means to be “in” Christ.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to go through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God (review) with a group. Perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of this study was memorizing Colossians 3:1-17 together, a verse or two each week, forcing us to really meditate on each word of the text. The first three verses of this text are as follows:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)

The title of this work draws on verse 3, and one of the themes Smith explores is what it means for us to live in Christ. Above all, it means to live as God’s “holy and dearly loved” people, (verse 12). In this pocket-sized work, James Bryan Smith leads us through a kind of lectio divina on this text in Colossians, focusing successively in 30 chapters on key words found in the text, offering short reflections on each one. For example, the first five are drawn from the verses above: raised, with, seated, set, hidden. As he considers the word “set” in verse 2, he offers these reflections:

   When it comes down to it, living the Christian life is simply a matter of where we set our minds. Every waking moment we have a choice about where, and on what, we will set our minds. That is something we are free to do. Having been raised with Christ and forgiven forever, and having Jesus with us in all we do, the primary practice of living as a Christian boils down to what we think about, what we dwell on, what values we keep before our minds, what truths (or lies) we have in our consciousness. (p. 37).

In addition to these brief reflections, there are sections about “Living into the Truth,” an “Affirmation” which is a brief statement summarizing the key truth represented by the word, a “Prayer,” and finally questions for “Reflection.” The short chapters and focus on a single word make this an ideal devotional resource that could be used over a month, or perhaps once a week for thirty weeks. There is also a group discussion guide at the back of the book for a five week discussion using six chapters each week.

In addition, this little book is a good introduction to the ideas in the Apprentice Series by the same author–or perhaps in my case, a good refresher. Recently, a paperback version of the book has been released, making it available at a lower price. What Smith models for us is the slow, reflective opening of ourselves to the message of scripture we often pass by in our instant-everything world. When we omit these practices, we do not gain time but lose the chance to hear God’s assurances of our belovedness.

 

Studied Ambiguities

6972755597_d434bd750d_o

Ambiguity or Opportunity? photo by ArtistIvanChew (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Have you ever been in a situation where two parties who differ on some important matter (and you may have been one of them, or trying to mediate between the two) are trying to find their way to agreement so as to collaborate and live more charitably with each other, or outright join forces. Often, it is important to articulate this agreement verbally and in writing, and this, perhaps is where things are most difficult.

Words matter. And words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Often, the attempt to find the right words to delineate an agreement surfaces the places where disagreement still exists.

I came across this recently in a critical discussion of an effort between a group of Evangelicals, and a group of Catholics during the 1990’s to articulate an agreement that expressed their unity around Christ and his gospel. (This is in R. C. Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right; review forthcoming)

The writer noted a number of areas that he felt were “studied ambiguities.” On the face of it, these were statements both parties could agree upon, and yet were capable of interpretations that would reflect the historic differences between the parties. Elsewhere in the document, some of these differences were acknowledged, but he felt that the document purported a greater degree of agreement, and even unity than the author thought warranted.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon. What is “studied ambiguity?” A sentence may be ambiguous in different ways. Sometimes it is lexically ambiguous (“I went down to the bank” could mean I went down by the riverside, or to my local financial institution). Sometimes, it may simply be syntactically ambiguous. (What, for example does “I ate the cookies on the couch” mean?) At other times, the meaning of the words may be clear and there may be a particular understanding that the person uttering the statement intends, and yet it is capable of more than one meaning. What differentiates “studied ambiguity” from these others types of ambiguity is that the person or persons uttering or writing the statement intend the possibility of multiple interpretations and realize their words are capable of these interpretations.

Why do we use “studied ambiguity”? The main reason I can come up with is that parties who retain significant differences feel compelled to mute these to arrive at some semblance of agreement. I suspect, for example that there was much “studied ambiguity” that could be found in the statements of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta about their vision of a post-war world.

It seems that the aim of “studied ambiguity” is preserving tenuous alliances and coalitions, and the veneer of good feelings toward one another. In cultures where communication is indirect, it strikes me that this allows people to avoid outright confrontation over differences while working in indirect, and often behind-the-scenes ways, to reach a greater sense of agreement than could be achieved publicly. What seems important in this instance is that the parties are aware that they are farther apart than they seem and they are employing discreet mechanisms to address these differences.

What can be more troubling about this kind of communication is when people are intentionally misled to believe that a greater degree of agreement exists than is actually the case, because the words sound good, even though they mean something different to each party.

In the instance I mention above, it is interesting that those who participated in writing the agreement claim not to have consciously done this. They saw themselves as articulating areas of common agreement, some of which they saw as real breakthroughs, as well as areas where they still differed, some of which were substantial, as individuals in both parties acknowledged. Yet the tone of their final document conveyed a degree of agreement and even “unity” that others questioned in light of the substantive remaining differences and the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from the language.

And that leads me to wonder if there is another kind of ambiguity, what one might call unconscious ambiguity, where in a spirit of good will, people convey a sense of agreement, while being aware of difference, that nevertheless affirms the agreement of spirit the parties feel.

I’m having a hard time thinking of examples where ambiguous agreements turned out well–maybe someone else can help me think of one. More often, it seems, they result either in falling-out between parties, or compromises on deeply held values, practices, and beliefs to preserve “unity.” Yet I can see the temptation, particularly in our deeply divided society to try to come to these kinds agreements for fear of the alternative.

I wonder instead whether, on important things, we are talking about far longer processes than we ordinarily envision. Perhaps honest discussions that recognize common ground for limited collaborations while addressing honest differences that take longer times to change, because these involve changes in belief, and personal and institutional practice.

Getting to shared understandings on important things is genuinely hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus blessed the peacemakers. It seems so urgent in a divided society. Studied or even unconscious ambiguity is a real temptation. Sometimes it doesn’t look that different from common ground. Yet agreements not rooted in truth engender suspicion and not trust, and unravel, or they relativize “truth.”

What do you think?

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

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.

 

 

Review: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief
Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very fact that I am writing these words and you are reading them suggests some kind of belief about the function of language. Exactly what that function is has been called into question by recent literary theory. At one time if I said I was writing about a book by Roger Lundin titled Beginning with the Word, you would think that my words had reference to the actual (or virtual) book. Recent literary theory has separated word and thing such that any use of words is simply representing what they signify in my mind, my own subjective experience, and not the actual book.

Certainly there is warrant for this idea. One of the daunting tasks of reviewing is to attempt to do justice to an author’s ideas, whatever one’s critique of them may be. Actually, this is something I felt I struggled with more than usual in reading this book, reading it twice, and even then, not being sure I am doing the author’s ideas justice.

What Lundin seems to be doing in engaging 19th and 20th century writers like Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner as well as theologians like Karl Barth, as well as literary theorists like Ricoeur and Gadamer is to explore the skepticism of belief in both modern literature and literary theory that arises from this separation of word and thing. In so doing he explores the desire to believe in the midst of such skepticism, the desire for a storied existence in a literary culture suspicious of any metanarrative. He considers the power of words to awaken awareness using Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of how reading gave him an awareness of his personhood and the desirability of freedom.

Lundin would propose that there is even yet ground for belief because of the Word who became Flesh, the One who incarnated a union (reunion?) between word and object. This is a central tenet of Barth’s theology and provides a basis for a belief in the transcendent, in the possibility of grace, and for being part of a story that makes sense and gives meaning to life.

The author positions himself not as one proposing an “absolute” argument as a modernist writer might, but rather speaks as a “witness” weaving together a theology of the Word, his own experience, and themes in literature (story, making sense of time, a longing for home, and dreams of justice and deliverance) to affirm that it is possible to make statements of belief that aren’t simply polite fictions, personal sentiments, or statements about what we know isn’t so, but rather affirmations of ultimate, life-giving realities rooted in the One who brings Word and Thing together.

I confess that I struggled to follow the train of the author’s thought at points, particularly where he delves into literary theory. The thematic approach reflects less a linear argument than coming at an idea from several perspectives. Yet I suspect that for some these elements along with the humble yet forthright “witness” that affirms while leaving room for others might in the end prove winsome and more persuasive than any absolute, linear argument. Certainly for any student in literary studies who wrestles with critical theory and questions of belief, this is an important resource.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

View all my reviews

Finding the Right Word

Every one of us who tries their hand at writing grapples with this. It is the struggle to express with the right word or set of words those thoughts rattling around in your head. Often, it is the frustrating difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word.

Why does this matter? That was a question that came up in a discussion this morning of a thirty-year old book that included an extended discourse on the use of two different English words to translate a Greek term. In particular, a number of us who have been around a while remembered when this discussion was vigorously contested but now rarely comes up. Is it just because the topic is passe’? Or is it because we are less interested in discussions that involve careful distinctions around the meaning of words? Have we become more inclined to take a “whatever” approach to distinctions in words and ideas where people might differ?

Word Cloud of this Post

Word Cloud of this Post

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this. I read examples of both lucid writing and poorly constructed sentences and statements every day. Is there more of this than in the past? When one reads journals and letters from the past, I’m not sure. There were plenty of misspellings and grammatical errors and imprecisions of thought in the past.

What I do know is that clarity of expression matters. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants are going around and around about a course of action, and suddenly someone who has been listening carefully speaks up and says, “is this what we are saying should be done?” and proceeds to crystallize the ideas floating around the room or conference call? I’ve often found this makes all the difference between muddle and meaning in a group.

Perhaps this matters now more than ever with our capacity to easily disseminate various forms of verbiage both within our organizations but also around the world (this blog being one example of this!). I wonder whether the ease and rapidity with which we can communicate via tweets, texts, emails or even blogs can erode the clarity of thought and expression that came when you drafted a letter, revised and proofed it, and then typed and sent it out via the postal service.

What is more troubling to me is to witness the deterioration of the public use of words where diatribes and ad hominem attacks substitute for a reasoned argument that marshals evidence to persuade a listener. I am also troubled when I read writing that is jargon-laden, where it appears that the effort is to conceal meaning from those who don’t have the code to the jargon. I find this equally among theologians and academics in other fields of higher education. Often, these scholars are writing about matters that are not merely of scholarly concern. They concern what we will believe, how we will educate our children, how we will pursue medical care, and what public policies our civic and political leaders should pursue.

Perhaps why this matters most to me is that I believe reality is “word-shaped”. My worldview is one that believes that the material universe was spoken into existence, whatever other material causes and effects that set in motion. Our use of language mirrors that of the Maker–our words also have the power to bring things into existence, for good or ill. Similarly, I believe the moral framework of life isn’t something we simply socially constructed but was similarly articulated in formulations like the Ten Commandments. It is not coincidental, I think, that one of the names given “God in human flesh” was logos or Word. It seems that God did not want to leave us to muddle about in our search for meaning.

You might not agree with me in these matters. Many don’t! But I hope we might agree on the power of words. Words can hide the truth. Words can hurt. Words can muddle. Words can inflame. And words can be a vehicle for the thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.