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Book Review: Caring For Words in a Culture of Lies

Wednesday, 3 July 2019  | Rex Dale

Caring For Words in a Culture of Lies

By Marilyn McEntyre

(Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans, 2009)

This is a book about restoring a feeling for words. It looks at how we can guard language from the abuse it is frequently subject to, which in turn weakens its ability to bring sense to our lives, enrich our inner worlds and produce inner healing.

Over the years McEntyre has taught literature and writing and has listened to lectures and sermons, with a growing uneasiness about the frequency of the unwise use of words. She warns that the opening chapter is darkly diagnostic, but hopes that readers will press on and complete the book. Words are used to define, but are also instruments of love, healing and peace. McEntyre says that we are stewards of language. By ‘we’ she means the wider community, but her message is aimed mostly at the Christian community. Comparing language with any life-sustaining resource, she says that it can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded and filled with artificial stimulants.

The book is based on lectures delivered in 2004, so we should not jump to conclude that it is connected with recent debates about political language. McEntyre acknowledges that she is not doing anything new. George Orwell in 1946 and George Steiner in 1959 felt a similar burden to remind people of the easy abuse of language to serve bad or doubtful causes, but McEntyre approaches the subject from the point of view of Christian stewardship.

To maintain usable and reliable language, McEntyre proposes at least three things: (1) to deepen and sharpen our reading skills, (2) to cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity, and (3) to practice ‘poesis’, which she describes as being ‘makers and doers of the word’. It is a great pity that this is seen as an elitist enterprise, but she promises there will be rich rewards in the way of a more satisfying inner life and better conversations that will enrich and make for more satisfying friendships.

Much can be brought out of the book. Some chapter headings are ‘Tell the Truth’, ‘Read Well’ and ‘Stay in Conversation’, but I will focus on just one: ‘Cherish Silence’.

Silence is hard to come by. We are surrounded by easy means to obliterate it. So why are periods of silence so important? McEntyre believes that silence exposes us to the possibility of an encounter with self and with God. For some this can breed anxiety. To choose silence is to ‘risk’ these encounters, and who knows where that might lead? McEntyre warns against the mentality that churns out reports and memos, and the convening of meetings for discussion and debate and to assess and strategise, without making explicit the need for silent reflection. This doesn’t happen just in organisations and corporations; it can happen even in churches.

McEntyre suggests that silence provides an opportunity for something important that we have just heard to implant itself in our minds. We know that, when someone is giving an address, when something important is said, even a brief silence can impress the sentence on the mind and make it stick. McEntyre notes that some of her most fruitful conversations have periods of silence when there is a pause to just take in what has been said. She emphasises the importance of simply hearing a word or a phrase without analysis or exegesis or any other rational process. Sometimes the word or phrase that has lodged in the mind will quickly yield results, but at other times the outcome can take considerable time to bear fruit. In her thirty years of teaching, McEntyre has repeatedly known of instances of students reading a passage, underlining it, discussing it in class, writing papers about it, even going through graduation and beyond. Then, years later, in an unforeseen situation, the passage or poem delivers its wisdom, seemingly just when it is needed.

Something similar can happen in the reading of Scripture when a particular passage or verse we have read many times before seems to be specially illuminated by the Holy Spirit and we feel its power. McEntyre refers to the language of the Psalms about ‘tasting’ and ‘eating’. These are rich metaphors. Words do not just deliver dry information. We taste words ‘like honey in our mouths’, as the Psalmist puts it. And as we take food and drink, we are nourished though we scarcely give it thought. But with words, McEntyre says, there is, in the silences of the inner life, a process of regeneration, something beneath the reach of our conscious control. In meditation, words are lifted out of the babble that surrounds them to yield unforeseen gifts and are revitalised as instruments of understanding. McEntyre has an excellent quotation from Bonhoeffer that goes a long way to explaining the power of his life: ‘Meditation is not having great thoughts, but loving the words you hear and letting them shape you’.

McEntyre acknowledges difficulties with seeking silence. Her first few days on any vacation require adapting to the loss of stimuli she normally complains about. She finds she needs to be weaned from the dependency on phone and computer – things she both resents and clings to.

How much silence is good? This can vary enormously. It depends on our needs and the amount of disorder in our lives. For some there is little choice in the matter - silence may be imposed upon us by illness, a spent nervous system, insomnia or, in the extreme case, by imprisonment, as was the case with John Bunyan or Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Quakers were a people who took silence seriously. Their times of gathering on the first day of the week (they would never say Sunday) were often spent largely in silence. At other times, Quakers saw silence, when deliberately chosen, as a form of fasting. They were times when, like Mary, people ‘pondered’ - that is, they reflected and allowed something important to sink deeply into the mind. It implies taking no immediate action but letting an important truth take possession of the soul. The Book of Common Prayer expresses a similar idea when it says that we should ‘mark, learn and inwardly digest’.

McEntyre has given us important reminders that the right use of words is vital for a correct understanding. But at the same time words are meant much more than to inform; they are to minister to a variety of inner needs and to enrich relationships.

Marilyn McEntyre is a writer, professor of Medical Humanities at UC Berkeley and former professor of English at Westmont College. In 2015 she won the Christianity Today Book Award for Spirituality.

Rex Dale, a retired professional, has studied many books that throw light on life’s experiences. He is the author of Insights From Graeco-Roman Times – A Christian Response, which gives an overview of the period leading up to Christ’s coming.


Terence Garrett
July 17, 2019, 6:30PM
Thank you for the interesting article.

The word is indeed important and unfortunately the word, grammar and language are being diluted in our educational faculties.

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.'

I love this quote. It is well worth reflection. I look forward to the time when I understand it in thought, word and deed.

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