Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesCaring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this to be a delightful and necessary read. It’s about stewarding words and preserving or reinvigorating a broader cultural appreciation for words and language, and most of it originated as a series of lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre points to startling statistics about literacy among Americans who speak English, and laments the abuses of language that have become normalized: “thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bits, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather” (pp. 10-11). One thinks of so-called “fake news.” She suggests that, while we may not have quite arrived at an Orwellian dystopia, it is urgent that we maintain “usable and reliable language” by deepening and sharpening our reading skills, cultivating habits of speaking and listening that “foster precision and clarity,” and practice making and doing work with words (poesis) (pp. 9-10). And as you might expect in a book about words, the writing is well-done, enjoyable, and in some places, exquisite.

The remainder of the book is comprised of thirteen chapters, each providing a “Stewardship Strategy.” In “Love Words,” she discusses and exemplifies an attitude of joy found in delighting in words and in using them as instruments of love. In “Tell the Truth,” she advocates taking ownership of the impact of our points of view on our efforts to tell the truth, which involves precision, faithfulness to complexity, and courage in the face of the difficulty of getting it right. “Don’t Tolerate Lies” is a natural continuation of the responsibility of telling the truth, and McEntyre suggests that we are susceptible to and responsible for allowing ourselves to be lied to, especially in ways that “comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.” (p. 57) In “Read Well,” she calls us to continue to learn to read by adding to the questions we bring to a text, questions from history and social sciences, from science and art, from theology, and by recognizing reading as benefiting from being thought of in terms of relational and physical metaphors. “Stay in Conversation” struck me as particularly prescient in this divided time. Conversation–defined here as living (through our words) in a way that fosters and sustains community–involves “attentiveness, skilled listening, awareness of one’s own interpretive frames, and a will to understand and discern what is true” (p. 89). “Share Stories” demonstrates how stories paradoxically ground us in reality and complicate our lives by reminding us of the mysteries we must live with. “Love the Long Sentence” and “Practice Poetry” promote the value found in connections revealed through slow and careful reading and re-reading. “Attend to Translation” discusses the important and difficult word-work done by translators of both Scriptural and non-Scriptural texts, and advocates for the important differences in points of view reflected by the capacities of different languages. The power and value of word-play and wit comes to the fore in “Play,” and we are encouraged to engage metaphor and silence when we “Pray.” Finally, “Cherish Silence” encourages space between our words to give them deliberateness and meaning, to measure the difference between effective words and simply filling the space, and it also suggests that words dance around silence and mystery, bringing us to the edge and bidding us rest.

As one review on the back suggests, “If every literate person in the United States read this book, the result could dramatically transform our society…” (Emory Elliott). Read it.

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