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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Catching Mercury

Lewis, catching medieval Mercury in his butterfly-net and exhibiting his jizz to the over-solemn twentieth century, agreed [with Chesterton]: the medievals knew ‘better than some know now, that human life is not simple. They were able to think of two things at once.’…

The Marriage of Mercury & Philology  MS Canon. Misc. 110

The Marriage of Mercury & Philology
MS Canon. Misc. 110

…Lewis’s Christian God is multi-significant. In the incarnation Christ manifest σημεια (signs) which witness to his own person and was himself the χαρακτηρ (character or representation) of the Father; and in creation Christ’s making and sustaining Word issued in multiform, revelatory ways, including in the inspiration of scriptural authors so that their words acquired significance at many different levels, for example in the Psalms where ‘double or treble vision is part of the pleasure . . . part of the profit, too.’

Thus it could be said that God knows ‘plurisignation’ from within His own Triune, enfleshed, and creative nature; there is a divine mandate for double and treble vision in the three-fold nature of God, the two natures of Christ, and in the various significations of His creation itself. Monotheism, in Lewis’s view, must be construed carefully so as to preserve this understanding of complex divinity. The monotheism of Islam, for instance, falls short in this respect, he thought, because it so affirms ‘unity’ that ‘union is breached.’ Although Lewis considered it a matter for rejoicing that Islam had overcome the dualism of ancient Persia, he seems to have regarded the conquest as an overcorrection: the ‘living, paradoxical, vibrant, mysterious truths’ of Christianity are defeated by it. Christians who effectively practise mere ‘Jesus worship’ adopt a similarly simplistic and reductionist position.

Quote taken from Planet Narnia, by Dr. Michael Ward, p. 148.

Ward makes a convincing case that the medieval characterization of the planet Mercury provides the presiding atmosphere or donegality for The Horse and His Boy (Book 5 of The Chronicles of Narnia). The Mercury section of C.S. Lewis’s poem “The Planets” follows:

Next beyond her [Luna {the moon}]
MERCURY marches; –madcap rover,
Patron of pilf’rers. Pert quicksilver
His gaze begets, goblin mineral,
Merry multitude of meeting selves,
Same but sundered. From the soul’s darkness,
With wreathèd wand, words he marshals,
Guides and gathers them–gay bellwether
Of flocking fancies. His flint has struck
The spark of speech from spirit’s tinder,
Lord of language! He leads forever
The spangle and splendour, sport that mingles
Sound with senses, in subtle pattern,
Words in wedlock, and wedding also
Of thing with thought.

I am fascinated with the multiple potentiality of meaning (or allusiveness) to be found in both language and in music, and the idea of God as multi-significant, the God of plurisignation, of “punning” and double entendre… this idea lends so much credence to the multi-dimensional layering of our experience of life and understanding of meaning.