There are a handful of books I read on repeat. Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The sort you stumble across that threaten to change your life for the better. One such book is Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.
McEntyre is accomplished as all get-out. She writes on faith & spirituality, classical and contemporary art, literature, and communication, holding workshops and retreats to train writers to be effective truth-tellers in the public sphere. She holds degrees from University of Pomona, U.C. Davis, and Princeton University. In the past she has been a professor at Princeton, the College of New Jersey, Mills, Dominican University, Westmont, and U.C. Berkley. She is “the wife of one husband” and the mother of several kids.
She lays out in passionate detail the problem that plagues English speakers the world over: language is fading, and with it precision, clarity of expression, and sincere communication. It’s been has been hijacked by corporate profiteers and political propagandists. Rhetoric is abused and debased, torn apart and reconstructed for propagandist purposes resulting in a widespread devaluing of its worth. That the modern day is referred to as the information age is something of a misnomer: careful, accurate relation of information has given way to unchallenging, easily consumed soundbite and slogan. We prefer pithy statements to sober analysis; clever evasions to sincere grappling with ideas; sarcasm to wit; small talk to deep, nourishing conversation. We’ve forgotten how to get on with one another in any meaningful way, and we need help.
The solution begins, according to McEntyre, with abandoning “marketplace language”, which treats words like currency and ideas like products to be bought and sold, in favor of an attitude of stewardship. We ought to see ourselves as gatekeepers of a rich linguistic tradition that is diverse and paradoxical enough to be both deeply grounded and surprisingly fluid. Just as language itself grows, evolves, changes—so also the love of language moves us to grow and evolve. Words are a resource, like the spacious, open prairielands of Oklahoma or the gentle, operatic mountains outside Portland, OR, that bid us to come and to be through them. We find that oft suppressed humanity within us surfacing unambiguously when stirred up and called forth under nature’s strange rehumanizing grace. Good stewardship of words carries likewise a rehumanizing quality.
That we might relearn how to use words well and reclaim language from the throes of ideologically motivated maltreatment means concrete hope for human flourishing.
There is, in all of us, a hunger for words that satisfy—not just words that do the job of conveying requests or instructions or information, but words that give pleasure akin to the pleasure of music. Most of us, most of the time, use language the way we use windows: we look “through” words to ideas, objects, sensations, landscapes of meaning … [but] the pleasure of savoring words cannot be attained without some reclamation work. Words have to be “taken back”, brushed off and sometimes healed. (McEntyre, pg. 26-29)
The common notion that language is merely meant to be looked “through” is heterodoxy if ever there was such a thing. The words we choose are as important as the ideas behind them. Words—specific words—evoke feelings and memories. To communicate fully and satisfactorily what one intends to say, they must not simply settle for more or less the right word. They must find and use precisely the word that is necessary. Words, then, must be loved, not merely used.
The downfall of precision in writing has opened the door to every variety of media misinformation, propagandism, dishonest reporting, and the sort of verbal backtracking characteristic of young people today who have been socially conditioned to avoid absolute statements. Precision is the soul of honesty, and anything less is precisely dishonest. Likewise, precision of that sort does not tolerate lies. It weeds out the indefensible and breaks through the façade of empty rhetoric and insubstantial babble. To be a truth-teller in modern culture is to correct those who by imprecision and misleading phraseology peddle mistruth in the public sphere. A politician who speaks precisely and lacks tolerance for untruth would expose quickly the fraudulence of her opponents.
Caring for words is both dependent on and a motivator toward three things: reading well, conversing well, and storying well. To read for pleasure is, ultimately, to be overtaken by a story. And imbibing stories for the sake of enjoyment is among the oldest and most deeply human of activities. Conversation requires attention – meticulous attention to the world in which they live in order to converse well. Storying goes hand in hand with conversation.
Much of what makes up an edifying conversation is the sharing of stories. The articulation of life experiences, even slightly embellished, helps us to process the goings-on of our lives, and putting to words the complex, emotionally nuanced movements of our daily struggles and joys taps powerfully into the rich, edifying wellsprings that are our own hearts. Simply stated, conversation, especially that which relates stories in wise hindsight, is a spiritual endeavor.
McEntyre advocates for two neglected art forms: poetry and long sentences. She posits that by regularly enjoying—nay, indulging in—both, we rebel against our culture’s collective distaste for ornate, redolent imagery and extended, ultimately rewarding sentences. That we prefer short, snappy soundbites renders us vulnerable to all breeds of deception, and the solution is to relish in expressive, substantive language and to demand it from those who would endeavor to persuade us of this, that, or the other.
Likewise: word play is a lost art. Words is like music. Its chief end is pleasure. Communication is meant to be colorful and lively. Prayer, although this is hardly its primary function, bolsters this. We express ourselves to a presumed Creator through prayer, naked and bare – which translates over to our writing, conversing, etc.
And silence. Babble is not profitable. Silence is restorative. Contemplation creates a contemplative spirit. Contemplative spirits see through the shallow clamor of culture and are equipped to speak into the hysteria with clarity and profundity.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has done us all a huge favor. Her insights are relevant to those inside and outside the Church, but as a future church communicator, her premise cut me to the core:
The generation of students coming out of the high schools and the universities now expect to be lied to. They know about spin and about the profiteering agendas of corporate advertising … If they’re reading many of the mainstream news magazines or watching network television, they are receiving a steady diet of euphemisms, overgeneralizations, and evasions that pass for political and cultural analysis … I don’t know how many times over the past year I’ve heard students, trying to make sense of the news, lament, “I don’t know how to tell what to believe!” How do I tell what’s reliable?” “How do I distinguish what’s true?” … If we recognize these trends, we must acknowledge the danger of living in what journalist Paul Weaver called “a culture of lies” … [We must] promote critical thought and exchange of ideas free from coercion by those in positions of political or economic power [and] call people to something so radically different from the terms and paradigms of this world that it can be spoken of only in the variegated, complex, much-translated, much-pondered, prayerfully interpreted language of texts that have kept generations of people of faith kneeling at the threshold of unspeakable mystery and love beyond telling. (McEntyre, pg. 6-16)
Having served as a youth worship leader and bible study teacher, I can attest to the accuracy of her assessment. Kids walk through the church door in the anticipation that they will be lied to, manipulated, and even coerced in the name of religion, not necessarily because they have had negative experiences with church in the past, but because that’s been their manifold experience, whether at home, at school, or on television.
They are used to being clay in the hands of unqualified authorities and have often lost any sense that it ought to be otherwise. It is difficult to motivate them to pursue a deeper relationship with Christ or a greater commitment to godly service in the community because ingrained within them is the notion that any truth claim, especially those regarding moral, political, or religious agendas, are probably doubtful and ought only to be held onto loosely—that is, they have been conditioned in such a fashion that, consciously or otherwise, the truthfulness of Christianity is about as irrelevant to them as is the truthfulness of an attack ad from a dubious political smear campaign. In short, they have been taught, not by indoctrination, but by the exemplary failures, moral and otherwise, of the grown-ups in their lives, that authority figures and the truth claims that they peddle cannot be trusted.
This is not me griping about the youth of today. My point here is that by participating in the “culture of lies” in ages past we have merited the distrust with which young people approach our faith—stated more bluntly: people distrust us, and we earned it—and the only solution is to betray the culture of lies, to break off whatever unhealthy co-dependence we may have with sloganeering and soundbite culture, and instead take on the responsibility of being truth-tellers in residence in the community. Only then will the Church prove itself to be what it is: the singular alternative to the culture of lies.
And that begins with rediscovering language as something given. Borrowed, even. The miracle of communication – verbal, written, or signed – can be a mere necessity – an odd, if useful, phenomena of history – or it can be an uncommon grace.
That the Bible exists – that the risen Jesus elected to rule His Church through a library of stories strangely told, pregnant with the peculiarities of the written word, should teach us something about the sanctity of language. That the truth of God is incarnate, so to speak, in a particular set of written words sacrilizes the whole endeavor of written language, because it’s one – nay, the primary – vehicle by which the God who predates speech itself makes Godself known to human beings on planet earth.
The glory of scripture is the glory of Christ made known through the glory of language. We needn’t be embarrassed that we’re people of the book. What else should we be? The narrative of scripture, subject by design to the restraints of human language, is fit – it is made fit, or, better, set apart – to usher us into an ever greater, more intimate, supremely satisfying knowledge of God. Because such is the sancity of language.