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Caring for Words Book Club: Love Words


The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. McEntyre was the keynote speaker for the meetings of the Adventist English Association in June 2013. Our book club discussion will run from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion.  – Scott Moncrieff

“Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love” (23). We already love words. We remember words. We quote words – whether they be scripture, snippets of speeches, or our mother’s counsel. We love words already. But do we use them as instruments of love? 

About a month ago I was chaperoning a school trip. Around 7:00 p.m. I was driving the perimeter of the campus looking for six girls who were supposed to be at a planned event. 

“We’re sorry, Mrs. Holland,” is what they said after they silently and with heads hung climbed into the van. 

“It’s okay. Thank you for apologizing,” I offered back. But I didn’t stop there. I knew the girls were sorry and that the conversation should have ended after my gratitude. But after a few more moments of silence I continued to speak – I continued to speak words that didn’t heal. 

“Just don’t let it happen again,” is what came next. 

Packed into this essay these words may appear harmless, but on that evening in that van they became a barrier. What was I thinking? Did I think I had to assert my authority or something? Immediately I knew that with my unnecessary words I had loosened the bond that was slowly beginning to form between me and these girls. I allowed my mouth to run ahead of my brain and spew un-necessities. In this situation silence would have healed – and I didn’t take the time to think about and love my words before I spoke them. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre inspires her readers to love words before they speak them so that love will speak louder than words – so that words will be instruments of love. 

If our words are to resound as instruments of love, they must be of course necessary and kind, but they must also be intelligent. McEntyre writes, “The dumbing-down, oversimplification, or flattened character of public speech may make our declamations and documents more accessible, but it deprives us all of a measure of beauty and clarity that could enrich our lives together” (25). When we stop to think about our words before we say them – and to think about their effects – we have the power to help, challenge, and inspire their receiver. 

The title of a collection of essays by Naomi Shihab Nye comes to mind: Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places. Graceful people live this way – articulate and prepared and not in a hurry. We need to be this way with our words. McEntyre writes that we have to be okay with going “beyond adequate” (25), and we must be “markedly articulate” (33). Jesus was both of these when he was on Earth. When he was tempted by the devil in the desert for forty days, Jesus knew and spoke the truth directly and confidently without apology. When the devil attempted to lure Jesus into exerting his divine authority, with assurance Jesus quoted truth: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone’” (New International Version, Luke 4.4). The devil proceeded to show Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and said to Him, “if you worship me, it will all be yours.” Again, our King spoke with infallible confidence: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” After one final deadly lure from Satan, Jesus, who undoubtedly was faint and fatigued, confidently spoke truth. Truth that nourished him when food and water could not: “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (New International Version, Luke 4.5-12). Jesus knew in whom he believed and willingly, boldly, articulated truth. 

McEntyre writes, “to choose to go beyond adequate is sometimes to risk the look of elitism, the accusation of pretentiousness or pedantry” (25). We must risk it. Jesus, our example, did. He could have ignored the devil or simply told him to stop talking. But instead He confronted him with words fecund with uncompromising power. Jesus had high expectations for his followers and for those he encountered. He was calm and careful. And bold. 

As well as speaking articulately, McEntyre calls us to be precise. We have “a hunger for words that satisfy” (27). Banal, nondescript words such as things and cool don’t satisfy. When we recognize God’s beauty for the marvel that it constantly reveals, rolling hills become pastures of hope, and blizzards become carriers of comfort: “We care for words when we use them thankfully, recognizing in each kind a specific gift borne in the mother tongue, bestowed at birth as a legacy from the one who was, in the beginning, with God, who was God” (40). God gave us the ability to name, and when we name the elegant giraffe as a thing and the crimson fields as cool we shirk from our responsibility – from our legacy. But when we’re articulate and intentional, our words become instruments of love When we strive to be precise we do risk the look of elitism, but risk we must on the pursuit of clarity and rising above a culture of lies. 

As you prepare to engage with “Stewardship Strategy #1: Love Words,” I invite you to ponder words as they are used by our Creator and this question McEntyre poses:  “Why would happiness have anything to do with being articulate?” (33).

Brooke Holland teaches 10th and 11th grade at Collegedale Academy in Collegedale, Tennessee. She enjoys reading – learning and being challenged – and riding motorcycles.
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