Online Conversation | Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies
with Marilyn McEntyre
On Friday, July 17th The Trinity Forum welcomed writer, speaker, and professor Marilyn McEntyre to discuss her provocative book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. The book focuses on the morality, power, and importance of caring for language. She notes that caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another. If language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it the way good farmers care for the earth.
The painting is Garden in May by Maria Oakey Dewing, 1895.
The song is The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Debussy, performed by Joshua Bell.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Doug & Jayne Ann Wilson
Transcript of “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies”with Marilyn McEntyre
Cherie Harder: I’m really excited to welcome our guest today, whose beautifully written work “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies,” while first published around a decade ago and now out in a special edition, seems like it could have been written specifically for our time. It invites us to reflect on the ways that we use and abuse language, what it means to care for words, and why it matters, both for ourselves and for our society. She offers twelve distinct stewardship strategies for our cultivation and preservation of life-giving language and explains why some of these seemingly simple strategies, whether it’s ‘Love words,’ ‘Tell the truth,’ ‘Read well,’ or ‘Stay in conversation,’ actually contain much more power, complexity, and provocation than might be assumed. She both encourages and models a delight in words and argues that caring for language is a moral issue, one that is inseparable from caring for each other. It is a challenging, profound, and even poetic work, and I am delighted to introduce its author, Dr. Marilyn McEntyre. Marilyn McEntyre is a writer, speaker, and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, as well as a faculty member at Westmont College. She is the author of over twenty books, including both the one that we’ll be discussing today and her latest, “Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict,” which will soon be out, and the author of more than four volumes of poetry, three of which are written in response to the work of Dutch painters Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh, variously entitled “In Quiet Light,” “Drawn to the Light,” and “The Color of Light.” She’s also written dozens of articles and reviews in such journals as The Washington Post, Books and Culture, Comment, Journal of the American Medical Association, and Christianity Today. Marilyn, welcome.
Marilyn McEntyre: Thank you. What a pleasure to be here.
Cherie Harder: It’s really great to have you. I wanted to start off by returning to your argument that I just quoted from: that caring for language is a moral issue and is actually linked to caring for others. What does it mean to care for language, and what’s the connection between caring for our words and caring for our neighbor?
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, an analogy that I use in the book that I think is pretty apt is the matter of caring for the environment, caring for the soil that we grow crops in, caring for the whole process of making food. It seems to me that caring for words is like that. The discourse or the discursive environment we inhabit is like the natural environment we inhabit. Words can get used up. Some words need to lie fallow for a while. Words can be harvested and treated as resources and exploited like resources, or they can be really carefully cultivated for good use. I think that’s a fair analogy to play with.
Cherie Harder: One of your strategies for caring for words is, not surprisingly, to love them and to be grateful for them. You’ve now written over twenty books yourself, several of which actually had to do with reading and writing, so presumably that is something that is near and dear to your own heart. How did you come to learn to love words and love to read? Were there any particular books that inspired that love? What was your journey in that area?
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, certainly the long story starts—and I won’t tell the long story—but it starts with growing up in a three-generation household of people who talked at the dinner table and read us stories and read us psalms and prayed with us. So I lived in an environment of words that was very rich. We didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of words. To say something about more recent direction in my life with words, when I discovered that ancient Benedictine practice of lectio divina, which is a practice of reading (in Benedict’s case) sacred Scripture very small sections at a time and listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you—that was a liberating moment. Something clicked when I learned about lectio that had already implicitly been there in loving poetry. If you pause over a word or a phrase rather than an idea or a whole sentence, and you say, What was that? That word just opened a door. It triggered something. It brought something up. What was that?—it allows you to ‘go in’ rather than ‘go on’ through the rest of the sentence. That practice of allowing time when I read to ‘go in’ before I ‘go on’ has been helpful in my own spiritual and intellectual life. Anybody out there who’s a former student will know that that’s one of the things they hear a lot.
Cherie Harder: That seems to pick up on an idea that you mention throughout your book: that part of caring for words is not just reading a lot but really learning to read well, and that there is a qualitative difference [between] reading well and skimming for information. You actually said how we choose to read [and] how we submit to or question the terms set by the writer are the choices that shape the habits of our mind and the habits of our heart. I’d love for you to break down for our viewers how one learns to read well. We’re in a time where people are constantly strip mining the surface meaning of much of what we read on social media and journals and the like. If one wants to master this, how do they go about doing that?
Marilyn McEntyre: Can I just admire your metaphor? Strip mining is really a good way to put a name to reading practices that are less contemplative than I think we need right now. I think the first thing I would say about reading well is, Slow down—which all by itself is really countercultural. Everything in the culture says, Speed up, get through it, build your momentum, complete things. So slowing down has to be really intentional. I think it helps to have communities within which we support one another in that—reading groups, discussion groups, study groups, prayer groups. The second thing I would say about reading well is, Pause where it gives you pause. To pause over a word or a phrase or a paragraph or a passage or a line in a poem and say, ‘Wait, what was that?’ is to always include a subjective dimension of listening. I think that we learn to hold a text at arm’s length and, as you say, mine it for what’s there because we head in with our own purposes. I want to get the gist. I want to find out. But I think another dimension to reading well is to read with a kind of openness to being taught. What is here for me? It might not be new information—maybe just a slight reframing of something I think I already know. [We should be] listening for words that awaken us. That’s so subjective, and it’s difficult to hang onto that subjectivity in academic environments, for instance.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned learning to listen for works that awaken us, which is a beautiful way of expressing that thought. One of the things it seems like you have been particularly concerned with in your work is the loss of words that might awaken us—the weakening and attenuation and shrinking of our vocabulary. You make the fascinating point that as usable words are lost, human experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And with a loss of subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power. I think that really evokes two questions: How does a loss of language make our personal lives cruder? But also, on a societal level, how does it lead to our vulnerability to oppression?
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, the vulnerability to oppression certainly has to do with the fact that in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, when people have been subjected to crude exercises of power, one of the instruments that’s always used is sloganeering: reducing things to slogans that then become the currency that people exchange to decide that they’re in the same club. In order to resist that, it seems to me that we need to hang onto that middle ground between the polarized opposites. There’s so much in current discourse that is sharply divided now between right and left, Republican and Democrat—you know, just all of the bifurcations that we see in American culture. So it seems to me that the challenge is to stay in the gray area, stay in the middle ground. I use Jane Austen often as an example of a writer who inhabited a culture where there was much more nuanced language. Not that we need to go back to eighteenth-century speech, but she really makes a distinction between when a character is ‘confused’ or ‘perplexed,’ or ‘irritated’ or ‘vexed,’ or ‘agreeable’ or ‘amiable.’ All of those (now slightly quaint) words suggest very thoughtful, careful distinctions between different states of mind and different dimensions of character. So those are the things it seems to me that we lose when we have so many hyperboles and just say, ‘Oh, that was great!’ Or, ‘That’s so exciting! That’s terrific!’ Or, ‘What a disaster! This is a crisis!’ Think how often we hear the word ‘crisis,’ rather than, ‘This is a problem,’ or ‘This is a moment to step back and reconsider what we need here.’ I’m not suggesting that our language should become more bland. I think it’s really important to have very strong, forthright, candid language. But to find the place where the word really nails what exactly it is that we mean [requires] constantly asking ourselves, ‘What do I really mean by that?’
Cherie Harder: That provokes a question about not only the polarities or the specificity of language, but even the categories. A couple of years ago, we hosted David Brooks to talk about his book “The Road to Character.” One of the things he mentioned in his book, which I thought was such an elegant and creative way to illustrate a shift in culture, is [that] he used Google in-words to track language usage over time and found that the language of self and individuality has increased dramatically. Words like ‘community’ [and] ‘common good’ have decreased. The language around markets—’branding,’ ‘finances,’ ‘the economy’—has shot up. Language around morality and virtue has fallen precipitously. The usage of words like ‘kindness,’ ‘bravery,’ ‘courage,’ and ‘humbleness’ actually declined by over half. I’d love to get your thoughts and reflections about how the decline of the categories of our vocabulary might affect the common good.
Marilyn McEntyre: I love your summary of what Brooks is talking about. I think that one of the factors here is the retreat into abstractions. Ezra Pound was the one that said, “Go in fear of abstractions.” Sometimes I’ve given short assignments to students [and said], “OK, you need to write this, but you don’t get to use any word that ends with ‘-ism’ or ‘-ment’ or ‘-ness’ or ‘-tion.’ No abstractions.” It’s difficult to navigate a public conversation—even a good word like ‘justice’ deserves for somebody to say, Well, what exactly do you mean by that? What does justice look like? Can we talk about the treatment of accused people? Can we talk about a justice system and how it works? Increasingly, in addition to what Brooks said, I would observe that we tend to deal in abstractions far more, which generally means that we protect ourselves from having to actually name things that are uncomfortable.
Cherie Harder: I imagine we have a fair number of viewers who are thinking, That is fascinating, and I’d love to expand my vocabulary, or encourage my children to broaden and expand their vocabulary and make their word usage more specific. What advice would you give them about how to build a vocabulary to find and use the right word, not only to more precisely convey meaning, but also to imbue meaning in experience?
Marilyn McEntyre: First of all, I would say that expanding your vocabulary doesn’t mean necessarily finding more sophisticated words. It might mean using more precise words. What exactly are you talking about? If you’re talking about a bird, what kind of bird is that? Where did you see it? Give it some context. Make a practice of getting very particular nouns and verbs that actually get at the process. People throw their verbs away. It’s tragic. I have a whole little section in there on parts of speech, but verbs are where we answer the question, ‘How did that happen? What happened?’ We live so much in a culture that’s focused on product that I think process gets backgrounded. But a good verb really is revelatory in helping people to understand connections, to connect the dots and see process. So I’d say, again, ‘go in’ before you ‘go on.’ Before expanding your vocabulary, just make choices that get as close to what you’re actually talking about as possible. I think ‘What do you mean?’ and ‘What do I mean?’ are two of the most important questions we can hold as we enter public conversation.
Cherie Harder: I actually wanted to ask you about verbs. I think we have a lot of wordsmiths who are watching today. At one point, you say that getting verbs right is one of the most important aspects of writing—which struck me as sort of interesting, given that you’ve written a book entitled “Adverbs for Advent,” but no book about verbs yet. Why is it that verbs, of all the different parts of speech, are the most important to caring for words well?
Marilyn McEntyre: Because I think the difference between ‘It was gutted’ or ‘It was damaged’ or ‘It was impaired’—you know, when damage has been done, what kind of damage has been done? I think if you get at a verb that says, ‘Here is what happened as closely as possible’—if you say ‘This was rooted out,’ that’s different from saying ‘This was solved’ or ‘This was reframed’ or ‘shifted’ or ‘undermined’ or ‘extracted.’ Now, there are lots of ways in which we can deal with a public problem. If you just start to scan for the verbs in news stories about health care or about whatever decisions are being made on the floor of Congress or about what the military is doing, many of them veil actual events. So I think a lot of the courage and candor that can be exercised by good writers is writing that verb.
Cherie Harder: One of the strategies that I’d most love to discuss with you is one that pertains to part of the title of your book, “Culture of Lies,” which is, ‘Don’t tolerate lies.’ But of course, before we have a policy of zero tolerance towards lies, we need to be able to discern what is true. We’re at a moment where that is increasingly difficult. Not only are we awash in misinformation, propaganda, [and] political sloganeering, but in addition to the external lies, technology conspires to validate and to further our own predisposition to self-deception. Reinforcing our cognitive biases [and] our motivated reasoning is the fact that the information we are most likely to get through social media algorithms confirms all of our biases, all of our blind spots. So I wanted to ask you, how do we learn in a culture of lies to discern what is true, and then how do we learn to have a zero-tolerance policy towards lies?
Marilyn McEntyre: I think that the question ‘Is this a reliable source?’, which students often raise, has become much more difficult over the last decade. I think the nature of public media has changed and the variety of outlets has shifted. But I think that the question of discernment has to do with community. We need to be in communities of readers, thoughtful people who read together, who help cross-check and modify each other’s perceptions. I’ve just begun reading a book that my daughter recommended to me called “Blindspot,” which is about the fact that we all have little blind spots in our eyes, but we also have blind spots in our brains. So all of us have hidden biases that we can’t detect. And the only way we’re gonna detect those is if we build circles of trust among other people who also read, who have entered the conversation having had some intellectual and spiritual formation that gives them criteria so that we know how they make their judgments. We might understand the limitations of their judgments. But, for instance, we have some very dear friends that we completely trust about certain issues. One person has done a deep dive into the matter of torture and what’s going on all over the world: Who’s being tortured? Who’s doing what? The words we bring to torture—’enhanced interrogation’ just doesn’t quite get at it. If we want to know something about torture practices, he’s our guy. And there’s another friend who has done a great deal of very careful reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So it’s not that we don’t read about that, but if we want to understand it more deeply, we also know that we can enter a conversation with someone we believe ‘in’—not just that we believe ‘it.’ I think the relational dimension of discernment is really important. We go to people we know are grounded in their own desire to understand what’s true. The other thing is that I think we have to be very careful about what we understand as evidence. It troubles me that people seem to care a lot less about evidence. You know, ‘So and so said it, I believe it, that’s it.’ I think to keep pressing for evidence is one strategy for not tolerating lies. ‘How do you know?’ is certainly as important a question as ‘What do you mean?’ How do you know? How do I know? How did we get there? To be accountable for that seems to me to be very high on the list of citizen responsibilities.
Cherie Harder: One of the stewardship strategies you mention in terms of caring for words is to cherish silence, which is something we actually have very little of now. I would love for you to reflect on why you believe valuing and preserving silence is so vital to caring for words.
Marilyn McEntyre: I think musicians and poets really know that silence is part of the texture of a composition or a text. If you don’t have the rests in there, you don’t have music. If you don’t have all that white space on the page, you don’t have a poem. Even paragraphing is a way of building in a space for a breath. I think that the long history of certainly Christian tradition, but I would say any spiritual or wisdom tradition we know, has some version of, Enter into silence in order to hear what the Spirit has to say to you. Go into a quiet place in order to hear your own conscience, your own self. Anyone who’s ever tried to meditate or pray knows how difficult it is to shut down the inner chatter which is the reflection of the outer chatter. But I would bet that most of us have had the experience of just listening to the radio in the car a little bit too long and feeling jangled. So there’s something in ourselves that I think is like thirst for silence. You breathe differently in silence. Your heart can open differently in silence. And I really mean the deep silence that has no agenda, that just says, ‘Here I am.’ I love the stories in Samuel of Eli telling Samuel just to say, ‘Here I am.’ I’m open. I’m available. I’m waiting. I don’t need to do anything right now—just be. I remember a professor of mine in graduate school said, “You tend to rush to meaning when you’re examining a text or metaphor.” He said, “Just let things be before you make them mean.” I thought that was a really fascinating piece of advice: Just let things be. I think a lot of very earnest people, especially in my experience, want to rush to meaning: ‘This is important because…’. But maybe you could just rest with, ‘This is important,’ or even with, ‘This is.’
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a second. But before we do, I’d be very curious about some of the works that you have particularly enjoyed or would recommend that you believe help evoke a love for words and a desire to care for them.
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, there are many, of course. But I think one of the people who isn’t read as much as he should be—and he just recently died—was George Steiner, who spoke (I believe) fifteen languages and was arguably one of the smartest people on the planet. He’s a writer who crafts his sentences so beautifully. I would almost say you could open one of his books and stick your finger down on the page and find a remarkable sentence. The art of the sentence in Steiner is really worth looking at. He also wrote a great deal about language itself. He wrote a beautiful book called “Real Presences” about the way in which words create presence and have a kind of sacramental quality in that way. He wrote about the German language—I think I’d like to end later with something he said about how languages can be damaged, in a difficult and in some ways infamous essay about what happened to German in the course of the Third Reich. Languages can be depleted, inflated, damaged to the point of unusability. There was a poet, Adorno, who said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Of course, there has been. But that cry of a poet was to say, How do we even retrieve language that isn’t so contaminated that it’s almost unusable? I think as we look around now and think about all of the words that have become trigger words, we’re in an analogous situation. I’ve opened a number of workshops on loaded language [by] just asking people, What are some words you feel as though you can’t use anymore, because as soon as people hear them, they get triggered—they already have a set of assumptions that kick in and they don’t listen anymore? The list is long, and everyone knows words like that. So that’s a reclamation project. How do we bring those [words] back and surround them with language that helps people to hear them again?
Cherie Harder: That’s great. We’re going to turn to hearing from our viewers now, so over the next half hour we’ll take your questions. As Alyssa explained at the beginning, you can not only ask a question, but you can also ‘like’ a question that someone else has asked. That helps us know what some of the most popular questions are, the questions that you most want asked, and helps move them to the top of the list. So we will start off with a question from Julia Forsyth, who asked, “Could you elaborate on your childhood dinner conversations, family prayers, and possibly books your family read together?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Oh, I would love to do that. My mother and grandmother were both teachers, and we lived in a three generation household, which I now recognize was a tremendous gift. My very articulate grandparents linked us to a generation that learned differently and spoke differently and also practiced a kind of leisure that has become more rare. So we did sit around after dinner and talk. My grandfather was from North Carolina, from a huge family of fourteen children, and they had lots of stories. So he would tell stories. I’ve come to think of him as a kind of home-grown Faulkner. You know how Faulkner starts a lot of his sentences with ‘Because’ and just drops you in the middle of something you haven’t been there for the beginning of? Grandpa would tell those stories that were continuations of stories, and we’d have to just kind of pick it up as we went along. But also, my grandmother was really wonderful at just gently pausing and saying, “Now, what do you exactly mean by that? Let’s talk about that word.” You asked where I got my sensitivity to words. Some of it is by being around people who paid attention to words, not just used them to get to the ideas behind the words, so to speak. The other thing is that she read me “Winnie the Pooh” about 300 times. What I love about “Winnie the Pooh”—the real one, not the Disneyfied version—is that they tolerate one another in this little community. They find ways to deal with Eeyore’s self pity or Owl’s pomposity or Rabbit’s officiousness or Pooh’s bumbling mistakes or Piglet’s timidity and so on. And they talk to one another in a way that is generous and compassionate. They also know that if they can’t fix it, Christopher Robin cares for them, and he will come help them. So that was a big one. I think “Winnie the Pooh” is a wonderful formative text. The other one I would say is, I read “Little Women” many times. I think [that] was really formative for many American girls. That’s a family in which people talk about things. If you remember the movie of “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson, the youngest daughter Margaret has a line I love. She really likes their neighbors, [and] she says to her mother, “They talk about things! We don’t talk about things.” Well, my family talked about things. Sometimes the conversations were uncomfortable, and that needed to be OK.
Cherie Harder: The next question comes from Martin Schad, who asked, “What does not tolerating lies look like in action?”
Marilyn McEntyre: I had an older friend who is now gone who had a lot of what my grandmother would have called ‘gumption.’ She was very active in local issues. She served on the city council, and she famously listened for a long time to someone at a city council meeting. When they asked for responses from the audience, she stood up and cleared her throat and then just said, “That’s hogwash.” She went on, I suppose, to elaborate. But the point is, there’s a time to say, “I’m just not buying that, and here’s why.” And you have to say, “Here’s why.” I think [it is good] to practice discernment, to practice the careful listening that I think can be rooted in lectio divina, to listen for people’s evasive language and then to challenge them [on] it. And I think there are diplomatic and courteous ways of challenging people without pulling your punch too much. I don’t think you have to go in with your fists raised. But I do think that practicing candor is a way of practicing courtesy. “I don’t understand you. I’d really like to understand you. But right now, it sounds to me as though this is what you’re saying. Could you let me know if I’m wrong?” Now, there are lots of ways to frame an objection, and we need to retrieve those too. I think that for all kinds of good reasons we are more careful now about stepping on each other’s toes or saying things that sound dismissive. [We are] not being open enough. There’s that gesture like this—you see it in the Buddhist statues sometimes: one hand open and receptive that says, “I’m listening, I’m receiving,” and the other held up to say, “There’s something I’m protecting here, and you don’t get to come past this without my permission.” I think not tolerating lies also just has to do with asking for evidence in some kindly way. Say, “Could you tell me how you arrived at that conclusion? Could you tell me about process?” We’re back to verbs here. How did it happen? How did you get there? Asking those questions is as important as having a counterargument. We don’t have to leap right into argument. Staying in conversation, though, means saying, “I need more evidence. Help me with this.”
Cherie Harder: Nick Buckner asked, “How has the social and educational tendency towards specialization of knowledge and practice affected our ability to communicate with and understand others?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Oh, that’s such a good question. Well, certainly coming out of academic environments where I’ve inhabited most of my life—academics, like everyone else, have developed professional jargon. And I think those of us who are in professional circles have to be careful about becoming members of a sort of exclusionary club that says, ‘I know the lingo and you don’t.’ Because language becomes a kind of club handshake. I think Wendell Berry is a wonderful example of a writer who has access to an enormous range of vocabulary but uses plain words in such a way as to clarify. Clarity is one of his primary values, I think, in his writing and speaking. There’s medical jargon, there’s scientific jargon, and some of the jargon is important if you’re talking to other professionals. But all of us have to translate. There’s a chapter in “Caring for Words” about caring for translation, and that means not only from French or German or Hindi to English, but also from one field to another. It’s really good practice to enter into conversation with someone and offer definitions for things that seem commonplace to you. We all forget that we speak within a certain cultural and professional milieu. So translation—being aware of the need to be able to rephrase what we’ve said and to really listen for where we might be losing our listeners—is an important part of being generous in our intellectual life.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Esther Jadhav asked, “How do we help people care for words and language when so much of our reality is consumeristic—’Just give me what I need’? It is hard work, but necessary. Suggestions on how this can be done well?”
Marilyn McEntyre: That’s a good question too. I haven’t mentioned laughter. There’s a place for, ‘You must be kidding!’ If we listen to the slogans or the ads [saying] ‘You need this’—I’m thinking of ads for women’s clothing that say, ‘These are necessary items for your fall wardrobe.’ Necessary? No, I don’t think so. I think helping children to look at ads discerningly and talking about language is the best defense. ‘Wait, what did they just say?’ I actually think that one of the things I’ve heard a little too much, even in church environments, is ‘excited.’ We’re all so excited about our new program; we’re really excited about this mission trip; we’re excited about people coming today. We’re so excited all the time. ‘Excited’ used to be a slightly pathological nervous condition. I think it’s good to remember that we don’t have to be excited all the time. Sometimes we could just be musing or thoughtful or waiting to decide where we want to go with this. Again, to think about words and talk about words and laugh at words and laugh with words is a level of conversation people don’t get enough of. I have noticed in classes that it’s really hard sometimes to get people to move from looking through the text to looking at the text. In fact, years ago, I had a student who came in when we were reading “The Scarlet Letter,” and she said, “Well, I think it’s a good story, but you know, I just can’t quite get to this story. There’s so many words.” I said, “You know what? That’s what the story is made out of. So just look at the words. You’re not trying to find something on the other side of the words. You’re trying to look at how Hawthorne used those words and why he might have chosen them.” The analogy that occurs to me is how a glazier looks at glass. Most of us look through the window, right? But a glazier might come in and look at the glass. I think that we need to develop that capacity to look at the glass a little more often.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great example. The next question comes from an anonymous attendee who asks, “How do you see the relationship between technology and reading well? It seems as though sometimes our cell phones can be helpful (e.g., Goodreads apps or best book lists on the Internet), but they can also deeply distract us from reading well, can they not?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Oh, I think so. I’m not anti-technology in that I’m so grateful for Goodreads, among other things, and for the information—I have a lot of bad things to say about Facebook these days, but I have to say that there are people who post things on Facebook that are in my circles of trust. I’m so glad that I have access to the range of conversation that it offers. On the other hand, I think hanging onto the depth dimension in our reading lives—that capacity to pause and reflect—is something that we have to do in spite of the technology that is so distracting. So often, when I start scrolling down pages [and] see all the things that pop up on a screen, [I] think about Eliot’s line about modern people who are distracted from distraction by distraction. So it does seem to me that it’s important now and then to come back to a page. Maybe that makes me sound like a Luddite. But look at all those books behind you. There’s something really comforting about the page. And it’s not only comforting—a book gives you different instruction about what to do with your body and your eyes and your mind than a screen. They’re different. I don’t think screens are bad, but they certainly challenge the contemplative dimension of our inner work. It’s hard not to become superficial. So I think, like any technology, it’s [something we should] be careful [about]. A friend of mine gave me a line that I used to put up on the board for people to write about, which is simply, ‘Every technology we invent changes the way we live.’ Pick any technology you want, from the curling iron to the refrigerator to the computer, and just write about how it changes the way we live. To remember that it does—and that not all change is progress or benefit—lies at the heart of this problem of living in the paradox.
Cherie Harder: Nancy McKay asked, “What do you think has caused the frequent, jarring practice of changing nouns into verbs, such as ‘gifted’ (not the adjective) or ‘authored’ or ‘tasked’?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Yeah, or ‘impacted.’ That’s one. Well, it’s an interesting question. Poets have done it for a long time. It’s a form of wordplay that can be really fun. But when it becomes a habit, it can come from not looking for the right verb—not giving ourselves time to really find a verb that, again, gets at process. So when there’s that slippage from one part of speech to another, it’s like any other slippage: It can open up some new space for reflecting on things, but there are always tradeoffs involved. One personal experience I had with that was going to graduate school on the East Coast. I’m deeply embedded in California—I grew up here. I remember in an early seminar at an East Coast school that thought well of itself, I said something about parenting, and my professor stopped the whole seminar and he said, “Well, out here, we don’t think of ‘parent’ as a verb.” What it called to my attention was that if I use parenting as a verb, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what practices am I actually talking about? So I think if we’re going to turn nouns into verbs, we have to think about why we’re doing that.
Cherie Harder: I went to an East Coast school that thought well of itself, and when I first arrived there, someone asked me where I ‘summered.’ I never heard ‘summer’ used as a verb before. So Charity Craig asks, “What venues do you think foster the best kind of public discourse? How do you take what happened at your family table into the public square?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Oh, that’s such a good, timely question. My sadness in my last decade of teaching is that classrooms have become more and more pressured environments. I think originally, the hope of creating a campus on which people could learn was to find a place where people could be enabled to withdraw for a little while from the marketplace to have reflective conversation. We have come a ways since then, and the intersection between marketplace and campus has run pretty deep and cut deep into that territory. But it’s surprising to me how many book groups are springing up—people reading together and talking about [books]. And writing groups. Every church I know of has adult education groups. I think people are hungry for these things. Certainly there are lots of chat rooms and online groups. But I think there’s no substitute for gathering. Obviously, here we are in the middle of this pandemic that says ‘Don’t gather.’ But cautiously, I think people are really making efforts still to come and sit six, eight feet apart and have some conversation. I think to do what we’re doing—to create forums in which people can at least approximate the personal conversation and then carry that back to whoever they talk to—is a way of fostering an environment that says, ‘We need to talk to each other.’ It’s a life-giving practice. It’s part of staying alive. Exchanging words is like exchanging air: it’s dangerous, and it’s necessary.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Anna Moss. Anna says, “What does cherishing silence look like for you practically on a regular basis?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, it certainly means making time in my day, even short periods of time, to just sit [and] be quiet. Sometimes it means holding a particular word or phrase, like ‘Be with me’ or ‘Guide me’ or ‘Show me’ or ‘Open my heart’—all of those things that can be brought into centering prayer practices. Sometimes it just means not having any beautiful music going on in the background or not listening to the radio. And that’s hard for me. There are TED talks and there are good news analysts out there. I like turning on those things while I’m working in the kitchen. But once in a while, if nobody else is home, I just turn off everything and putter or clean things up or just make myself sit for a little bit and listen to the silence. What that always does is take me inside. I admit that on the Myers-Briggs, I’m an introvert, so I don’t know what extroverts do—if you’re extroverts out there, you deal with it. But I think that going inside and dwelling in the silence is to really begin to hear it.
Cherie Harder: The next question comes from Brooke Sorenson, and Brooke asked, “For those who study literature and have to work through large numbers of pages during the school year, how do you counsel students to continue to love and cherish words while also doing well and being efficient in their studies as those studies demand?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Well, I think efficiency is overrated. I even think finishing is overrated. One of the books I’ve taught for years is “Moby Dick.” It’s very long. It’s not quite as long as “Middlemarch.” I think that people who teach Victorian literature have a real challenge here, because they have big, fat novels. But one of the practices I developed in teaching “Moby Dick” was, if you can’t finish, don’t finish. Because it is good to turn every page of the book and read them all. But it’s more important to see what Melville was doing, and to pause and notice some of the literary strategies and the tricks he plays on the reader and why he makes such oddball shifts from one point of view to another and how he’s trying at different genres. So when you come to class, I want you to be able to say something about what you noticed, not about whether you covered the material. I think we’ve become kind of addicted to coverage—”I got that much done.” I’d rather people read less more than read more less. And I know that for students, that’s a tradeoff, because you’re expected to account for what you’ve read. So I know you have to do this selectively. But to vary one’s reading strategies might be to say, “OK, I’m going to get a sense of what the whole book is about by reading it quickly, and then I’m going to pick two or three passages to go back to and really dwell with.” I think it’s hard for students to develop a sense of authority to do that—or any of us. But selective reading like that—to say, “Where are the gems here? I’m just going to go sit with them a little bit”—is valuable.
Cherie Harder: James Mogford poses this question: “Our daughter is a member of the University of Washington faculty and has a responsibility to help those for whom English is a second language. How can she best convey the message of caring for words to her audience?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Oh, that’s a lovely question. I think it’s one of the features of North American middle-class white culture that we get embedded in English, which is such a powerful, imperial language with a long history of imperialism behind it. We live on this big continent where we’re not forced, by and large, to learn a second language, as so many people in the rest of the world are. But I think one of the ways to help people is to learn back—to say, “Teach me what this is like for you in Spanish or in Mandarin,” and to allow them to do a little bit of the exchange so that you’re not just imposing or even offering a language as though this is the valuable material we’re going to work with here. [You should] honor the fact that they also bring something to the conversation that they can offer you, and that there are things you can say in Spanish that you can’t say in English. And there are certainly things you can say in Mandarin Chinese that you can’t say in English. So to allow one’s self to be opened in that way is part of the generosity of teaching.
Cherie Harder: In many ways, that’s a great segue to the next question, which comes from Michael Hattwick: “Most of us speak English, but in every language there are some things for which the language lacks adequate words. Are there realities that English lacks adequate words for?”
Marilyn McEntyre: Could we start with love? Greek has five words for love, distinguishing different dimensions of love. I don’t think English really has an adequate way of articulating the nuances and the breadth and the depth of different kinds of love. Of course, we can talk about it and make those distinctions, but we don’t have words like ‘philios’ or ‘agape’ that give us the specificity of the experience of love. Also, for instance, German is one of the languages I’m able to speak and read, and people make lots of jokes about all those compound words in German that take up a whole line. But I actually think that the tendency in German to put words together and make new words out of them says, “Oh, look, here’s a new experience! Let’s make a word for it.” That quality of flexibility may be what people are trying to [achieve] by making nouns into verbs. I think one of the things that keeps any language alive is wordplay. We need more puns. We need more word jokes. We need more word games. There used to be a radio program that came out of the U.K. called “My Word,” and it was a lot of wordplay and word games. At the end of it, each of the contestants had to make up a story that would lead to a particular word or phrase. It was delightful to listen to, because it was all play. So I think part of ploughing up that soil we talked about is engaging in wordplay with people and enjoying it.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to take one more question from our audience, and this comes from Harry Ogden, who asked, “How has your faith and your sense of importance and care in our use of words changed over the decades since ‘Caring for Words’ was first published?”
Marilyn McEntyre: I think, to use a common metaphor, faith is a journey. Two of the books that have been really illuminating for me recently are Neil Douglas-Klotz’s “Prayers of the Cosmos” and “The Hidden Gospel.” He is an Aramaic scholar, and he points out that most of the seventy-five different translations of the New Testament that we have come from Greek. But Jesus actually spoke Aramaic, which was a Middle Eastern language that was related to Hebrew. It was a language that allowed far more nuance, flexibility, [and] variant translation than English allows for. So [Douglas-Klotz] goes through the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, and one of the things he does is just say, “Okay, here’s the line in English: ‘Blessed are they that mourn.'” And then he gives you eight different ways of translating that from Aramaic that open up what ‘mourn’ might be. Even the word in Greek for ‘mourning’ is narrower in a sense than what Aramaic would have allowed for. Words all have ranges of meaning. They have resonance. So that has helped me to go back to Scripture to really pay attention to the differences in translations, and to come back to this core idea that it’s a living Word—that Scripture, the written text itself, is sacred, but it’s sacred in the sense that it’s imbued with the life of the people who read it. So reading it together and coming back to it and looking at different translations has really deepened and opened my faith in new ways.
Marilyn McEntyre: I thought I would give [my last word] to George Steiner, partly as an homage to someone who has been such a word hero for me. This is from his reflection on what happened to German in the course of the Third Reich. He says, “Languages have great reserves of light. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness. But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize men during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen.” And this is the part I love: “It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.” I just want to say those again: the two principal functions of language, as he understands them, are “the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.”
Cherie Harder: Marilyn, thank you. It has been a delight to talk with you today. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.