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Seek the mot juste

20 April 2010

Bill Countryman on a champion of accuracy


Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

SOUND-BITES, misleadingly spun and emotionally freighted, often carry more weight in the public sphere than reasoned discourse. They infect all areas: politics, commerce, finance, the arts, religion. This is the “culture of lies” in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s title.

Her response is not so much to analyse the phenomenon as to reassert the communicative and aesthetic possibilities of language used with love and care, and to suggest ways of reclaiming it. To that end, she organises this book not by “chapters”, but by 12 “stewardship strategies”.

The phrase may sound a bit too much like the very utilitarianism she is combating. Think of it rather as a bit of sly subversion. These “strategies” are not just tools or techniques, but paths of spiritual engagement with language, with the human community, and with the mystery of God and God’s creation to which speech constantly refers.

The strategies begin with the very direct: “Love Words” and “Don’t Tolerate Lies”. But the focus broadens to the social context of words, as she reminds us to “Stay in Conversation” and “Share Stories”, not just abstractions. McEntyre attests to the power of poetry. And she concludes in the realm of spirituality with “Play”, “Pray”, and “Cherish Silence”.

As often happens, the likeliest readers of this book may prove to be people who already understand its message, but they will not be wasting their time. They will find here the gift of intelligent conversation about something of deep importance. They will find encouragement to persevere, and also hope of expanding the community in which words are taken seriously.

They will emerge, I think, less despairing and more dedicated to the care of words. And both Church and world will benefit.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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