Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

Every day we are surrounded by words. We hear them in music, view them in media, speak them to others in conversation, reflect on them for meaning, and are guided by them in scripture and through prayer. Words provide identity, give direction, inspire and correct us, provoke an awakening of conscience, and inform wisdom. But little has been written about them with as much care as evidenced in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s narrative. She describes how words penetrate, guide, and subvert culture, and explains why it is urgent that we become aware of this process. As a student, I had been captivated by the following statement by Harry Blamires: “The battle for morality and reason is often lost or won when a new verbal usage is accepted or rejected” (33). McEntyre fleshes out that statement exquisitely in this short, succinct, and beautifully written text.

In this review, I will outline the core of McEntyre’s book, detailing how we engage language as it is informed by the narratives and ideas of those who preceded us, how it is important for us as teachers today, and how it may be presented as being important to the students we serve in the future. Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies begins with a word of gratitude, and then moves on to explore twelve stewardship strategies for considering both why and how we should care for words. I will divide these twelve strategies into three themes: why words are worthy of care (love, truth, and lies); why words are worthy of discernment (read, converse, share stories, and love sentences); and why words need to be life-giving (poetry, translation, play, pray, and silence).

Why Words Are Worthy of Care

In her strategies for care of language involving love, truth, and lies, the need to worry about language is summarized by McEntyre this way:

Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship (1).

This is not a new position regarding language over the last few decades. Postman (1995) noted that this is one area that should especially be made evident to those who teach:

The profligate use of language is not merely a social offence, but a threat to the ways in which we have constructed our notions of good and bad, permissible and impermissible. To use language to defend the indefensible (as George Orwell claimed some of us habitually do), to use language to transform certain human beings into nonpersons, to use language to lie and to blur distinctions, to say more than you know or can know, to take the name of the truth in vain—these are offences against a moral order, and they can, incidentally, be committed with excellent pronunciation or with impeccable grammar and spelling. Our engagement with language almost always has a moral dimension, a point that has been emphasised by every great philosopher from Confucius and Socrates to Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. How is it possible that a teacher, at any level, could miss it? (84, 85)

Caring for language is seen by McEntyre as a moral and sacramental issue. The view that the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons are closely related to the disintegration of language is the key theme that binds together McEntyre’s discourse on why the stewardship of words is a necessary act when market language is the dominant idiom of culture. Postman, Blamires, and McEntyre would agree that education is at the core of culture, and that teachers, in particular, need to value and use words wisely.

One statement that could be very useful in teaching students how to see the value of language as being communal, jumped out at me as McEntyre said we have no choice but to tell the truth “slant,” only seeing one side of the elephant at a time. The best we can do in our efforts to tell the truth is to take the measure of our own slant on it and be accountable to our points of view (41). Teaching students how to handle words with care, love them, be precise with them, and be accountable for them is difficult and requires discipline, but not doing so is catastrophic. Such care for words is, in fact, countercultural; to be in the world but not of it.

Why Words Are Worthy of Discernment

In exploring her strategies of reading, conversation, stories, and sentences, McEntyre labels using our words truthfully as likened to an extreme sport for the very committed (54). Students need to think, and this is at the core of her admonition. We need to provoke thinking by using questions well, noting that the words we depend on are “our very life” (67). Reading is morally consequential. In her metaphors of entering the text, eating the text, and breathing the text, McEntyre unfolds the seriousness, burden, and blessing of reading well. However, in a mediated world, conversation is now entertainment, a one-way lane between viewer and actor, with little possibility to converse in ways that raise good questions, act on them, and engage culture. The word conversation needs to be defined and reclaimed in ways that are active and inspirational. Providing leisure to read and moments to discuss reading is significant in fostering deep thought, and teachers need to provide and plan time for this to happen. Curiosity and identity are fostered from such encounters.

Many educators are aware of the need for more relational activity in learning. In the last issue of CEJ, technology and teaching was a key focus, raising such concern. Less than half of the population of the United States reads one novel in a year (111). As Christians who find ourselves as living in and by the story of the Living Word, and an overarching story of creation, fall, redemption, and reconciliation, this is indeed a travesty. Metaphors for how we value word and story matter more than we may think. Students benefit greatly by being invited into such conversations.

Why Words Need to Be Life-Giving

In exploring her strategies of poetry, translation, play, prayer, and silence, McEntyre puts action into her need to engage culture in redemptive ways. Her emphasis on goals, precision, and habits of mind set the stage for using words as an act of love. In her view, language is culture, and to translate is to look at origins, meanings, values, and orientations within how a life is lived. When we play with language, we give ourselves and others permission to be marinated in its intricacies. In reflection on love of language, we can practice the presence of God. Every utterance becomes a prayer. In viewing our language as a prayer, we are freed to have it remind, reframe, reawaken, empower, humble, and align us with God’s plan and purpose for our lives as being a service and encouragement to others. As we mediate on words in scripture, and activate that same meditation on our daily language, something happens. McEntyre quotes Bonhoeffer: “Meditation is not having great thoughts, but loving words you hear and letting them shape you” (228). In being shaped, this book has much to offer those who teach, and those who love words.

Works Cited

  • Blamires, Harry.  The Post-Christian Mind: Exposing Its Destructive Agenda. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publishing, 1999.
  • Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.