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I love words.
I love the way they look and sound. I love learning their secret histories and cracking them open to explore what’s inside. I love playing with them, stringing them together like colorful beads, working hard to craft a turn of phrase that surprises, delights, stirs something in us and opens something up.
As a preacher, I also love speaking words. Letting them loose, like a firefly gently cupped in your hands, and watching what they do once set free. And of course, the power of the word preached can only accomplish its work and not return empty, as the prophet Isaiah would have it, if our words arise from the fresh spring of the indwelling Word and are empowered by the Spirit of the living God.
But to my point: words matter.
Words—spoken, written, tweeted, texted, etc.—can carry extraordinary power to either be an instrument for good or a weapon for destruction. Words don’t just say something; they do something. This is true not only for those of us who, vocationally, traffic in words. It is true for all of us who use language.
Thus my deep concern for the sheer amount of verbal promiscuity and verbal pollution that characterizes the times we’re living in. Wendell Berry has long identified that the two epidemic illnesses of our time, “the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons,” are closely related to the disintegration of language. Berry writes: “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” (Standing by Words, p. 14)
Among the many things I’ve found alarming with the current White House Administration (and this is true of the state of politics in general) is the lack of discipline with words. We saw it again last week as Trump labored awkwardly over a thin explanation of how he meant “wouldn’t” instead of “would” in his press conference with Vladimir Putin.
This is a president who has time and time again shown his inability to tame his tongue and be precise and careful in his language. In all fairness, it’s not just Trump. But I continue to be flummoxed by how so many of my fellow evangelicals keep giving Trump a “pass” on the recklessness of his speech. As I’ve said elsewhere, we need to expect more from our leaders in terms of how they use their words.
I’m in the middle of re-reading Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s outstanding book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009). It’s a much needed breath of fresh air amid all the toxic fumes and lingering smog from the current disintegration of language.
McEntyre hits the bullseye when she writes: “Caring for language is a moral issue. 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.”
She continues: “[I]f language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in something like the way a good farmer cares for the life of the soul, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in the soil that has been used up, over fertilized, or exposed to too many toxic chemicals. The comparison, I believe, is pertinent, timely and precise—and urgent.” (pp.2-3)
Yes, caring for words is a moral issue, and I agree that there is a level of urgency around it. I feel this way as a preacher, writer, disciple, husband, father, and as a citizen who cares about the health of the soul of our nation.
So McEntyre calls us to be faithful stewards of words. And that word “stewardship” strikes me as just the right choice. It acknowledges that our language, much like other precious resources, is something that cannot be taken for granted and, if not cared for and protected, erodes and becomes contaminated. All of this to our peril and the peril of future generations.
McEntyre goes on to offer twelve practices for stewarding words wisely and well: love words, tell the truth, don’t tolerate lies, read well, stay in conversation, share stories, love the long sentence, practice poetry, attend to translation, play with words, offer our words to God in prayer, and lastly, cherish silence.
If you also find yourself in a place of feeling discouraged about the current debasement of language, then I commend McEntyre’s book to you. After all, the place to begin as stewards is with our own practice of how we care for and use words.
Let me close with one of my favorite paragraphs from Caring for Words:
“Those of us who preach and teach and minister to each other need to focus on word—on words—more explicitly, intentionally, and caringly as part of the practice of our trade. This is necessary and urgent activism: to resist ‘newspeak,’ to insist on precision and clarity, to love the bald statement, the long sentence, the particular example, the extended definition, the specifics of story, and the legacy of language we carry in our pocket Bibles and on the shelf with Shakespeare. We are stewards of the treasures that have been put into our keeping….[W]hat is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.” (pp.20-21)
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)