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Now It’s Officially Summer
Everyone has a certain moment for which the summer “officially” begins. For some, it’s when that last final exam of the academic year is taken or graded. For others, it’s the first trip out to the lake with the boat, first weekend at the cabin, first day at the shore.
For me, summer starts when I’ve assembled the “summer stack”–the selections of long, great literature, short fiction, biography, poetry, and spirituality and theology that I’ll immerse myself in as I take extended time off in the summer months.
Putting the “summer stack” together for 2020, I found myself thinking about the way the practice of reading has taken shape in my life over the years. As a kid, I took to reading; I was the kid who’d skip the afternoon bus to read Greek mythology and Edgar Allen Poe stories after school till dinnertime.
This bookishness generally stayed with me into adulthood, but as a younger pastor I generally kept my bibliophilia to myself. I spent my first years in vocational ministry working in megachurches in which being well-read was not a virtue many of the leaders I served with aspired to. “What are you reading right now?” was not a question I ever remember hearing around the church office, and if that question were asked, the only correct answers were business leadership books copped from the corporate world, or volumes of pragmatic church-growth strategery.
Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies
I’d always had the hunch that words matter — that they’re holy, sacramental. But it was a course with Jeff Munroe (fellow writer here on The Twelve, and now an esteemed author ) as I was finishing my MDiv that put it all together for me. Through his teaching, and lots of lots of reading in that course, I discovered in a new way that language has vast reservoirs of life and power, immense capacity to create or destroy, to harm or heal, to “make weal and create woe.”
The Scriptures themselves bear this out, with their saga of God speaking and things happening: creation, promises, guidance,
judgement, deliverance, plagues, prophecy. And at the center of Scripture, there’s Jesus Christ, the Word par excellence.
All followers of Jesus, and Christian ministers especially, must care for language. A pastor,after all, spends her or his life dealing with words: the words (and thus lives) of congregants, the words of Holy Scripture, and Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her brilliant book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, puts it perfectly: “Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words.”
Pandemic, Protests, & Learning in War-Time
I had planned to just finish this piece with a closing invitation to pile your “summer stack” high — to immerse yourself in Tolstoy and Flannery O’Connor and Steinbeck and Faulkner and Graham Greene and Toni Morrison and more over the next few months. To join the “great conversation” on life and meaning our greatest authors have long been having.
It feels strange, however, to be writing this article this week. Just a short walk from my front door in Philadelphia, masses of people continue to protest and lament police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Looting, vandalism, and violence are ongoing in my city, and many cities across the country. We’re still in the middle of a global pandemic.
And then last night, in a heinous, blasphemous display, the President had police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters to clear them away so he could pose with a Bible in a photo-op in front of a church that had suffered fire damage.
Is it tone-deaf to write this? Should I write this piece, urging you to make this the summer you tackle War and Peace, while the nation burns? Should you care about reading, in a moment that feels so urgent?
C.S. Lewis had to confront these same kinds of questions. As England had just entered WWII in 1939, Lewis preached a classic sermon entitled “Learning in War-Time,” in which he responded to those who considered education during a time of international conflict unnecessary or even irresponsible. Though the particular situations have changed, I find his fundamental insights resonant.
First, Lewis notices that conflict, unrest, emergencies- these don’t create a new situation; they just aggravate the insulated and comfortable among us so that we see the real human situation as it actually and always is. And, among several other wise insights, Lewis observes that mathematics, art, historical research, and innumerable other endeavors are so many ways we Christians practice life “ in the name of the Lord” — coram Deo, before the face of God.
So, even when there’s chaos and unrest, I invite you to read. To dwell deeply in the power of words. Build your “summer stack” (and by all means, add to your Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck some Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lisa Sharon Harper). Pray, keep silence, grieve, lament, speak up.
Because caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for each other is inseparable from caring for our words.