November 22, 2013

Heart and Soul: Devotional

MARILYN MCENTYRE, interviewed by Scott Moncrieff

This interview is one of several articles in an occasional series highlighting one aspect of the divine image in humanity—that of human creativity. The series seeks to elaborate on how our own art and craft may properly express something of the genius of their Source and Giver.—Editors.

Sometimes we see words as “only” a means to arrive at truth, but you see words as having a higher importance than that.

The Gospel of John begins with “In the beginning was the Word,” and in Genesis God speaks forth all of creation. So utterance really has a very high place in Hebrew Scripture and Christian tradition. Recall the phrase “but speak the word . . . and my servant shall be healed” [Matt. 8:8, KJV]. That the word is an effective agent for God’s grace suggests that we ought to place a high premium on language. Language was the gift that God gave Adam and Eve that distinguished them from the other orders of creation. And the breaking of language at the Tower of Babel also suggests that the magnitude of that punishment had to do with the centrality of what was being broken. So all of those things suggest to me a pretty broad and profound scriptural basis for looking at “the word,” at utterance itself, as part of divine revelation and one of the ways in which God imparts power to human beings and invites us into dialogue and relationship with Him.

How did you become a lover of words?

Conversation! I was fortunate to live in a three-generation household with parents and grandparents who were wonderful storytellers, and who took the time to sit around after dinner and talk. They discussed the sermon at the dinner table and had theological arguments—mostly friendly ones. And as we grew up, we children were expected to participate; we weren’t expected to be “seen and not heard.” We weren’t expected to say foolish things. We were gently corrected. So the kind of parenting and grandparenting I got was a huge jumpstart.

And we were read to. I think all children need to be read to, and they need to be talked with. Barry Sanders, a linguist, makes the point that children who learn from the screen don’t learn to generate sentences in response to the unexpected. And that deprives them of the groundwork for literacy.

What was a favorite early book?

Winnie-the-Pooh was a foundation text, along with all the Bible stories. I realize, in retrospect, that it’s a book about community, and the tolerance that’s required of a functional, healthy community, where people care for each other. All the characters have particular foibles, and they put up with Owl’s pomposity and Rabbit’s officiousness and Piglet’s timidity and Pooh’s being “a bear of very little brain” and Eeyore’s moaning, and they all help each other out, and if they get stuck, they call Christopher Robin, which I think makes it in a certain way an allegory of a Christian community, because Christopher Robin loves them and cares for all of them. He’s bigger than all the trouble they get into, and they know they can count on him. And he brings new animals into the community, too, and they have to accept outsiders, because Christopher Robin brings them in. 

Another book that I read over and over and over, sitting in my tree house in a plum tree eating plums, is Little Women, which of course starts with the girls all getting a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Christmastime. I think that identifying with Jo March and her deep desire to write—the fact that she would sacrifice almost anything in order to be able to write—made a deep impression on me. So I started writing very early, and the pleasure of writing poems, and figuring out how to make rhyme and rhythm work, and writing stories that my parents and others appreciated, came early, and was one of the most nourishing things I did as a child.

Is it disrespectful to talk about the Bible as “literature” rather than a divine communication, or can those two things go together?

I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can say that this is a sacred text and the way it speaks to us is through a variety of literary genres. And so we have to pay attention to the different discourses in prophecy and history and law and apocalypse, even looking at the different Gospels and the terms in which they were written, and the Epistles and the churches to whom they were written. All these things have to modify our reading techniques in some way. 

For example?

Well, the Psalms are poetry; you can’t read them like the newspapers. We must understand that there are poetic devices at work, and that metaphor is powerful. I don’t like the phrase “just a metaphor,” because a metaphor is a really powerful instrument of insight. If you say “God is my rock,” you kind of have to see that as a metaphor. You can believe every word in the Bible—but not every word operates in the same way. So you have to read contextually, and the more one knows about the basic game rules of different literary genres—how poetry works, and what we expect of a responsible history . . . those things really matter.

Why should readers who aren’t “word professionals” develop or maintain a love for words?

Because language can be either a precision instrument or a blunt weapon. It is everyone’s job to learn to use the language discerningly if they’re going to enter into the public conversation that has to happen to have a civil society. That’s why we insist on people going to school, and it’s why we—at least theoretically—put a high value on having a literate public.

You can’t have a democracy without a literate public. Not now. It was different in an oral culture. And the Greeks could do it because although only a small portion of the population was literate, all of the men were educated. But we can’t operate on the scale that we do without a high degree of literacy. And right now that’s declining, and I think with fairly obvious consequences.

Children need people who model conversation for them; they need people in families or classrooms or some other environment who will sit down and pursue a thought with them.

Some years ago, when I edited a collection called Word Tastings, I just invited people to write about a favorite word. If you ask a classroom full of people, “Tell me, what are some of your favorite words that you like to say, words that taste good, words that are funny, words that are enjoyable, words that have layers of association for you?” everybody has a collection of those. And after you’ve seen them in a context . . . certainly after you’ve read the Bible, you can’t hear the words “shepherd” or “grace” or “save” without layers of meaning that come from Scripture. So all words acquire these kinds of resonances. The way a word goes about making meaning depends on what sentence you drop it into. It’s like chemistry: it will change depending upon the combination of words it’s surrounded by. That’s why I like opals so much: any angle you hold them at you see a different color. Words kind of work like that.

Marilyn Mc Entyre, a Presbyterian (PCUSA), is adjunct professor of medical humanities at the University of California, Berkeley/University of California, San Francisco Joint Medical Program. She studies the vital connections between words, faith, health, and care of creation. She was the keynote speaker for the Adventist English Association meetings at Andrews University in June 2013, where she was interviewed by Scott Moncrieff, professor of English.