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The Wonder Report: January 8, 2021
Caring for Words
Happy New Year! It's hard to believe that we're already 8 days into 2021. I started the year off feeling rested and hopeful, but I have to admit that this week has kind of knocked some of the wind out of my sails. Maybe for you too? That's the thing about new years and new days and all manner of new things: pretty quickly, all that's new becomes old again. Familiar. Hard, even. At least while we're still on this old earth. I'm thankful that one day, God will make all things new for good ... and we'll live forever in the rest and hope of Jesus.
But back to this new year we're presently entering: while other people are resolving to read more in 2021, I have determined to read less, or at least more slowly. Rather than racing through dozens of nonfiction books like I usually do each year, I've resolved for 2021 to read in full only 12 nonfiction titles. A few on my list are even rereads, books that I know have more to teach me. I'm also returning to a few well-loved authors, whose new (or new to me) books will help me get to know them better.
I started the year off with Marilyn McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, and though it was published back in 2009, it couldn't be more apropos to our present time ... even this very week. One of the reasons I chose this book, and also chose to start the year off with it, is because at least part of my intention in working through fewer books this year is to be a more careful steward of words as a reader, writer, and thinker.
I've always believed words matter, but that opinion seems to have fallen on hard times. Words are thrown around haphazardly, abused vociferously, and misused in the most obscene ways. And it's up to those of us who care about words to reclaim them for good, to restore their honor, and use them generatively in our struggling world. That's at the heart of McEntyre's book.
I've been working my way through some of the important truths of the book over on Instagram this week, and if you don't already follow me there, I'd invite you to check out the posts (you don't need to have an Instagram account to read them). But I think the thing that's been most impressed on me this week in thinking about language is this from the end of chapter 1:
"Those of us who preach and teach and minister to each other need to focus on the 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 language of legacy we carry in our pocket Bibles and on the shelf with Shakespeare."
If you don't already have a good book going for January, I'd invite you join me with Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I think we'll all find lots to think about and talk about as we read.
It's great to be back, bringing the Wonder Report to you each Friday. I took about 10 days off over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and it was the first time in years that I felt like I really rested. I've jumped back into a busy week, though, and am limping my way to the weekend. So we'll ease back into our weekly time together slowly.
I'd love to hear how you experienced the holidays in the time of COVID. Were things very different? Did you enjoy them all the same? How are you welcoming 2021? Hopefully? Warily? I'd love to hear from you. Just hit reply and you'll end up in my inbox. (And if you emailed me just before the Christmas holidays, I'm hoping to catch up on my replies in the next couple of days!)
Do you love language and the power of words?
One of Marilyn McEntyre's stewardship strategies for caring for words is to kindle (or re-kindle) our love for words. "Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal."
Here's the challenge: In your reading this week (whether in books or magazines or online), find one great sentence. Write it down. Consider what you love about it. Share it with another person (or even me!). And marvel at the power of words to accomplish all that this one sentence does.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. The Real Problem with 4-Letter Words by Karen Swallow Prior for The Gospel Coalition. I love this piece as an example of one way we steward language: by defining what is acceptable and what is not within our communities. At the same time, Prior discusses the role that even fringe language has in our vocabulary and even points to its evidence of our uniqueness as humans.
From the Essay: "Ultimately, the way curse words function magnifies the way all words function: the power is not in the letters, but in the context, intention, and effect."
2. At First Wary of Vaccine, Cherokee Speaker Says It Safeguards Language, Culture by Steve Inskeep for NPR. In a year when our bodies have been as vulnerable to disease and decay as our language, this article shows us what it looks like to protect both. Of course the Cherokee culture and language, like for so many other Indigenous people, is far more at risk and therefore has much more at stake than the English language, but I love how the Cherokee nation honors its culture and its elders through public policy that elevates language.
From the article: "Only around 2,000 people are thought to be fluent speakers of the centuries-old language, which is central to the identity of a once-powerful Cherokee nation. One of those speakers is Meda Nix, 72, who teaches Cherokee to fifth graders.
"She says that by preserving her language, she is really preserving 'everything. Our culture. Our beliefs. Our ways.'"
3. In Search of Charitable Writing by Richard Hughes Gibson for Plough. This beautiful essay shows, more than any other I've read, what's at stake when Christians take seriously the call to care for words. Love, which is not only a defining characteristic of but a primary command for Christians, is not something we can ever separate from our words. In this essay, Gibson shows us why.
From the essay: "To write in pursuit of charity, we came to see, may not make our prose more mellifluous and profound. But it does make us better writers insofar as charity makes us more patient, more attentive, more alive to the world outside our heads and the souls who inhabit it."
What I’m Reading
This week, instead of highlighting one book I'm reading (which is basically what I did above with Caring for Words), I'd like to use this section to issue an invitation. If you're interested, I'd love for you to read along with me for any or all of my 12 nonfiction books in 2020. Here's the whole list, with a tentative reading schedule.
JANUARY: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies - Marilyn McEntire
FEBRUARY: The Way of Imagination - Scott Russell Sanders
MARCH: Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Week - Tish Harrison Warren
APRIL: Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope - Esau McCaulley
MAY: Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
JUNE: A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus - Jen Pollock Michel
JULY: On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts - James K. A. Smith
AUGUST: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers - Dane C. Ortlund
SEPTEMBER: The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry - Wendell Berry
OCTOBER: The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde
NOVEMBER: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion - Jia Tolentino
DECEMBER: The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters - Priya Parker
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
In the wonder challenge above, I asked you to find one great sentence in your reading this week. Now, for those of us who write, a similar challenge: write one great sentence.
The thing about beautiful single sentences is they have the potential to inspire and frame equally beautiful larger works. At least that's the theory of author and writing coach Marion Roach Smith. In her recent online article "How to Structure a Piece of Memoir From One, Single Line," she writes, "A single line can be a shimmering truth that clarifies our tale and, when it does, the first response we should have is gratitude. After that, we need to decide what to do with the line. Chances are it is a guide to how to take a large, seemingly overwhelming story and sculpt it down to a piece that merely goes from here to there – from when we did not know something to when we did."
For now, I'm not asking you to imagine where that single line will take you, only that you write it into existence. That you allow a bit of that shimmering truth to drip from the tip of your own pen or shake loose from the clickity-clack of your own keyboard.
This is one of the fundamentals of language stewardship; this is how we remind ourselves of the love we have for words.
That's it for this issue! Thanks so much for reading along. I never take for granted the privilege of showing up in your inbox. If you know someone who might benefit from these emails, just send them this link to help them get subscribed.
Until next time!