Caring for Words Book Club: Play

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The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff

In the chapter entitled “Play” (Stewardship Strategy #10) Marilyn Chandler McEntyre discusses the beauty of playing with words and language. She says, “… to play with words is to love them, delight in them, honor their possibilities, and take them seriously. Real play engages what matters. Wordplay is the basis of good poetry and clear thought. Storytelling is rooted in the spirit of play” (118).

The idea, the role of play, and purpose of “play” has been the center of much of the debate in early childhood education for a long time. Many childhood experts have come to the conclusion that play is about way more than just having a good time — it is, to a certain degree, work, or “The arduous, serious, methodical, purposeful, deep work of establishing patterns in the body and mind that will serve as templates for all future learning” (189). This is something that zoology has known about animal behavior for years: the pouncing and chasing and playing that baby animals do that looks a lot like playing to humans is actually deep training for the skills that these animals are going to need to survive in the future.

I love to hear my little (honorary) niece babble new words. She’s not quite a year old and it seems like every time her mother sends me a video it is filled with new words and sounds. She’s not afraid to just make noise, to play at repeating the sounds and actions that her parents make, and it’s been really incredible to listen to her “eheheheheheheheh” turn into something that sounds much more like “yey Hailey” (the family dog).

But somewhere along the way we have lost the idea of the importance of play. McEntyre says “Play, alas, is a dimension of learning that has been trained out of far too many young people by the time they reach college” (190). Time and again I have read through somewhat boring uncreative student papers during individual conferences and said, “Why don’t you try this…. I’m not sure how it will turn out, but give it a try,” only to receive essentially the same boring uncreative paper back for the final draft. This even when I remind them that the great thing about computers is that you can move a paragraph, see if it fits somewhere else, and then if you don’t like it, simply move it back.

I think what really scares students (and probably rightly so) is that “play involves risk and trust: consent to the possibility of failure, consent to act with imperfect data or incomplete information. It’s a commonplace worth remembering that we succeed only to the extent that we’re willing to risk failure” (194). Language, though, seems like a fairly innocuous thing to play with in the grand scheme of things (though many politicians would probably disagree with me). The likelihood of accidentally creating a supervirus, or bringing a building crashing down because of weird engineering, or something equally as tragic is far less likely when one plays with words rather than chemistry or physics. But there is still risk involved (in the case of my students, primarily risk to their grades and GPA) and that is scary.

Another reason that playing with words is scary is that words have power. Maybe they don’t create superviruses, but in the right, or the wrong, hands words really can do a lot of damage. When we look at the number of teenagers attempting or committing suicide because of things that were said/written to/about them by their peers or even complete strangers, the power of words to hurt (whatever the old rhyme says about “sticks and stones”) is clear. And when we look at the examples of what a kind word or phrase from a stranger can do to lift someone’s spirits, the power of words to do good is also apparent.

I think it is not a mistake that when early in the Gospel of John, the beloved one talks about “The Word” being there in the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made” (John 1:1-3). This reference to God speaking the world into existence at creation is not an accident and goes to show the creative (creating) power that Christians give to words. And if playing with words and creating with words is their purpose, shouldn’t we be able to find peace with words in our academic lives and our spiritual lives?

  1. What are some occasions (outside of failing a paper) where playing with language (as opposed to just being mean) could get a person into trouble?
  2. What is your favorite way to play with language? What is your favorite example of others playing with language?
  3. McEntyre says “By and large we have, as a culture, abandoned wit, with its high and demanding standards, for the lesser satisfactions of sarcasm, wry remarks, and ill-gotten punch lines” (203). Are there any ways that you try to keep wit alive in your life and the lives of those around you? How does it work?

Justina Clayburn is a part-time faculty instructor in the English department at Andrews University.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayTBDMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at