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
Marilyn McEntyre tells us that good stories are gifts (111) and often provide a window after we have been wounded (115). Matthew Paul Turner, in his book the Coffeehouse Gospel, shares that personal life stories are an effective tool to share Christ in a relevant way. I would suggest that words, carefully and intentionally chosen, create the stories that inform, nourish, and entertain. Shared, our stories are the bread and water Jesus invites us to give to others.
Sharing stories started for me when I was young. I created dramas and my friends paid a penny to take a seat on the grass and watch shadow dramas through my mother’s freshly laundered sheets. Other times, I used magnets under a cardboard stage to move characters. I believe this love of sharing stories enabled me to connect with people from various foreign cultures.
After our family arrived in West Africa in the 1960s, I began reading stories written by West African authors, such as Steve Biko, Camara Laye, Sembene Ousmane, Wilton Sankawulo, Wole Soyinka, and more. In Liberia, I learned the Ananse spider stories that became the foundation for the Uncle Remus stories of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit. In Sierra Leone, I took my turn sharing stories around the evening circle at funerals. In Ghana, I became part of an Akan family and listened each week to my Asante grandfather tell stories of the family, the tribe, the nation, and the world, all in Twi.
I am saddened when I realize that many of the traditional stories are disappearing and the story tellers are not being replaced due to linguistic genocide (Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). As entire people groups and their stories are fading away, the world is left with fewer words and limited insights with which to share even our own stories.
Setting aside what is happening in my life and reading the stories of others, as I experience life changes, has been a tremendous help to me. Anaïs Nin instructs us that “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” McEntyre stresses the importance of revisiting stories (115), whether for comfort, encouragement, or a reminder of some previous time (116). For me, when major tragedies began to strike my family, I read stories of personal loss and interpretations by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Jerry Gladson, and Rusty Berkus. As I studied heroes and misfits in American literature at Ohio State University under Professor Patrick B. Mullen, author of I Heard the Old Fisherman Say, I could relate to the stories of those Ohio citizens who were disoriented as they “came across the river on the outhouse door!” They were taking risks and entering unknown waters. So was I.
What about the biblical stories? Living and re-living Bible stories also changed my perspective. Reading this chapter in McEntyre’s book, I thought of the story that kept expanding for me, the Woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-37). Each time I turned to the story of the Shunammite woman another insight would appear. The first time I read the story, I saw the lesson of “kindness comes back.” She helped the prophet, he prayed for the birth of a child, and she and her husband were blessed with a son. When her son died, I questioned the “kindness.”
Another lesson: Her “words” made it possible for her son to live. When she held him in her lap and felt the breath go out of him, she could have made the declaration that he was no longer living. Psycholinguist Timothy Leary states “Words freeze reality” and truly this woman’s son would have been declared dead had she acknowledged that he was no longer breathing. The professional wailers of the day would have come, her husband would have been called from the fields, the burial cloth wrapped around the inert body, and the young son’s burial begun with just a word. But, no, the mother did something I don’t know that I could have done, she quietly carried the rigor mortis-bound body up the stairs and placed him on the Prophet Elisha’s bed and sent a message to her husband, “It shall be well” (2 Kings 4:23). Hours, maybe a day, certainly a long donkey ride later, true to the mother’s “words” the young child was breathing again.
Anaïs Nin is right, as I looked again at the story of the Woman of Shunem through my changing experiences, I then felt that mother’s anguish in acute awareness as both of my daughters were bitten by a rabid cat. The eldest daughter had a reaction to the vaccine. I held her much as the Shunammite women held her son. Later, when my husband lost his life in a car accident, I again went back to the story of the Woman of Shunem. My early reading of how “kindness comes back” had faded and the new story was the near death of her son. I saw the reward of her faith when she said “It shall be well.” For me, it wasn’t going well, but I read again and saw where she clung to the prophet and would not let go, teaching “Hang on until Jesus returns.” None of this brought back my deceased husband or returned our vivacious 15-year-old to normalcy. However, I have learned to look for those Christ-sent windows (115) and a different faith has provided the frame within that gives me a different hope.
Thinking again of the value of re-reading stories, the story of the Woman of Shunem in particular, I recently reread it from the perspective of the prophet and his helper. Jeremiah pictures Gehazi, Elisha’s assistant, to be a failure; he could not heal the boy, even with the prophet’s rod in hand. The story then transitions into Elisha’s arrival, the subsequent healing, and then the lesson: Elisha, the great prophet, the conduit for healing, sends his assistant to tell the waiting crowd that the boy is alive and hungry. Elisha does not embarrass Gehazi, but rather empowers and sends him with the words of victory. The power of words!
McEntyre tells of an older woman, who, reflecting on her gift of sharing stories, explains, “I’ve been through things” (114). If we are truthful with our memories, we have all “been through things” and we have stories to share. I thank McEntyre for reminding me that stories have contributed so much to my life and that I must be a good steward and share those stories when someone is in need of a unique “cup of water and slice of bread.”
Jeanette Bryson has visited countries on five continents and lived in four countries outside of the United States. Both school and travel have informed her worldview and taught her to see life through a variety of perspectives. She enjoys walking along the beach, reading, editing, and traveling. Jeanette is currently transitioning from teaching in the English Department at Andrews University to serving as an associate professor and chair of the Education Department at Washington Adventist University.
Nin, Anaïs (Retrieved 2006, 2014, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7190.Anaïs.Nin.
Mullen, Patrick. B. (1978). I Heard the Old Fishermen Say: Folklore of the Texas Gulf Coast. Austen, TX: University of Texas Press.
Skutnabbb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education—or Worldwide Diversity
and Human Rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Airbaum Associates.
Turner, Matthew P. (2004). The Coffeehouse Gospel. Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books.
Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule PlannerFebruary 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, 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 http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5916