Caring for Words Book Club: Tell The Truth

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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. McEntyre was the keynote speaker for the meetings of the Adventist English Association in June 2013. Our book club discussion will run 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

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. It helps, of course, if the cover artist and her cohorts have done their job well. And JuLee Brand and her image crew leave “well” in the dust with Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. A washed gold background anchors bold reds and blues. Calligraphy evokes monks and cloisters. An image of the author dominates the cover’s lower half. Bolz-Weber’s liberally tattooed chest and forearms are initially shocking to this reader who never even considered having her ears pierced. Closer examination reveals Bolz-Weber’s choice of religious iconography for her body art. This muscular, blue-jeaned and booted contemplative has made of her body a temple, and the tattoos are its stained glass. As viewers and readers, we begin to suspect that not all of this Lutheran pastor’s sermons are delivered from behind a pulpit.

The book’s inside cover describes the author as “a former stand-up comic” who manages to turn “spiritual memoir on its ear in this sardonically irreverent and beautifully honest page-turner.” We are promised “stunning narrative and poignant honesty [from] a woman who is both deeply faithful and deeply flawed, giving hope to the rest of us along the way.” Here, frankly, is the kind of truth I’m currently in the market for, the kind of truth educator Marilyn Chandler McEntyre urges us to generate in “Tell the Truth,” an early chapter in her Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.

Like Chandler McEntyre, Bolz-Weber uses the word “Truth” in a chapter title. But Bolz-Weber pairs it with another word that I’m betting she didn’t learn from her Church of Christ parents. In this chapter, Bolz-Weber traces the rise and fall of a particular friendship with a woman named Candace whom she describes as being “ginger haired and voluptuous,” growing up in “New England, in a house that had a staff,” and attending her debutante ball high on heroin. The two women meet in a recovery program. Bolz-Weber describes the forces that draw them together: We both had collected a long string of damaged boyfriends and girlfriends, some of whom were convicted felons, but we had both gotten married to nice men, had a couple of kids, and had managed to go back to both church and school. We leaned on each other because it’s hard keeping so many contradictions together by yourself. (70)

Bolz-Weber charts her efforts to be a good friend. Candace is required to have someone accompany her whenever she has her children overnight—a task Bolz-Weber accepts. Bolz-Weber describes her motivation for adding considerable time, travel, and scheduling challenges to an already beyond full life: “Being a loyal friend is something I haven’t always been good at, so at the time, I was just trying to make up for my past disloyalties by being (or just making it look like I was) selfless” (71). Eventually, however, Bolz-Weber sees that her friend has fallen back into her old habits of drug abuse. She also senses that her own capacity to give can never match Candace’s capacity to receive. Bolz-Weber describes the situation in a sentence that is worth the price of the book: “We were like twins in utero, one taking all the nutrients, and the other becoming scrawny as a result.”

Bolz-Weber’s sister intervenes and helps her see the dangers of this friendship, although initially the sibling receiving the advice takes it neither kindly nor quietly. She does come to see the wisdom and indeed the necessity of recalibrating this friendship, however, and in her recounting of this process quotes novelist David Foster Wallace: “The truth will set you free . . . but not before it’s done with you” (72). Bolz-Weber points out how we often need others to shine the light on our darkness—a darkness that we spend “so much energy curating, protecting, enjoying” (73).

This lesson, for Bolz-Weber, is one that she finds she has to keep learning and re-learning. She says,

Very often I will avoid the truth until my face goes red like a toddler avoiding her nap; until limp limbed, she finally stops flailing and falls asleep and receives rest—the very thing she needs and the very thing she fights. When someone like me, who will go to superhuman lengths to avoid the truth, runs out of options—when I am found out or too exhausted to pretend anymore or maybe just confronted by my sister—it feels the truth might crush me. And that is right. The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens. (73-74)

Surely these are words worth pondering when much of Christendom is celebrating Lent, and together we anticipate Easter and the horrors and wonders contained in the story of that one weekend. As we reconsider those events, as we prepare to hear them retold and perhaps even to join in the retelling ourselves, we would do well, I think, to heed Chandler McIntyre’s words also: “We are called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word. Still, telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed” (54). Yes, telling the truth is a work out, and the fortunate among us can give thanks for a team of dedicated coaches. Chandler McIntyre cites some of those in her corner. Many of them continue to work with me too: Jane Austen, Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich, Marilynne Robinson, Henry David Thoreau, Edmund Wilson. Though she might find the venue a tad crowded, I’d like to nominate Nadia Bolz-Weber for a front row space by my ring. Her truth and her telling make me want to keep fighting the good fight—and to approach each round more deliberately, more creatively, and more conscientiously than the last.

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 LiesCatherine Tetz, Washington State UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKelly 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