Archives For Language


Transformation Through Play.

A Review of (and Response to)

Learning To Speak God From Scratch:
Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.

Jonathan Merritt

Paperback: Convergent, 2018
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Reviewed by Chris Schumerth

Who among us hasn’t had the experience of uttering, or perhaps hearing, words and phrases that are expected, so much so that they begin to lose their meaning? And then once the meanings are lost on us, and once the fad has run its course, might we just let the words slip right out of our vocabulary altogether? This is the phenomenon Jonathan Merritt takes on his new book, Learning To Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.

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Tomorrow (May 19th) marks the birthday of one of our favorite writers, Marilyn McEntyre.
In honor of the occasion, we offer this intro reading guide to her books…


We’ve ordered this list in the order that we think the books should be read, and we offer a brief explanation of why each book was included. We’ve included excerpts of most the books via Google Books.

1)  Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

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Or So I Like to Think:
The Great Talk of
David Bentley Hart


The Hidden and the Manifest:
Essays in Theology and Metaphysics

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017
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The Dream-Child’s Progress And Other Essays

Paperback: Angelico Press, 2017
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Essay by Martyn Wendell Jones


*** This essay first appeared in our Fall 2017 magazine issue.
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There are few things as pleasing to me as the great garrulous tradition in American literature. Our country’s abundance of grandly verbose storytellers represents the best of our cultural inheritance. Think of Melville, the wild and abyssal “thought-diver,” author of one of the world’s greatest stories of maritime and metaphysical adventure; think too of Whitman, irrepressible and expansive and democratic, who shed tears at the death of Lincoln—“O Captain!”; then there is Twain, whose creation Huckleberry sees his raft go “all to smash and scatteration,” which the critic Michael Schmidt identifies as evidence of a thrill for great speech.

Since our nation’s founding, we have been a polemical people; Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, American to its core, is a record of people of the 19th century, some of real eminence, giving themselves over to various utopianisms and cultic enthusiasms—the snake oil pitches and True Enlightenment hustles mixing with earnest seeking after the God-of-backwoods-revival. Our nation’s complete spiritual history and profile would show us to be strivers after the ineffable by way of quite a lot of declaiming.

Numbered among our country’s current generation of great talkers would certainly be the Eastern Orthodox philosopher-theologian David Bentley Hart, whose two recent essay collections attest to his capacity for a great speechifying all his own.

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Dwell and Savor.

A Review of

Word by Word:
A Daily Spiritual Practice
Marilyn McEntyre

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016
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Reviewed by Alisa Williams
There are books that seem to appear in one’s life when they are most needed. So it was with Word by Word by Marilyn McEntyre. In the midst of packing up boxes for a move across state lines, McEntyre’s thoughtful devotional served as a little lifeline of peace and profundity in the midst of the chaos that accompanies ending a chapter of life and beginning anew.

In Word by Word, McEntyre reflects on the richness of words – fifteen words to be exact. She invites the reader on a journey that involves patience and discipline, especially for those of us who like to fly through a book so we can be on to the next great read.

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The Whole Cacophony
of Human Experience

A Review of 

Living with a Dead Language:
My Romance with Latin

Ann Patty

Hardback: Viking, 2016.
Buy now:  [ AmazonKindle
Reviewed by Sam Chamelin
It seems unlikely that anyone would pick up a book about learning Latin, unless you have already had the pleasure of diving into this dusty corner of academia.  That’s precisely how I came to this book.  Like Ann Patty, I am a Latinist, and her descriptions of small, dark, and somewhat awkward undergraduate Latin students returned me to my own studies at Ursinus College.  I remember that my professor, John Wickersham, once brought an impression made from a ring of Julius Caesar as a “Show and Tell” piece, and he encouraged us to take a look.  We obliged, and yet somehow failed to match his excitement over the piece.  When we had finished our staid examination of his child-like exuberance, he chastised us with surprising fervor, saying that we hadn’t properly paid respect to our proximity to history.  “You are touching something that touched something that touched Julius Caesar,” he bellowed.  “I want you to touch it, get your fingers into it.  LOOK at it.”  With that, we passed it around again, paying more fervid attention to this historic item to the third degree.

While Ann Patty lacks the characteristic eccentricity of professional Latinists, she seems just as eager as Dr. Wickersham to connect the lives of readers to this far-from-dead language.  In this surprising and engaging memoir, Living with a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin, Patty leads us to put our minds, our fingers, and indeed even our lives into the study of this language.  In doing so, she introduces us to a world where languages aren’t dead; rather, the continue to be a primary means by which we make sense of the world and our own lives.  Patty is happy to allow her life to serve as a template for this journey.

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The Surprise of Living

A Feature Review of

Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a Fresh Language of Prayer  
Jennie Isbell and J. Brent Bill

Paperback: IVP Books, 2015
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Reviewed By Trish Edwards-Konic
Do you want to dig deeper into your already flourishing prayer life? Or has your prayer life gotten boring? Do you long to have the prayer intimacy of the saints, or even the Psalmists? If you answered yes to any of these queries, this is the book for you.
Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a Fresh Language of Prayer by Jennie Isbell and J. Brent Bill tackles these concerns and more. The 2 authors spent several years of conversation as they crafted this tome. Jennie Isbell is an experienced spiritual director and author of Leading Quakers. J. Brent Bill is a Friends minister and author of several books and articles such as Mind the Light: Learning to See With Spiritual Eyes and Imagination & Spirit.

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A Gift to the Church and Classroom

Dazzling Bodies: Rethinking Spirituality and Community Formation.
Richard Valantasis

Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014.
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Reviewed by Kyle A. Schenkewitz
In Dazzling Bodies, Richard Valantasis develops a remarkable vision for Christian communities through engagement with critical theory, theological discourse, and diverse ministerial contexts. His thesis is as fresh and innovative as it is steeped in the liturgical and spiritual traditions of ancient Christianity. His concern is to unbind contemporary spirituality from its individualistic tendencies and reconnect the basis of spirituality to the worshipping community. He argues that Christian spiritual practices arose out of communal life, fed and formed the community, and linked the individual members to the communal identity. The disconnect between community and spirituality has been detrimental to contemporary congregations. Dazzling Bodies proposes methods for analyzing parishes as communities in order to understand their corporate life. One aspect of this analysis is how communities use words, gestures, sounds and other signs to communicate with one another.  Applying social semiotic theory, he argues, helps identify the systems of solidarity and power in the parish setting. These “diagnostic tools enable us all to understand the process of developing a spirituality while staying closely connected to our religious communities.” (xii) For Valantasis, communal spirituality is primarily communicated and shared in the liturgical worship of a parish. In the liturgy, individuals meet and are gathered together into a corporate identity, “a complex locus of individual and corporate spiritualities.” (xiii) In the rich density of the corporate liturgical performance, individual bodies become dazzling with the energetic life of the Spirit at work in the corporate body.  These dazzling bodies shine forth from within the life of the community to transform the world around them.

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Infinite Forkability

A Feature Review of

From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation

Umberto Eco

Translated by Anthony Oldcorn
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2014
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Review by Michial Farmer


The problem with reading a book written by a man of such superhuman erudition as Umberto Eco is that the reader needs a similarly Herculean level of learning in order to challenge and critique it. The rest of us can read Eco, learn from him, even enjoy the overwhelming nature of the experience—but we can’t argue with him the way good books call us to argue with them. We can only sit at his feet—our guru, our professor, we the devotees, we the students.


From the Tree to the Labyrinth, for example—a book that was published in Italian in 2007 but that has just been heroically translated into English by Harvard Professor of Italian Studies Anthony Oldcorn—discourses for nearly a hundred pages on Aristotle’s difficult logical and scientific treatises, not so much on what they themselves say as on what an even more difficult series of medieval commentators, philosophers, and scribes took them to say. (And that’s only about a sixth of the overall book.) It’s to Eco’s credit (and to Olcorn’s, whose accomplishment is only slightly less impressive than Eco’s) that this journey rarely feels tedious or perilous. He knows this material well, explains it skillfully, and mostly leaves his non-specialist reader feeling illiterate for not being familiar with, say, Scotus Eriugena.

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Wendell Berry

I stumbled this morning on this fascinating 1978 lecture by Wendell Berry, which as best I can tell has never been published in one of Berry’s books.

Description:In a discussion about language and culture, the author of The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture argues that the deterioration of language into vague technocratic abstractions is directly responsible for our present moral, ecological and political ills.

If this lecture was timely in 1978, it is even more so today, 35 years later!!!
*** Books by Wendell Berry
There are a few rough spots is this recording (presumably due to the transfer from tape to digital), but stick with it as this lecture is well worth the time!
Listen Now:

CLICK HERE to download as an MP3 (87 MB)…

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Susan Wheeler - MemeMemes IRL

A review of

Meme: Poems

Susan Wheeler

Paperback: U of Iowa Press, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by J. Ted Voigt

I used to think that words had something to do with information. I didn’t know quite how it worked, but I knew that when I saw words strung together the result would be a gain of information.  After reading Meme by Susan Wheeler, I know some things I didn’t know before, but I’m still not sure if it had anything to do with information.  I’ve always heard that poetry is supposed to “show, not tell” but I have never seen that idea on display as powerfully as Wheeler does in her new collection.

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