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Blog / The Life-Enriching Benefit of a Phrase: An Interview with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

The Life-Enriching Benefit of a Phrase: An Interview with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre websiteAside from concentrating on entire books of the Bible or chapters or even verses, sometimes brief, simple phrases can do the most to inspire and draw a reader closer to God.

Bible Gateway interviewed Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (@marilynmcentyre) about her book, What’s in a Phrase?: Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014).

Buy your copy of What's in a Phrase?

You write, “Phrases have lives of their own.” What do you mean?

Ms. McEntyre: While a sentence leaves us with a declaration or proposition or question to consider, a phrase doesn’t declare or propose, but drops into our awareness and triggers associations, memories, felt responses. It operates on a pre-rational level, inviting not argument or analysis so much as a moment of awareness I might describe as epiphanic.

What is lectio divina, why do you consider it an important way to read the Bible, and how is your book not a reflection of that practice?

Ms. McEntyre: This ancient Benedictine practice invites contemplative reading: four slow readings of a short passage of Scripture, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, considering what door it opens, what invitation it offers in the context of your current life, and finally resting in it as a place of welcome. It’s a wonderful way to let oneself be nourished by Scripture, and be addressed in an intimate way—unabashedly subjective, prayerful, open-hearted reading-as-listening. My book borrows from lectio in pausing over phrases that have summoned me and reflecting on their power, implications, and application. It does not offer a strict model of lectio, though, since the reflections on each phrase, though prayerful, do not attempt to stay within the form of lectio as it might be practiced in private or group prayer settings.

Do all languages accommodate a divine encounter in scriptural phrases?

Ms. McEntyre: Yes. To regard the Bible as a “living word” is to believe that the Holy Spirit informed not only the original writing but also the work of translation, and guides our reading when we are open to divine instruction. Some translations are “better” than others in being more faithful to original constructions or contexts, attuned to contemporary sensibilities, poetically powerful. Even what some might consider poor translations can be instruments of the grace when one comes to scripture prayerfully seeking guidance. And every language is striated with layers of meaning, nuance, and allusiveness. Words are never neutral; they carry histories of usage and association that affect us in ways that are felt before they are thought.

Why is it important that phrases trigger “moments of summoning”?

Ms. McEntyre: Sometimes the Holy Spirit has to subvert our defenses by coming in the back door. We may approach Bible study with fixed assumptions or a road map that serves preconceived purposes. But as Eliot put it,

      what you thought you came for
      is only a shell, a husk of meaning
      from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled,
      if at all. Either you had no purpose
      or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
      and is altered in fulfillment.

Those lines seem to apply to the way God takes us by surprise and redirects our attention, just when we thought we knew what we were about. A phrase can complicate our comfortable constructions of meaning in ways that break open hearts hardened by habit and alter entrenched points of view.

Is “phrase awareness” a form of Bible study or is it something more transcendent than that?

Ms. McEntyre: “Study” suggests rational inquiry, whereas the kind of awareness lectio invites is open-ended, belonging more to prayer and meditation than to study as such. It doesn’t have set objectives except to dwell in the text and with God, holding close for a time words that give us a sense of God’s voice calling us into intimate conversation.

Are there inappropriate biblical phrases to dwell on or is all scriptural content fair game?

Ms. McEntyre: The only thing that would make a phrase from Scripture “inappropriate” for contemplative reflection, it seems to me, would be a reader’s misplaced motive. If, for instance, a reader picked a phrase for a preordained purpose—as a proof text, or to reinforce a sense of rightness, or to feed a fantasy—rather than asking to be led to a place of encounter, his or her own intentions would defeat the holy play of the Spirit.

Can meditating on arbitrary phrases be dangerous?

Ms. McEntyre: Any encounter with a sacred text can be dangerous. Reading itself can be dangerous if, we use it. The phrases that arise in lectio are not “arbitrary,” but places of divine encounter sought and given in a spirit of prayerful seeking.

Give examples of how we might contemplate each following phrase:

    …hidden with Christ… (Col. 3:3)

Ms. McEntyre: This phrase might trigger a memory of hiddenness. For someone who had to hide in fear as a child, it might bring both unsettling associations and reassurance of ultimate safety. For me it triggers a memory of speaking at my father’s funeral, when I realized how much even of the lives of those we know and love best remains a mystery, known only to God. Such associations might open a line of reflection on when we might need to remain hidden, or a feeling of reverence for the mystery of those around us.

    …delight is in the law… (Ps. 1:2)

Ms. McEntyre: This phrase might plunge us into uncomfortable paradox and invite us to reclaim and revisit the biblical laws that give guidance and reveal something of who God is, and to avoid the false comfort of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” The word “delight” may also be arresting in that for many, law doesn’t awaken delight as much as fear or guilt. So the phrase brings up the question, “What is there to delight in?” which might initiate a fruitful reframing.

    …to love kindness… (Micah 6:8)

Ms. McEntyre: One of my recent associations with the word “kindness” is Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem of that title, so the word sends me back to lines in the poem that have stayed with me and given me helpful images. To love kindness suggests an attitude of delight in both witnessing and practicing kindness; the phrase brings up memories of acts of kindness that have touched, humbled, and inspired me. These memories might lead me into prayers of gratitude and intercession for those who have been kind to me.

What do you want your book to accomplish in the lives of its readers?

Ms. McEntyre: What’s in a Phrase? is a small book—really only a sample of a continuing practice of pausing over phrases that call me to attentiveness. My hope is that readers will find in it new ways of hearing words and the Word, and that they will listen for those words or phrases that beckon them to pause for a while before going on to sentence or story or sermon.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Ms. McEntyre: Just that I am grateful for invitation to conversation about this practice and this project, and to those who introduced me to the reading and prayer practices that inform it.

Bio: Marilyn Chandler McEntyre is a fellow of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, and she teaches at UC Berkeley. Her other books include The Color of Light: Poems on van Gogh’s Late Paintings, Reading Like a Serpent: What the Scarlet A is About, and Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.

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