Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith
Leafwood Publishers, 2018
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.
As I look back each year at the list of books I consume, there are usually several volumes dealing with the soul and the interior life of a Christ-follower. I need them. I am well-served by giving attention to this most important aspect of my life. So when a book’s title has “soul” and “words” in it, I’m drawn to it. But to be honest, I was introduced to Spencer’s work in Jonathan Merritt’s upcoming book, Learning to Speak God From Scratch, which will likely be a future review.
From the back cover, “Spencer shares practical ways to choose life-giving words and shape what he calls the four essentials of the soul: remembering the past with gratitude, anticipating the future with hope, dwelling within ourselves in peace, engaging with others in love.” Spencer has taught communication studies at Westmont College for thirty years. He shines light on how all of us frame our experiences, while leading us to see the need to reframe them. Obviously, we do this through our words. We don’t always realize “how these frames affect our attitudes, our relationships, and our faith. Yet Jesus call us to reframe our lives in terms of grace instead of law, light instead of darkness, love instead of retaliation.”
One of the strengths of the book is the personal stories by which Spencer helps us understand the power of the words we choose to describe how we see the world. Coming out of the gate, he gets real, titling the Introduction, Fifteen Years Down the Hatch. As a lifelong learner, he opens to us the window to his journey dealing with the toxicity of his own upbringing. Despite such sad but common realities, they can be reframed and recast in ways that are both healthy and still true. “Whichever way I labeled my experience, I lived in the story I told. As a language-user, I’m bound to all the audacious capacities and frustrating limits of words. We label, we name, we frame all of our experiences, past, present, and future. We give words to our inner and outer worlds. In doing so, we construct a kind of home we carry with us…. I believe we all need to reframe our stories, at least parts of them, in order to heal, to discard lies, to move from partial to richer, fuller explanations, to see our lives as God sees them.” (15)
Discussing Remembering Well, we are reminded that remembering is a crucial part of being human. Our remembering relates to at least four human needs: We remember because we need to feel rooted in stories. We remember because if we forget, “we” aren’t there. We remember because as we frame things, the past influences the present. We remember because as we frame things, the present influences the past.
There are numerous Scriptures telling us to remember the Sabbath, God Himself, and our benefits. Jesus, at the Last Supper, told us to “do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19) The apostle Paul invited believers to participate in Communion (I Cor. 11:17-34). Spencer notes that in Communion, Jesus asks His followers to:
- remember some things in particular (Jesus’ death),
- do some things as an act of remembrance (take and eat), and
- use these choices to draw close to Jesus Himself (in remembrance).
In the chapter on Anticipating Well, Spencer writes of having the proper “Time Frame.” Asking, “What is my time frame?” he gets us inquiring about our current season of life, taking the longer view and recognizing we all have an eternal life through which to view this present one. As we attempt to discern the future well, he contrasts beneficial and destructive anticipation and beneficial and destructive “being in the present.”
In the chapter on Dwelling Well, he echoes something I’ve always thought related to many of the vocabulary of salvation—replacing nouns with verbs. The soul essential of dwelling within carefully chooses its “I am” statements. The framing of “I am” presents the self as static, unchanging, living in labels, such as “I am an idiot.” But since everything that exists changes, nothing remains exactly the same, neither rocks nor nations. That’s one reason God calls Himself “I AM”—because He is the only One Who can say it with confidence (Exodus 3:14). The rest of us are in flux. We are not yet what we are going to become. Am I a writer or do I write? Should a person say, “I have cancer” (too definitive) or rather “I am cancering”? This noun-to-verb advice seems helpful when it comes to most aspects of the self.
The last section on Engaging Well With Others has an excellent treatment of the challenges we face in a 24/7 connected culture and the importance of our technological choices. Time is “up” and space is “down—we need to frame significant interpersonal developments due to recent technology. Spencer walks through the realities of the norm of interruption, a new sense of competition, being connected but disconnected, and accidental arrogance (how we withdraw from face-to-face conversations and in so doing make unintentional narcissistic statements—“I am the one who matters here”).
We need to listen to the other’s story, say no in a yes culture, and make choices for the fullest flourishing. There is great direction on hospitable presence and both public and private hospitality: “We need a renewed commitment to hospitable presence, a pledge to cherish it, to truly love our neighbors as ourselves. We understand face time. We need to revive face space. We’ve drifted so far from this framing of space that the phrase seems curious, even foreign. Public hospitality involves respect for place….” (204)
The book culminates with a section on the Practice of Reframing. The final chapter on Reframing With the Saints provides an exercise in reframing by giving models for telling your story using the examples of Augustine on remembering the past with gratitude, Annie Dillard on anticipating the future with hope, David the psalmist on dwelling within ourselves in peace, and Marilynne Robinson on engaging with others in love.
Reframing the Soul informs, invades, and inspires the soul excavation often lacking in the characteristically skimming society we inhabit. I highly recommend Gregory Spencer’s framework for daily life.