Kavya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Kansas, won the National Spelling Bee the other evening by correctly spelling “Laodicean.” That’s a good biblical word that I would also have gotten right if I were in that spelling bee. It might seem oddly self-serving—even stupidly boastful—for me to say that, so I have to explain that I always read about spelling bees with my own personal experience in mind. I was the first runner-up in the Watervliet, New York, citywide spelling bee when I was exactly Ms. Shivashankar’s age. It was a traumatic experience, still a vivid memory. The word I misspelled was “accommodate”—I left out the second “m.” I have never misspelled it since.
I was comforted to read, in the account reporting on Ms. Shivashankar’s victory, that Jill Biden, the wife of our vice president, also has some painful memories of her spelling bee past. She kicked off this year’s national event by telling about a bad case of nerves that forced her as a sixth-grader to drop out of her own local spelling bee. It is a little embarrassing to have to admit that those kinds of adolescent failures still live with us. It’s the kind of thing that a therapist would push us to probe why we can’t just “let it go.”
In my case, though, I wonder whether the prevailing memory of my failure isn’t a divine gift of sorts. I teach and write a lot about the relationship between Christian commitment and cultural context. This is a subject in which a word like “accommodate” looms large for me. Maybe my experience with misspelling that word is a providential prodding to pay special attention to dangers posed by an uncritical cultural accommodation.
If there is anything to that providence hypothesis, then I can hope that Ms. Shivashankar’s positive experience with “Laodicean” makes that a memorable word for her. I hope she investigates where the adjective comes from, and thinks long and hard about the Lord’s own message to the church at Laodicea: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:19-21). We can hope that special attention to this divine word to the Laodiceans might lead Ms. Shivashankar to show some spiritual caution in accommodating (note the correct spelling!) to the world around her!