The Complexity, Power, and Potential of Religious Language
There is a plethora of Christian books and other materials on the power of the tongue. Many of these instill in us both a sense of urgency and a pietistic belief that we can overcome our wordly waywardness through discipline and prayer. Tame your tongue thirty ways in thirty days. Control your tongue. Guard your tongue. Hold your tongue. Watch your mouth. The Tongue: A force of life or death! One Christian author goes so far as to say that “Christian words” have lost their original meaning and need to be somehow reclaimed.
How do we do this? What is Christian language? What is unchristian language? One Christian counseling website recently put together a fairly typical how-to. Don’t swear. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Don’t complain. Don’t speak hurtful words. Don’t gossip. Don’t lie. Speak kindly. Be slow to speak. Speak infrequently. Quote the Bible.
This advice is well-meaning, perhaps even helpful at times. But simplistic sets of advice about Christian language trivialize the richness and depth of religious language. Far from static, religious language is developed over a lifetime, through a complex web of interactions. Like sponges, from infancy we absorb and re-articulate humanity’s diverse ways of talking, and, by extension, its many beliefs about the world and all within it. Individually and collectively, we build and rebuild belief systems through our language.
What is religious language?
Religious language, then, is more than verses from a sacred text, rules about blasphemy and the particular jargon, texts and other ways of talking that mark us out as followers of organized religion. More than these, religious language is all the complex ways we use language to mark as sacred different aspects of our lives and the world around us. To identify something as sacred means to set it apart from the ordinary. And indeed anything can be sacred, for whatever purpose we require. Religious language, as an act of sacred making, reveals what we love, what we respect, what we protect, what we hate, and what we fear. Religious language has the capacity to build and enforce community boundaries, to connect and disconnect, to manipulate and control.
Here’s an example. From the 1870s to the 1930s, American industrialists used religious language to radically elevate the status of everyday goods. Seizing on the Protestant ideal of cleanliness, various manufacturers launched advertising campaigns which converted cleaning into a ritual and linked it with holiness. A sacred commodity was born. Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap took its name from the “ivory palaces” in Psalm 45. The John H. Woodbury Company launched a “Facial Purity League.” And in the 1920s, the Association of American Soap and Glycerin Producers launched their “Cleanliness Institute” to educate an unclean, untidy, unconverted, largely female public.
Their campaign was enormously successful. Industrial religion rapidly spread throughout the United States and other parts of the world. Even American Protestant religious leaders participated in early product promotion through advertisements, pamphlets, speeches and other textual tools. Over one hundred years later, these bonds forged between cleanliness and morality remain strong. In the United Kingdom, manufacturer Faith in Nature offers a wide range of cleaning products, one of many that have taken up the torch of Industrial Religion. Their doctrinal statement can be found on their “Our Heritage” page, where they explain “why faith matters so much” when it comes to hair care, body washes and other soaps. A century after the first Ivory Soap ad appeared in a Christian weekly, we are still compelled to purchase salvation through morally upright means of washing our hair and our lives.
Types of Religious Language
Though the overtly religious origins of Ivory Soap may have come as a surprise to you, brands like Faith in Nature are more obvious as contemporary examples of explicit religious language. This is language which occurs more frequently in the context of organized religion and so has recognizably religious connotations. Explicit religious language can be found in many places within and outside of organized religion, from advertising to politics, sport, healthcare, pop culture, and food culture. All these are contexts most of us interact with and reproduce regularly in our daily lives, which affect our own language and ways of thinking and ordering our lives.
More difficult to identify is implicit religious language. This is language not specifically associated with a world religion but which still functions as a form of sacred-making. In the case of Ivory Soap, what was once explicitly religious language has gradually become implicit. We might no longer recognize the explicitly religious meaning in the brand name. But that meaning is still attached, albeit hidden.
And in fact, this meaning has dramatically multiplied. Any trip to the supermarket or bookstore confronts us with all kinds of implicit religious language related to purity—from clean eating to clean energy, and clean living to clean beauty. The word clean isn’t singularly religious—it is used frequently in other places outside of organized religion. But as a powerfully religious symbol of purity and the absence of moral corruption, the word does carry overtly religious meaning. As we’ve seen, historical links between household products and religion have paved the way for manufacturers to infuse any and all aspects of daily life with moral meaning. Religious language is an effective tool for declaring certain products, lifestyles, and people sacred.
The Word Made Flesh
The language around us, particularly that of powerful, prestigious people and institutions, significantly affects how we speak, think, and act. All of this happens through a mixture of conscious and unconscious absorption. Truly, the relationship between our beliefs and our language is incredibly elaborate. Even those of us who think carefully before we speak still make choices which reveal and reflect not just our personal beliefs, but also the beliefs of those who influence us.
Surface-level treatments of language are therefore a disservice to we who are Christian. Jesus’s person and work has secured our citizenship before God’s throne, and we have been given new, spiritual eyes to see the certain hope of heaven. But no matter how hard we try to guard our tongue, our language reflects our hazy vision. All this is not to minimize the necessity of trying, as the Holy Spirit draws our own language into greater submission. But our posture must be one of greater humility and of complete reliance on the purest of sacred languages. Not our own, but the Word made flesh.
 Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1–39. Richard J. Callahan,, Jr., Kathryn Lofton, and Chad E. Seales.