An Introduction to Religious Language

Textbook-style exploration of the language used to appeal to religious sensibilities

An Introduction to Religious Language

Textbook-style exploration of the language used to appeal to religious sensibilities

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Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin is the editor-in-chief of MultiLingual magazine. She has edited for the localization industry since 2008, has a master’s in linguistics, and grew up in a deeply religious US microculture.

An Introduction to Religious Language is exactly what it purports to be: a text introducing readers to theolinguistics, or the study of religious language. Written more for students of linguistics than laypeople, it is dense, with some sentences packing a particular punch. “All humans participate in sacred-making,” writes Valerie Hobbs in summary.

Hobbs, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the UK’s University of Sheffield, has spent many years studying the topic and interacting with religious texts in various capacities — including some that made her a target of harassment. In 2016, for example, she made headlines in the Evangelical world when, along with blogger Rachel Miller, she uncovered plagiarism in a book authored by Randy Booth and Douglas Wilson, an already-controversial pastor. The publishing house that had put out the book, affiliated with Wilson’s church, contacted Hobbs’s dean and accused her of “piracy” for having run the book through plagiarism software. Both the dean and the software company defended Hobbs’s use of the tool. “For as long as I have been an academic I have focused my work on examining the ways in which seemingly inclusive large institutions, both religious and seemingly secular, establish community boundaries,” Hobbs writes in her preface.

 

An Introduction to Religious Language: Exploring Theolinguistics in Contemporary Contexts, by Valerie Hobbs. Bloomsbury, 2021. $36.95. Paperback, 240 pages.

An Introduction to Religious Language itself focuses on how religious language works. For example, the phrase “Tilda Swinton is divine” contains religious language despite the fact that it is not about a religious topic. Religious language can be familiar, and even comforting. “Numerous studies have found that not only is religion a means to cope with mystery, but religion and religious language are also a powerful anti-stress mechanism,” Hobbs says. “Articulating beliefs about what we hold sacred is powerful means by which we cope existentially.”

An Introduction to Religious Language is exactly what it purports to be: a text introducing readers to theolinguistics, or the study of religious language. Written more for students of linguistics than laypeople, it is dense, with some sentences packing a particular punch. “All humans participate in sacred-making,” writes Valerie Hobbs in summary.

Hobbs points out that overt religious language is regularly used in Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, even though the organization is secular and not attached to any particular religion.

Primarily, however, Hobbs focuses on religious language that is more intentional, considering specific examples spanning soap advertisements to religious letters, beginning each exploratory chapter with a text illustrating the chapter theme.

For example, chapter 3 focuses on the function of religious language and begins with a 2006 billboard in Atlanta, Georgia, declaring “JesUSAves: HE WILL HEAL OUR LAND.” Hobbs breaks down the underlying messages present in this brief text, from the implication of the pronoun “our” to the question of what exactly the land is supposed to “heal” from. And, of course, there’s the literal blending of Jesus and the USA.

“Religious language in politics in the United States is well-established and linked to the notion of civil religion, a set of shared beliefs, symbols and rituals which a society uses to make sense of its past in light of a deeper reality,” writes Hobbs. This particular message connects “feelings of nationalism and Christian religious conviction… combining the two and imbuing them with a subtle sense of dread. Even more troubling is the billboard’s veiled xenophobic meaning which privileges not just Americans but Americans of a particular religion. This billboard seems to be saying, ultimately, that Jesus will heal the United States from the blight of non-Christians.” Perhaps more accurately, as someone who grew up in US Christianity of this nature, the blight of unsanctioned beliefs and actions — which would mean everything from swearing to gun control, critical race theory, and promoting trans rights. The strongest part of the message is the idea of an in-group — a specific religious group that provides social cohesion.

Hobbs contrasts this approach and private spirituality, using the Burning Man community as an example. “The community itself is founded on diversity of practice. It is the diversity itself which brings people together.” Just because something is spiritual does not make it religious, Hobbs argues.

 

Figure 1: Religious language in UK politics.

Figure 1: Religious language in UK politics.

Religious language does a few things, Hobbs says. It can point us to “what is important and what is not.” As a discourse strategy, it may reveal a “dichotomous worldview,” meaning that it splits things into groups of what is good and what is bad, and thus “enforces sacred boundaries.” Additionally, and perhaps most significantly for so many public uses of religious language, speaking in religious ways “signals legitimacy” to an in-group.

This is why religious language is everywhere, says Hobbs, from sports to ads to political discourse. She often touches on politics, mentioning former President Donald Trump’s 2019 assertion that “I am the chosen one” as an example of “messianic imagery” that played to his religious base. Religion in politics isn’t relegated to the United States — Hobbs points to a 2019 Boris Johnson Brexit quote demanding “LET MY PEOPLE GO” (Figure 1). The implication is that Johnson is Moses, and the political opposition is Pharaoh. In the UK, says Hobbs, religious language is creeping more overtly into politics in ways it did not in years prior — and in ways that are persuasive in exactly the same ways that other forms of political speech can be persuasive.

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