Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

We reveal what we hold sacred by the language we use. Maybe those who don’t consider themselves religious would think themselves exempt from this proposition. But that isn’t so.

Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, Dr. Valerie Hobbs contends that “all humans participate in sacred-making.”

The sacred is anything or anyone that is set apart from the ordinary, treated with reverence or disdain. Any material or immaterial entity can be sacred, from the seemingly mundane to the more visibly significant. The sacred flows out of answers to fundamental questions about knowledge, ourselves and the world around us, our worldview. The sacred is always connected to these understandings of the greater world. It substantially affects the way we view ourselves, how we live our lives, how we spend our time and our money, how we relate to others and to the world. (173)

In her book An Introduction to Religious Language: Exploring Theolinguistics in Contemporary Contexts, Hobbs shows us that religious language is all over the place: in our advertisements, sports commentary, music, and science material. As she says, “Religious language reveals what we love, what we cherish, what we protect, what we hate, and what we fear” (xiii). Did you catch that last part? We also use religious language to mark boundaries, to exclude. “By it we both bless and curse. By it we manipulate and are manipulated” (4). I’ve been more interested in learning about how we use language since encountering spiritual abuse. It starts with the language.

Hobbs’s book is a more academic, in-depth look at the “porous boundaries between the sacred and the secular,” and the linguistic methods used in sacred-making. Each chapter is introduced with an image, whether from a billboard, a concert tour, or an “atheist prayer” to demonstrate the linguistic tools she teaches. She begins with an in-depth examination of what religious language is and how it is used. I appreciate the focus on context throughout the book, which really has helped serve me in finding my bearings while being introduced to this discipline. Hobbs covers methods such as intertextuality, metaphor, archaism (one I recognized and have encountered a bit), parallelism (one I recognized in my own writing), vocabulary (explicit and implicit), and even life-moments where sacred language helps us find meaning (and reveal what we value). I have already benefited from Hobbs’s work using corpus linguistics after she shared her findings on references to gender in conservative Christian sermons. This tool is a fascinating field of her study.

Reading this book has opened my eyes. When I read the Preface, I believed Hobbs when she said religious language is pervasive and significant. But as I got into the book, I realized it’s literally everywhere. And it is powerful. Her goal is clearly not merely to prove her case, but to make the reader a lifelong student/observer of religious language in their everyday life, including self-examination. And in that, she has succeeded.

Don’t let the word “Introduction” in the title fool you. It is not a book that you can just read through, “one and done” style. It’s a book for the more serious student and proves to be a reliable resource that you will continuously return to. Hobbs shows herself to be a good teacher, as the chapters are designed to be worked through with questions to provoke thought in the beginning, followed by ending discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. It certainly will benefit individuals interested in the topic but will likely be widely used as a faithful classroom resource for students of linguistics.

The big take-away is that this isn’t just a fun, academic project. It reveals that all of us are in the business of sacred-making. And it isn’t merely religion in the narrow sense of the word that people fight for—we need to recognize our competing notions of what is sacred and our responses to them. This kind of language can manipulate us into choosing the food we eat and the car we drive. We literally fence our tables now with things like “clean” eating. But even more dire, our speech can lead to serious violence which we see at an international level. Hobbs points out that this is far more complex than blaming organized religion. Along with politics, nationalism, and marginalization that leads to violence, Hobbs notes physical violence arising from both sides of the same-sex marriage debates in Australia, between international football fans, and violence breaking out in her own town over the felling of thousands of trees (177). Understanding how religious language works and what it reveals may help us not only to examine ourselves, but “acknowledge the importance of freedom to articulate what we hold sacred and to live in ways consistent with sacred beliefs” (179). Maybe we can become better communicators and even learn to disagree in more peaceful and dignified ways. It begins with the language—because (just can’t help myself from closing out with religious language textual reference) “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.”

One thought on “An Introduction to Religious Language

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