Religious Language and Postmodern Ears

In Lake Wobegon, says Garrison Keillor, “All the Norwegians were Lutherans, of course, even the atheists—it was a Lutheran God they did not believe in.” The theism a lot of atheists reject describes a God I cannot believe in either.

Many grew up, as I did, with an emotionally or physically absent father, at the same time hearing of God mainly as a male figure, so God seemed distant. Images and language skew our attitude toward the Sacred. Lots of religious words make spirituality seem irrelevant. The word repent is one such example.

Desmond Tutu tells of brutal killers in South Africa who had slowly cooked people alive at one end of a campsite while enjoying a barbecue at the other end. Later in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, these perpetrators would confess without emotion that they were sorry. They might be staring across the room or down at their shoes as they spoke. But if the victim’s family member would say, “Turn to me; now say what you just said.” Then the confessor would be deeply moved, hardly able to gasp the words.

In telling this story, the word turn became flesh: a simple human act of turning embodies spiritual power. That is exactly what the word shuv in the Hebrew Bible means: “turn”—though it usually gets translated “repent.” And the New Testament Greek word metanoia literally means “turning one’s thoughts” or “changing one’s mind.” Yet when translated into English as “repentance,” both words convey moralistic scruples and miss the basic human connection. So the Bible sounds more religious than it really is.

If the victim had said, “repent to me” instead of “turn to me,” it would have missed the vulnerable place in the perpetrator’s heart. In this way ordinary words and gestures can have more power than religious language.

Meanwhile the radio preacher goes on pounding the pulpit: “Repent!” And we go right on driving to the mall to buy clothing made in child sweatshops. The simple language of “turn” can embody more power than “repent.” What if we actually turned our thoughts toward the sweatshops? Or turned toward the real needs beneath our wants?

What are some religious language barriers that get in the way of genuine spirituality for you?

Portions are adapted from What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?

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