Also, in the middle were some more words

September 1st, 2009

So, let’s talk a little more about religion and language. As noted, we use magical talk to express our hopes for others (and for ourselves). I’m not really sure I have a point with any of the below–but hey, I’m blogging, I don’t have to have a point. These are just some ideas I’m batting at you.

So if I sneeze, perhaps you’ll say to me, “God bless you.” If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I know what I’ll be saying, and it will be rather on the opposite end of the devotional spectrum. And my blue streak might serve a purpose. A study published this summer indicated some scientific backing for the folk belief that yes, cursing up a storm does, in fact, help you cope with pain. Subjects could hold their hands in ice water, and reported less pain, if they got to swear while they did it. Words are magic. (The scientists point out, interestingly, that swear words can lose their mojo if overused–no, mojo wasn’t their exact word, but you know what I mean–and thus not have a pain-relieving effect.)

Profanity and religious language overlap in the category of “blasphemy.” Subjects in the experiment were allowed to chant the “expletive of their choice,” so we don’t know if any of them were using blasphemy as well as or in addition to profanity. I use both, myself, with frequency and no small degree of skill–but the time in my life during which I was most blasphemous was when I was working at a Catholic college, because I picked it up from the people around me. All the same, though, I don’t think the blasphemy would have worked, would have had any mojo in it, if Christian/Catholic imagery weren’t highly accessible to me. If I had been in that pain and profanity experiment, I bet I could hold my hand in icy water a lot longer if I got to chant “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”–which feels like blasphemy even though those names are not sacred to me–rather than “Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva!,” which doesn’t.*

Just as taking the names of Jesus or the saints in vain feels like blasphemy even though, for me, it isn’t, using Christian religious language feels like a declaration of faith, even when it’s not. There was a lot of gospel and country music in July when I visited my cousins in the Ozarks. And I noticed, as I have at the occasional Christmas party-slash-singalong, that I feel really strange singing about Jesus. Singing in general, of course, is not a good idea for me, but I don’t usually feel the need to assess the truth conditions of lyrics before firing up the karaoke machine; I’m not going to refuse to sing “My Boyfriend’s Back” on grounds that I am a faithful married woman. (“But they did not in fact try to make me go to rehab, nor is my father in any position to have an opinion on whether I am fine or not, having been dead these ten years.”) Songs with religious language in them feel different, though; it feels strange to sing something I don’t believe in.

As long as I’m singing it in English. I suspect I’d have no (spiritual) problem singing a Christian hymn in Latin, however vocally challenging I might find it. The Traveling Psychologist does research on this kind of thing: one’s native language feels real in a way that other languages, even if spoken fluently, do not. People have a stronger physiological response to seeing emotionally charged words (sexual, aggressive, religious, or otherwise taboo) in their native language. She told me once that in China, the words “I love you” are used very rarely, perhaps at one’s wedding and/or deathbed. Chinese pop songs about romance will often use the phrase “I love you” in their chorus–in English. You can say the deeply emotional, taboo phrase in a foreign language, even if people know perfectly well what it means.

We once had some young neighbors, foreign grad students, who had a rather tempestuous relationship, and we could often hear them arguing in their native language. Occasionally, the woman would yell at the man, “I hate you!” I was always tempted to tell him that as long as she was saying it in English, he was probably safe.

*One spring while I was teaching at Emmanuel College, I was helping to clean up after a Purim celebration at my synagogue and dropped a table–not on, but frighteningly close to, my foot, and gasped, “Holy Mother of God!” At which another woman on the cleaning committee looked up and said, “Oh, do you work in a Catholic school too?”


2 Responses to “Also, in the middle were some more words”

  1. LeDiva on September 2, 2009 11:36 am

    Regarding the difference between singing religious songs vs. pop songs… I wonder if the distinction isn’t based on the fact that generally, singing religious songs is meant to be part of the orthodoxy/orthopraxy of being Christian/Catholic/etc.

    Certainly if you’re at a church service singing “Nearer My God To Thee” or what-have-you, it can be pretty safely assumed that anyone raising their voice is doing so as an offering to their chosen deity.

    Whereas, aside from perhaps assuming that the original artist/songwriter has a personal stake in the song (witness the number of people who’ve heard Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” and think it’s a true story about the singer abandoning a drowning person), most popular music isn’t necessarily assumed to mean anything to whoever’s singing it.

  2. veronica on September 2, 2009 4:33 pm

    “The scientists point out, interestingly, that swear words can lose their mojo if overused–no, mojo wasn’t their exact word, but you know what I mean–and thus not have a pain-relieving effect”

    This reminds me of the episode of South Park, where they keep track of how many times they say curse words and they don’t bleep them. Turns out the curse words are called curse words because THEY ARE ACTUALLY CURSED! Demons arise from hell and the like, so we are only supposed to say them when we’re truly angry or upset.

    I don’t like dropping f-bombs because it makes me feel unintelligent, and if i’m angry I don’t want to compound it. But I will blaspheme when royally ticked. or say the word monster, i dunno, for some reason I say monster when I’m mad at something.

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