Ritual Language and Christian Ontologies

8 01 2015

This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy site in August 2014 (http://practicumreligionblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/ritual-language-and-christian-ontologies.html).

By Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University



At Middle Tennessee State University, I have inherited a course on Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which is a 4000-level or senior course. While at most universities a course that purports to be an overview of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ traditions would be listed as a first- or second-year course, this course’s listing as a senior level course means that I strive to straddle two pedagogical imperatives. First, I want to teach adequate material or data about religions, so that the students have a sense of the traditions themselves; however, because the course is a senior-level course, I also want to equip them with a theoretical apparatus with which they can think critically about religions. In addition, the reality of living in the “buckle of the bible belt” means that many of my students come to class with very clearly defined assumptions about what religion does (particularly Christianity, which is my area of specialization).

I’ve divided this course into three units: Text, Tradition, and Imagination. For this blog post, I would like to reflect on an exercise that I use to teach tradition in regards to Christianity. Along with providing an overview of Christian ritual practices, I want the students to consider language as one of the primary locations of Christian practices. Thus, I draw from my own disciplinary home, the Anthropology of Christianity, and have the students discuss Christian language ideologies and notions of sincerity and performance. More precisely, I want the students to think about larger questions concerning what we think language does—that is, its communicative capacities.  


In preparation for the assignment, we consider Joel Robbins’ article, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds,’ which among other things helps the students to think about the ways that we understand language  and Western culture. The crux of Robbins’ piece suggests that the idea that we can or should be able tell what other people are thinking based on what they do or say is related to particular cultural practices and not necessarily universal.

In addition, since many of my students are not familiar with liturgical traditions in Christianity, I have them attend a service (or watch one online) at a local liturgical church in order for them to begin thinking about the diverse ways that language is employed in Christian practices. I lecture briefly on the differences between language ideologies: referential language (that is the idea that words can signify objects and experiences) and constitutive language (the idea that words can make something happen, including enacting some sort of ontological change).

Class Exercise

“Hand me your pen,” I will say to an unsuspecting student in the front row.

I follow up with a question to the rest of the class: “what did I do there?” A chorus of “you took his pen” usually ensues, and with a bit of prodding we come to the conclusion that I have made that particular student “penless.” In other words, I transform the student into a “penless individual.” Somehow the words themselves made the student into a different type of person (one without a pen). This is an example of language that is constitutive: my words did more than just express my own desire for a pen, they transformed the student into a new type of being.

From there, I then proceed to declare various students united in holy matrimony. For extra bonus points, I will marry myself to a piece of technology (this year I developed an intimate relationship with an old overhead projector, which served as a continuous reference point for students when we talked throughout the term about ontological boundaries). After performing the various marriages, I have the students discuss whether or not they are actually married. It doesn’t take long for the students to uncover the reasons that they are not married are my lack of authority to actually marry them and the social space in which we are located is not one that has been entered with expectations of the performance of a marriage ceremony. Marriage it seems is more than words.

At this point, we discuss what language does for evangelical Christians. Much of the evangelical mind, relies  on an understanding of language as referential (think, for example, or biblical literalism). Again, the ‘bible belt’ works to my advantage here, and I am able to draw on the knowledge from my students regarding Christian conversion language and its assumed transformative potentials.

My intention, ultimately, is to have the students see how Christian notions of language and conversion (which many of them take for granted) are intertwined as simultaneously referential and constitutive in the Christian consciousness. Why does saying/thinking that one is “born again” make someone born again for evangelicals? What do the words do and what do they signify? And what are the ontological consequences of a worldview that allows language to hold that kind of power?

In so doing, I try to draw out from the students Christian conceptions of the ways in which words serve to mediate interior experiences that are often contingent on the assumptions we make about individuals as moral agents. I use examples from contemporary Christian culture that disrupt these assumptions: Ted Haggard is a good example, although this year only a handful of my students were familiar with the Haggard case, so I will likely have to wait for another unfortunate fall from grace by an authoritative figure in the future.


As mentioned above, I have several pedagogical aims that come to the forefront in evaluating my students that reflect my desire for students to both acquire information and engage the theories we have looked at in class. Most importantly, I want them to be able to apply the theories to new data, especially data that doesn’t fit a neat definition of religion. So while I teach them to think about language in the context of a particular variety of evangelical Christianity that permeates the American South, I also want them to transpose those ideas into other, non-religious discursive spaces.

PJ Harvey’s anti-war ballad, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” (click here for lyrics) is a great way to think about what words do and how authority is invested in particular individuals and institutions. This year I used this song on a unit test to evaluate my students’ abilities to think critically and creatively. The test included the usual definition questions and short answer questions intended to determine whether students had done the readings, attended lectures and studied, but the final section of the test—featuring Harvey—was meant to take them to the next level.

(“The Words That Maketh Murder“)

I asked them a number of questions that corresponded to some of the larger themes from our class, including describing the language ideology that this song presumes. The great thing about this song is that there is no right or wrong answer. Clearly, a song that provides a narrative in which words make murder can be seen as constitutive, but if one steps back from a literal reading from the text (itself a referential act), one can begin to see that Harvey’s larger critique of British institutions (a point which is perhaps reinforced more so in the video than the lyrics) also could be seen as evoking an interpretive practice that falls within the realm of the same referential assumptions that evangelicals make about language and human subjectivities. A critique of the critique reminds us that Harvey herself is encapsulated by the very forces she subverts.

It’s also a pretty great song.

Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation