Religious Language Matters

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Ernst van den Hemel, Asja Szafraniec
Future of the Religious Past
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , June
     624 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Words: Religious Language Matters is a sprawling and provocative volume including seven previously published articles by scholars including Talal Asad, Daniel Boyarin, and Jean Marion as well as fifteen new or newly-translated articles. This review focuses on several of the latter, since readers are likely unfamiliar with them.

The introduction by editors Ernst van den Hemel and Asja Szafraniec outlines two central themes: materiality—the “flesh” of words”—and performativity—primarily J. L. Austin’s speech acts. In the first article, Michael Lambek unites these themes under the broad rubric of semiotic or linguistic ideologies as developed by Webb Keane and Michael Silverstein. Lambek summarizes, “words are not simply abstractions but both intrinsically related to other words and deployed in specific speech acts and language games” (21). He pinpoints the crucial but elusive distinction between articulating an ideology found in a text—descriptions of words as “flesh”—and developing tools for analyzing linguistic structures and functions opaque to the language users. Throughout the volume linguistic ideologies serve as the focus of study and, at other points, as the mechanisms for analysis.

Jan Assmann’s original article “When Justice Fails: Legislation versus Imprecation” outlines two distinct ideas about words. First, he argues that quasi-automatic curses are used when legal avenues are not available. The evidence Assmann cites from the Code of Hammurabi, an epilogue comprised of curses, appears to be “outside” the legal system. But this may be the nature of meta-pragmatic discourse or discourse about the context-related efficacy of language. Second, Assmann uncovers yet another meta-pragmatic claim: inscriptional violence. Here legal contracts extend into the “sphere of literary discourse” by setting up “allegories of reading” that say how texts should be read (69).

In one of the few articles not about Judeo-Christian traditions, Lorilai Biernacki analyzes an eleventh-century Tantric rite in which the practitioner recites mantric syllables while placing her hands on various body parts. In the Tantric vision, “language is in fact simply a subtle transformation of the physical materiality of human bodies” (77). This semiotic ideology combines materiality and performativity. It is not necessary, however, as Biernacki argues, that performativity be divorced from semantics. Broadly conceived, performativity often depends on specific self-reflexive language, and semantics is itself a sub-category of language function.

Nils Schott offers a new reading of Augustine’s model of conversion based on Henri Bergson’s intuition and Louis Althusser’s interpellation (Intuition, Interpellation, Insight: Elements of a Theory of Conversion). Schott’s analysis gives new life to a somewhat stale term, describing how conversion “preserves the openness of crisis, the intuitive vision or insight that otherwise would not endure” (210).

Van den Hemel’s “God Lisped: Divine Accommodation and Cracks in Calvin’s Scriptural Voice” opens with the broad challenge—based on his reading of Cicero—that the practice of rhetoric is basically accommodation. Calvin’s accommodation reconciled seeming contradictions (239), which are necessary since God takes on a character, not his own, for the sake of the reader (242). Divine truth is always found in God’s word, but truth can’t always be taken at face value (247). Van den Hemel makes a strong case for paying closer attention to the range of exegetical (meta-semantic) ideas incorrectly lumped together in the vague term Apologetics.

Karmen MacKendrick argues that “prayer addresses itself to what not only exceeds it, but even evades it” (315). Once again, a clear semiotic ideology emerges: “Prayer brings us into relation with what exceeds both us and the language that is our means of relating” (315). This lofty evocation of prayer engages ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy—via a specific reading of Augustine—then returning the reader to some of the dilemmas raised by Lambek about the role of semiotic ideologies.

Szfraniec’s article takes its title from Stanley Cavell’s phrase “a quarrel with God,” which Szfraniec argues is the only authentic way of relating to God (338). Szfraniec argues that if the struggle with “something” outside the person—that is, something called God—disappears, then something “inside,”—that is, human nature—also disappears (345). Whether Cavell would have approved of this reading of his work is not clear, but that does not bother Szfraniec in her attempt to formulate quarreling as a basic mode of engagement of the self with the world.

Peter Burke’s “The Rise of Literal-Mindedness” maps the overthrow of symbol-minded mentality during the Reformation (367). He notes that the terms literal, literalist, literally and literalness were coined between 1630 and 1650 (368), and offers “contextual reductionism” as a way of characterizing some of the linguistic moves made in Reformation debates. Burke briefly mentions “decontextualization” and “recontextualization” as another model for describing the reframing of symbols (375).

Markus Davidsen outlines the range of believers from Star Wars fans to hard-core members of the religion Jedi-ism. The latter are not bothered that their religion is based on fictional films, pointing beyond George Lucas, to the greater Force that inspired him. This capaciousness of belief is a useful reminder to everyone who studies religions whose origins are long lost.

Pieter Nanninga’s “Words of the Martyr” adds a psychological dimension to the often-dominant political science view of the martyr, using the notion of the performative. Suicide attacks are an “exceptionally expressive form of violence” that, through the willingness to die, offer ”renewed respect and self-worth” (393-94). In turn, new media constructs a global community to view these events (398).

Finally, Roger Friedland and Kenneth Moss’s “Thinking through Religious Nationalism” offers a thoughtful critique of religion and nationalism as “irreconcilable conceptual orders” (421). The recent intertwining of religion and nationalism in Israel shows these concepts more protean than scholars such as Asad and Rogers Brubaker have acknowledged, as even these thinkers do not avoid a strain of essentializing in their visions of Islam and nationalism, respectively.

Lambek’s provocative questioning of whether every analysis is, itself, another semiotic ideology surfaces throughout the volume. This rich and dense collection, with the seven classic articles it also includes, shows just how many different ways words matter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Naomi Janowitz is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ernst van den Hemel is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Humanities of Universiteit Utrecht. He completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam as part of the project titled the Future of the Religious Past. His current research focuses on the postsecular and national identity. He teaches at the department of Religious Studies, Utrecht University. Van den Hemel is the secretary of the Foresight Committee Theology of Religious Studies of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.

Asja Szafraniec teaches at Amsterdam University College. She is the author of Beckett, Derrida, and the Event of Literature (Stanford University Press, 2007), and of articles on the relation between continental and ordinary language philosophy, on the question of the specificity of the nature of philosophical discourse, and on the relation between philosophy and various forms of literary experiment. Her current research on the work of Stanley Cavell focuses on contemporary philosophy’s response to the questions of skepticism, faith, and religion.



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