Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent around the world. For the next 40 days until Easter many Christians around the globe will institute various spiritual and physical disciplines in preparing their hearts for the Resurrection celebration. One spiritual discipline that is a focus, and one that I am personally dedicating time to over the next 40 days, is the observance of prayer times throughout the day (i.e., Morning, Midday, Evening, and Nighttime prayers). In approaching this Lent season I have been thinking a lot about prayer, specifically prayer language.
What rhetorical significance do our prayers have? What do they communicate about our theology, what we believe about God? I think that many times we do not think of our prayers as being “communication” or “pieces of rhetoric,” but they most certainly are. In fact, they are very significant pieces of rhetoric because of their symbolic and ritualistic nature. Praying is a physical, embodied act just as much as a mental one. The repetition of this practiced ritual — in church services, in personal prayer, at meal times, and even with our children before they nod of to sleep — firmly establishes what we actually believe about God, our relationship with Him, and our purpose as believers.
I have been re-reading parts of Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion, specifically his essay “On Words and the Word.” Burke is not a theologian, but as a rhetorical scholar he has great insight into how language is used in our religious expressions — both in our words about God and our words to God. He has identified four “realms” of our words — in other words, four categories of objects to which our words refer: the natural (i.e., “tree,” “sun,” “sky”), the socio-political (i.e., “justice,” “American,” “marriage”), words themselves (i.e., dictionaries, grammar rules, philosophy), and the supernatural.¹
It is particularly interesting to note what he says about the words that we use to speak of the supernatural (and arguably to a supernatural being): “Our words for the discussion of [the supernatural] are necessarily borrowed by analogy from our words for the other three orders: the natural, the socio-political and the verbal.”² In other words, our language about God and to God — of which prayer is a primary expression — cannot be detached from our language in general. Though our prayers may sound different from other daily verbal expressions (perhaps more pious or formal — depending on your style), the words we use in our prayers have a context in our experience of the natural world, in the socio-political culture in which we live, and in our general understanding of words as symbols.
So what practical impact does such theoretical pondering have on prayer, and why would it be helpful to use this time of Lent to consider the significance? Two significant reasons for considering our prayer language come to mind. First, our prayers communicate what we actually believe about God. Prayers are physical and ritual expressions of intellectual beliefs. Our prayer life is an habitual practice that embodies what we believe about God. Ritual habits like this are powerful because they cultivate our desires — what it is that we love. (Jamie Smith fully develops this idea in his argument of human beings as primarily “desiring beings” rather than “thinking beings.”)³
Second, analyzing our prayer language could also help us discover the origin of our beliefs about God. Though we get our theology from Scripture, much of our religious language can get tangled up in “borrowed analogies.” I wonder how much of our understanding of God — expressed regularly in our prayers — is borrowed from the socio-political structures of the culture(s) in which we live? When we pray for things like God’s “justice,” what concept of justice are we imagining? Or when we petition God with requests, what structures have created our concept of “wants” vs. “needs”? Continuing in this line of thought, many questions start coming to mind.
Over the next several weeks I am purposing to be introspective about my own prayer language — to discover what my words to God confess about Him. I invite others observing this Lent season to do the same.
1. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970) 14-15.
2. Burke, 15.
3. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).