The use of religious language

I recently heard someone complaining that certain songs “misused” religious language but when I looked at the examples they gave, I thought that it was particularly appropriate language.

Take Paul McCartney’s “Hope Of Deliverance” recurring lyrics for example:

Hope of deliverance, hope of deliverance.
Hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.

It seems to me to be that the primary religious thought is a hope of release from “darkness” in whatever way we interpret that darkness. In McCartney’s case, it was the release from the threat of the death of his wife, Linda. In other cases it may be the “darkness” of war, oppression, strife or poverty which threatens people and have them hope for better days.

Another example is Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie“ lyrics:
Kyrie eleison is taken directly from the Christian liturgy and is Greek for “Lord, have mercy”. The rest of the song has a number of connotations with Christian symbolism, if we exchange the Greek for the translation we read the lyrics as follows:

Lord, have mercy
Lord, have mercy

The wind blows hard against this mountain side
Across the sea into my soul
It reaches into where I cannot hide
Setting my feet upon the road

My heart is old, it holds my memories
My body burns a gemlike flame
Somewhere between the soul and soft machine
Is where I find myself again

Lord, have mercy, down the road that I must travel
Lord, have mercy, through the darkness of the night
Lord, have mercy, where I’m going, will you follow?
Lord, have mercy, on a highway in the light

When I was young I thought of growing old
Of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road
Or only wished what I could be


The are many songs which contain references to religious persons and themes. There is a list here: … god-jesus/

My point in writing this is that religion in a very simple form is something very human, and if it weren’t for the “excess baggage” of religion, we would probably use similar language to what is used in religion much more colloquially. Having said that, do we suppress the “hope of deliverance” or calling out “Lord, have mercy” or some other religious expression – and if so, what does that do to our soul?

My first wife died of cancer (it took her 10 years). This song was her favourite (not this version) and I do not know how she would have managed without it. Many times did she cry out Hallelujah - both in her joys and in her frustrations. It continues to remind me of my love for her.


I’m sorry to hear that, but it does explain the depth of your contributions to discussions. Experiences like that change us considerably, especially if you experience it with someone you love.

Do you think that the song, or the use of religious language, helped her through her anguish? Or do you think it was an expression of anguish? I have experienced people who have shouted their faith in the “face” of death, as though they were threatened by a spectre. I see the same behaviour in the song of the McCartneys.

What do you think?

Is it whistling in the dark?

Thanks Bob,

I am not sure and can only speculate what she thought as she is not here to share with us. She liked the original Leonard Cohen which is somewhat different to the Jeff Buckley version.

She was not religious and so the words did not directly inspire religious beliefs within her, but I do think it allowed her the dignity to express her emotions in a way that comforted her. Leonard Cohen does express an intense anguish in his lyrics, composition and voice and this anguish allowed her to share a common experience.

But I also think the “words” used also conjured the metaphor of religiosity for her: the struggle of human existence, the pain, the joy, the frustrations and peace. Even to a person who is not religious the religious metaphor can function in a way that is beneficial. I think it functioned in this way for her. Suffering that is shared (common) is suffering that is lessened. The injustice seems to dissipate when we realize that all sentient life will experience the same fate.

For her it was a particular struggle as she worked as a nurse and it was challenging to find herself in a situation where she used the services of her colleagues to aid her in the process of death. This in many ways was a lesson in humility for her as the boundaries between the professional and the patient were not so easy to maintain (so maybe this song had additional meaning for her that I am not aware of).

At any rate, I do not think we can separate the “word” from the “composition” – they go hand in hand and are bonded within the creation.

Yes, that is what I am pointing to with my rather jumbled up approach. I believe that religion is something intuitive and something which comes natural to us – until it becomes organised. I’ve known people reject the Pastor but speak to me in a deeply religious manner during their last days – and it had nothing to do with me, except perhaps that I listened. The use of this language is something expressionistic, imparting a seed of a hope that we find inside us, wishing that it would but bud and bloom and fill our lives. Very often it doesn’t, but it does leave an impression on the people who were around the dying. But sometimes it is enough to generate a reaction that in itself is a light in the darkness, a hand to hold or a sympathetic smile.

It was a struggle, I’m sure of that, and one similar to a story in which the subject sweated “blood and water”, but at the same time, it will have touched people, her colleagues, in a way that their work had seldom done before. And you are right, the lesson is one of humility, and it becomes easy then to pray, even if you don’t (formally) believe in the ear that is listening. I have found in the past that I have prayed for people in such a situation, even in foreign languages, giving them a voice for their tradition when they had themselves become quiet. Very often I felt that it soothed them. I have used religious language in such situations, regardless of what I thought was happening, who the dying were or what I knew about them, and it had a quality that other language didn’t have.

I think even organized religion can come natural to us but it takes a particularly focused person to filter the positive from the negative. I would say that this ability to filter is an attribute of the person rather than the object which appears to their consciousness. Organized religion is no different to any other human endeavour (politics, money, television, drugs, technology, etc). Every human endeavour has a bad side to it - religion is not an exception to this. We tend to look for perfection where it cannot be found and then blame the object we are looking at for its failure to live up to this perfection. This is the cause of most human woes - our desire to project perfection and then our disappointment when it is not found and then we seek to attribute blame.

A hand to hold or a sympathetic smile is all that is ever required - nothing more and nothing less. If we lived by this standard then many of our problems would vanish in an instant.

Thank you, that was nicely said and, once more, this reminds me of Portia’s speech (Merchant of Venice).
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mightiest,
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An attribute to awe and majesty.
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost the become likest God’s,
Where mercy seasons justice.
Therefore Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice we all must see salvation,
We all do pray for mercy
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.
I have spoke thus much to mittgate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou dost follow,
This strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentance gainst the merchant there.

How about this one?

We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when?
I know a beach where, baby, a-it never ends
When you’ve made your mind up forever to be mine.

Yes, I failed at Christianity because I told people that what made Jesus so popular was simple – not complicated like the theologians make it. It was simple and easy to grasp and to put into action. Spontaneous compassion and the attempt to create an atmosphere which promotes opportunity, without intention, just fulfilling the golden rule, being sensible and sensitive to the needs of people, looking inwards and helping outwardly. That is the “kingdom of God” or the “bailiae ouranos” (originally the “court” of God – curiously Uranus) where the love of the world originates.

Jesus told people that it was in their midst, in them, just waiting to burst out through spontaneous action and compassion. A hand to hold or a sympathetic smile …

I like this, but then again I like poetry and verse, which reminds us more than prose that what we are reading or hearing is art. I’m convinced that Religion has its roots in the arts, which is why that so much art has arisen around religious stories, which are repeatedly told over and over again, expressing their timeless quality in describing that inward stirring which only the mindful experience and only the artists can express. So much of the mystics is woven into poetry and song, using symbolism, analogy and metaphor and can only be heard or understood by the aesthetic mind.

That is why it isn’t the language of philosophy that best grasps religious feelings, but the language of lovers and artists. It is something that stirs in the heart, not in reason – in fact, it is often not reasonable, but capricious like the wind … and the Holy Spirit.

I was refelecting the discussion in the “universal salvation” thread and wondering whether it actually means anything - salvation - outside of what we empirically experience. The thoughts on eternal life that I have heard in my past experience of church life were always culturally colored and the discussions there seemed always to try and find consensus, which felt nice but always had me thinking that we haven’t achieved anything but that nice feeling. I had the same feeling when I read a book that was able to move me or waken my imagination. But watching the people in that circle live their lives, I had very much the feeling that the stories and discussions we had shared didn’t really help them much. Salvation was more of an evacuation route that comforted the pains of existing in a world that seldom made sense. There was often the feeling that “Papa” would explain it all to us and wipe our tears away and we could we settle down in front of a warm fire and experience the ideal middle-class father-figure as he told us the reasons for this and that. I had difficulty then not seeing this as a yearning for something that we had not experienced as children or had lost whilst growing up.

The speculation of what this life is leading to takes away from the thought of what this life could be good for. I think that we would be more spontaneously compassionate if we could stop clinging to such ideals or visions, and instead be that vision. This is what I had seen as the germ of the Christian message, but instead theology seems to have us speculate on things that are the subjects of religious yearning through the ages. I love stories and literature, but I love it more if I don’t try to make it into an analogy for life, but let it come, let it make me think for a moment and then let it go again. There are millions of stories which we can hear like this. I think that the most important goal for human beings would be to be able to accept with thanks their life and not just survive with the hope of escaping at the end, but making their environment even a little better whilst they are there - perhaps employing the golden rule, or however that may be achieved. This would also include making life a bit more comfortable for those we see who are not so lucky as we are, so that they too can have the same goal.

Is religion more than language? Is it not language that connects us?

I was thinking the other day that religion is often an illustration of the hopes and fears we humans hold, projected onto a mythological framework and worked out in intricate stories which are a good basis for understanding the psychology of the human mind. Of course these stories represent the mind-set of the age as are the hopes and fears which are worked out. But there is something archetypical in the stories with which we can identify - some things that anger us, some things that please us and many things which baffle us. So complex is the human psyche or soul.

I’m convinced that many of the criticisms of religion are actually the reaction which is intended, only the following consequences seem to get a little muddled up. Any ideas?

There is something about the experience of life that has us involved to the neck and unable to stand back and get a comprehensive view. It feels like we’re it, and that everything is revolving around us. Slowly we get the feeling that there is something we haven’t noticed and we start loosening the hold of our peers, looking around, noticing the differences – especially in the opposite sex, but also in our parents, our family and friends. It slowly dawns on us that life is bigger than us.

Until then, things are relatively one. Those people and things which are part of our lives are, in our minds, part of us. The human mind has to slowly get used to its physical separateness and become emancipated, and then it has to realise that despite this, we come out of the environment, are a part of the life-support system of the planet, and are deeply interdependent and interactive.

This growing awareness is a development that not all human beings go through. Numerous people in our times, especially in societies like the West with its industrial agenda, fail to grow beyond the emancipation stage and struggle with their role as a part of a consumer machine, or with not being part of that system. These people are noticeable for the importance of keeping up their facade, their egocentric outlook and lack of perspective.

Cultivated people tend to re-turn to their beginnings with a new outlook, a reversal (rather than a conversion) which tends to be the course of religious liberation too. The Christian redemption experience brings the prodigal son back home after realising that emancipation isn’t all parties and good times, but that one can arrive at the pigs trough if one is not careful. It is also portrayed as the figurative return to Eden.

Thus, religion has to do with a further development after the emancipatory process of youth, returning to the fold with a better awareness of what it means to completely separate ones self from the family. It involves the acceptance of individuality within a unified community, and encourages the consideration of the golden rule. The stability of a community should enable it to be inclusive and at the same time encourage the emancipation process of young people.

This approach is often absent and many people are in this respect actually weakened in their development in religious communities by making them dependent. The teachings of religion should rather encourage development and offer ways of overcoming the multiple pit-holes along the way, so that as many people as possible are personally independent but voluntarily members of a community which supports the development of awareness in others.

There are stories, legends and myths which transport the teachings which support and portray this process, because it is by means of such traditions that experience and wisdom is passed on. No theoretical treatise or historical biography can help someone through this process, but songs, poems, stories and analogies of this kind can.

Any trick in the book now, baby, all that I can find