Recently, I blogged on the topic of language and its frequent abuse when it comes to certain words, focusing on the word “faith” as an example that is quite prevalent in discussions about religion. The conclusion from that entry was that “faith” has a specific meaning in different contexts and that the insistence of some non-religious people to force one context into all usages of the word constitutes a violation of language as a descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) construction for communicative purposes. Upon some further consideration (and some interesting cultural input), another tangential matter has come to mind that deserves discussing.
Like most married couples, my wife and I have very different opinions on and tastes in several things. One area of conflict (although it is mostly in jest) is the type of music that we listen to; since I have grown up playing music for most of my life and have a fair knowledge of musical structure (theory, composition, style, etc.), I tend to be rather opinionated, and – to be perfectly frank – she likes a fair amount of music that is absolutely awful. So when we ride together going places, she always tries to turn the radio to pop stations, the vast majority of which I loathe for the inanity and musical depravity of the music they play (that’s a statement about style, not content, although it could be said for both with some music).
However, listening to some of these songs – when they have intelligible vocals, of course – does provide me with opportunity to parse the meaning of the songs and their lyrical value: rhythm, rhyme, phrasing, and such. I also enjoy listening for lyrical structure, and the song “Makes Me Wonder” by Maroon 5, while lyrically obscene (the band has a serious penchant for sexually suggestive lyrics), had an interesting change in structure on the second and subsequent choruses that caught my attention:
Give me something to believe in
Cause I don’t believe in you,
And then upon repeating:
And you told me how you’re feeling
But I don’t believe it’s true
The way that “believe” is used in these two parallel sections is a useful reminder of context: in the latter, it is used to describe how one feels about a proposition (the subject’s vocalized feeling), but in the former, it is used in a sense roughly analogous to faith – the idea of trust or confidence in a person. Certainly, it would be absurd to say that the author of these lines is disaffirming the existence of the subject or asking for a proposition which he might affirm as being true. The author has been opining the ways in which the subject of the song has betrayed his confidence, and so he rejects the feelings of trust or surety in her. In this same way, I suggest, religious people talk about their faith in God – any god, for that matter – as a meaningful relation between It (the “Other”) and themselves, not as a proposition that requires affirmation.
I hope that this will be a useful counterexample to help combat the prevalent faith meme. If others can see how flexible language is, then maybe they will not be so keen on pushing square pegs through round holes.