Archaic Language and Religious Nationalism

It seems an overly obvious move to write about the religous language of the American author, speaker, and conservative radio host Eric Metaxas. I feel kindof gross about it, actually. The man is so over the top in his religious language behaviour that it doesn’t seem particularly interesting or worthy of much discussion really.

Good grief, man

But …. What I did find interesting were the responses to his recent use of archaic language in a tweet about the president’s “recovery” from Covid19.
Now that is something I’m interested in talking about.

Spot the archaism in Metaxas’s tweet

Archaism is a “fossil of past linguistic usage,” as David Crystal puts it. Archaic language appears in the law, in works of literature, and even in certain dialects that have resisted linguistic change. And, for our purposes here, it can communicate religious meaning.

Archaic language evokes the past, offering a sense of tradition and history, lending an air of timelessness, reverence and authority. Contemporary speakers sometimes use archaism to establish a sense of spiritual authority. The scholar Greg Bowan writes, for example, that the Mormon leader Joseph Smith often imitated archaic language in the King James Bible as a way to project himself as a prophet.

And that takes us to Eric Metaxas, whose overly religious and archaic language is pretty easy to recognize. I’m sure you spotted it in the above tweet, along with many others who immediately commented.

Thiessen’s comment above, that “No one talks this way,” reflects a perhaps increasing general dislike of archaic language, at least of certain types. This kind of language is sometimes seen as exclusive, inaccessible, high-handed, even arrogant. The use of archaic language can be risky, then, in contemporary contexts.

But this particular instance was also offensive to many because of the other point Thiessen makes, that Metaxas’s particular choice of archaism evokes messianic imagery around Trump. Metaxas is participating in making President Trump sacred, an act of religious nationalism. Another tweeter pointed this out, giving us an interesting window into how we process archaic language, identify its meaning and form a judgement about its use.

You can see two tweeters here acting on their instinct that this language is taken from a sacred text. But which sacred text? And which specific verse? Debating the source of the archaism helped tweeters make sense of Metaxas’s meaning. One tweeter even used the source’s ambiguity another way, to mock Metaxas, connecting him with a specific sacred text he has repeatedly criticized publicly, the Q’uran.

Nicely played

The point here is that archaism is one risky yet effective tool we commonly use to communicate religious meaning, in various contexts. Unpacking that meaning requires examining the wider context of an instance of religious archaic language, including other uses of the archaic language in play.

And it requires looking at other religious language by the author of the text we are interested in. For example, see here another of Metaxas’s tweets, this time condemning the “messianic fantasies” of Trump’s political rivals. We might conclude that Metaxas views Trump not just as *one* sacred figure, but rather *the* sacred figure. Or, in Trump’s own words, “the chosen one.” As one tweeter replied, “Disturbing.”

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