Secularity and Religious Speech
in the Two Denominations
Secularization presents Christianity with a nasty choice between being relevant but undistinctive, or distinctive but irrelevant.
(David Lyon, The Steeple's Shadow)
IN ATTEMPTING to understand the effects of modern secular culture on western religion, sociologists have investigated many aspects of religious faith and practice. Survey studies of such matters as the variables of religious growth and decline, church affiliation and attendance, and religious attitudes and beliefs have greatly enriched our knowledge about the state of religion in modern times. But these studies have neglected to consider the subtleties of the internal contents of religion— what some call its “meaning component.” To be sure, surveys of religious opinion and faith have shed light on some aspects of religious ideology. But by their nature, these studies have been unable to probe the images, metaphors, and rhetorical formulations that inform belief and behavior. Although religious ideology, like all other ideologies, is created and maintained (or changed) through language, sociologists tend to overlook religious speech as a topic of research. As one sociologist of religion has observed: “Religious communities are awash in words … but about their discourse, we [know] virtually nothing.” 1
In response to this gap, this book has examined secularity in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Southern Baptist Convention through the perspective of language use, exploring the preaching of pastors as they explicate the Parable of the Prodigal Son. My goal has been to assess how this talk replies to conditions of modern secular culture. In the face of social processes of privatization, pluralization, and rationalization, I have asked, how do the churches respond? To what extent does the speech of contemporary Presbyterian and Southern Baptist sermons show adaptation to the contemporary secular culture? To what extent does it attempt to resist its force, or to reinterpret it through creative reformulations that reach beyond the opposing approaches?