Speaking Religiously

The ancient Egyptians used many metaphors of boats in speaking of religion. This was a civilization that existed for the most part just along both banks of a major river. When looking to describe the unknown spiritual realm, a familiar point of comparison would obviously be a boat. From our distance in time and culture, we may find it almost quaint to see how Egyptian culture influenced the way they talked about their religion.

It may be harder to see culture as an influence on own own religions, especially as we now lie like tsunami victims under an ocean of monotheism, which claims to be absolutely true, not culturally determined.  Naturally I would never question absolute truth. But in terms of linguistic interest, I want to look at a few examples of how language is used within two versions of Christianity, Catholicism and Baptism.


It is said of women who become nuns that they become the “bride of Christ”. This metaphor is taken so seriously that some nuns have even worn white and received “wedding rings” as part of the consecration ceremony. Contemplating this reference, I wondered who the men marry in becoming monks.

I assume there is no belief that the men are also marrying Christ, because, you know… The men take on the monastic life completely as individuals. Why don’t the women do the same?

Could the concept “bride of Christ” be an unconscious reflection of the depressingly common belief that a woman must always be under the control of a man? Our secular wedding ceremonies clearly contain an allusion to this repellent belief, when the father “gives away” the bride to the groom. From one master to another. In the Catholic church, it seems to be the case that as a woman becomes a nun, even as she renounces the very idea of ever being with a man, even then, there is still a bizarre metaphorical reference to marriage. I would guess that seeing nuns as brides originated in the Middle Ages, when most women literally were under the control of men.

Of course we don’t exactly have to work, or even think much, to see the megalithic presence of patriarchy in the Catholic church. At an early stage, men grabbed all the power, as men will, ignored the real history, and pretended that women were barely involved in creating the early Christian church. So we have the “holy father” of the Pope, and the many priests called “father” but there are no mothers other than the Mother Superior (never referred to simply as “mother” the way a priest is “father”). The Mother Superior is also responsible only for other women.


One of the phrases Baptists sometimes use is “washed in the blood of the Lamb”. The baby sheep here is capitalized as a metaphor for Jesus, somewhat oddly, as he is more commonly considered to be the shepherd. Baptists, not an especially poetic tribe, did not create the phrase, which is from the Bible. One also finds the phrase shortened down in modern usage to “washed in the blood”, and you can be pretty darn sure that no one considers the literal meaning of this freakish sanguine metaphor.

We can imagine “washed” to refer to becoming new in some way, to getting rid of something—sin, undesirable habits, old beliefs—but washed in blood? What is that about? It is obviously a reference to blood shed by Jesus when he was tortured to death by the Romans, but still, washed in blood…it’s a little weird.

Some ancient writer had an interesting imagination, and I wonder whether the metaphor was under the influence of the Roman religion Mitraism, which did involve a literal blood bath from a slaughtered bull. Even if so, it looks as if two different symbols—washing and the surrogate shedding of blood—over the years became strangely mixed. Perhaps the grim imagery is more acceptable because it is a metaphor of lamb’s blood, rather than a direct reference to being washed in the blood of a man.

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