I have this theory, influenced by my senior seminar spent immersed in Derrida and my personal observations of trends in the conservative Christian bubble, that I think I’d like to pursue for graduate work.

The problem is that I haven’t the first clue about what field this would fall into or where I could go to find a department supportive of me pursuing this idea academically. Care to help?

Earlier this week I mentioned that I think having the vocabulary to name your problem is the first step to being able to confront it. The reason I think this is closely connected to what I’ve observed…

In “cult”-like churches (here loosely defined as churches with isolated/insulated and somewhat controlling internal social culture, using fear and shame to manipulate members into continued acquiescence and support of the leader, group, or “movement.there’s usually a distinct vocabulary that is used within the “cult” (I’m going to use that from here on out, but don’t get upset. That’s just me using the term broadly because it’s handy.) which the members understand instinctually, but the loaded connotations of these terms don’t make sense to outsiders OR don’t register with outsiders as loaded terms.

Let me give an example. In Sovereign Grace Ministries, longtime members are humorously self-aware that their lingo doesn’t make a ton of sense to outsiders (CLC’s 25th anniversary celebration pageant included a sketch where two members were talking with a non-member and hilarious confusion ensued due to the terminology). The unchurched have a certain confused reaction to phrases like “I just want to purpose to” and “don’t want to cause anyone to stumble” and “I just want to be a blessing here,” etc.

But, within the evangelical world, these terms tend to translate all right. Where it gets weird is that the “reformed big dogs” (a term used to loosely refer to the celebrity pastors/leaders of the new reformed movement in America, such as John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, etc., and those at the Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel.) hear someone like CJ Mahaney saying something like “I’m going to purpose to humble myself and make myself transparent and accountable to xyz men in my church/church leaders elsewhere” and they think “Oh! He’s going to listen and ask for advice and is willing to change and receive feedback and fix the problems in SGM. We should assume the best.” But what CJ [functionally, maybe not deliberately] means by saying that is more like: “I’m going to meet with likeminded people who will tell me I’m okay and we’ll talk these issues through and when we come out on the same page we can continue business as usual because I’ve been open to talking about it [humble] and gotten outside input [accountable].”

The language is loaded and the mistranslation perpetuates unconscionable defenses of bad behavior on the part of leaders like CJ because it’s easy to assume the best when he’s saying things that in your interpretation mean he’s genuinely repenting and willing to change.

That’s how this works on the leader-on-the-inside talking to leaders-on-the-outside level. But where it’s most troubling is how it works internally, how this affects the cult members who are fish unaware of the linguistic water in which they swim.

On the internal level, once you’ve been in one of these churches for a while, you start to adapt to the vocabulary, and the loaded meanings of the cult’s use of certain common churchy words start replacing the original meanings. The words slip and slide from loaded Christianese to be weighted with new meanings, usually marked by elements of shame and guilt as the impetus for the new meanings.

Example: “unteachability” in the normal world means: “someone who is obnoxiously full of themselves and can’t take criticism or follow rules.” In the mainstream evangelical church, it means that plus “someone who will hurt others with this attitude and probably should work on humility and learn how to listen better because that’s Christ-like.” In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it means “someone who has concerns about how things operate and asked uncomfortable questions/has uncomfortable observations about leadership and their habits and won’t accept the standard answers to their questions at face value and is looking for more honesty than we’re comfortable with.” Whether or not this person has an edge to their attitude or has a vendetta motivating their questions, once you’re labelled as “unteachable,” you’re perpetually on a short leash in SGM and asking why they won’t answer or why they don’t trust you anymore will prove your unteachability further and perpetuate your status as out of favor with the leadership.

The thing is, this is not just SGM that does this. It happens in little Presbyterian churches turning into cults by not reporting honestly to their session. It happens to home churches, to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. It happens in Bill Gothard’s program members, it happens in home school groups, it happens in Vision Forum, it happens in Calvary Chapels, it happens in essentially any church or church-like group that isn’t mixing with those different from themselves or are deliberately engaging in self-protective isolation.

This is why the Westboro Baptist Church is so impenetrable with their positions — they don’t need to protect themselves from people trying to persuade them they’re wrong. Their internal cult dialect does that for them. Without a translation, they’re safe from being convinced that they’re wrong.

I call the psychological effect of this loaded language on members a “stop-think trigger” (I need a better term — is there a real term in academic use for this?), where a cult member’s normal reasoning function shortcuts itself when one of these loaded terms is used, and they don’t follow through the process of thinking an idea through from A to Z, and end up in an irrational and emotionally harmful place because they accepted a phrase on the terms set for it by the cult’s use of it, and the phrase surrenders its original meaning or vitality to the new meaning.

And that, this ability of church leaders to use psychological manipulation by defining the dialectic of a church or group to control the social and emotional habits and atmosphere of a church, is what I want to study for grad school. [I think.] Why does it work? How does it work? How is it connected to “brainwashing” or “Stockholm Syndrome”? What does it mean for someone to get out of a cult and how does the language affect that process and what is the psychological fallout and why is it so similar to PTSD?

So, questions.

1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy? 

3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?

  • I think you could pursue this theory/topic in sociology, linguistics, psychology or philosophy, but I think it’s important to consider where you think you will fit in the most. Some questions to consider might be: Are you looking to study people? If so, individuals (this would be more psych) or groups (sociology)? (And to some extent, philosophy heavily influences soc and psych already, so that’s something to consider.) You could also pursue something in soc or psych and blend it with linguistics (I have friends who are doing similar things in different areas). once you answer some questions like that and focus your area, then you could decide which academic dept would be better for you. I hope this makes some sense and helps a little!

  • This theory is FANTASTIC and I definitely think you should pursue it. My first instinct (although you don’t need to give my instinct much credibility, as I haven’t pursued grad school yet) is to say that you would probably want to pursue this at a secular institution, not a Christian one. The one exception might be my alma mater, Baylor University (whic I might be biased in recommending :P) because it’s the one and only university I know of that is both committed to being distinctly Christian and yet committed to being on the academic level of other big-name secular institutions.

    I would think this would fall under social studies of some sort. Something that combines psychology, sociology, and religious studies.

    I’m going to forward this to a friend of mine whose dad works in the philosophy department at Baylor and see if they can forward this on to the people who might actually have a well-informed idea as to where/how to pursue this. 🙂

  • Nic

    1) Your theory is spot on, and I don’t know many educated people who would dispute that. That isn’t a reason not to pursue the research, however. Many people accept the concept itself as valid, but we know very little about the dynamics of it, and the more study the better we can get a grip on it. I am a little wary of your translations of the loaded terminology, though. They sound very official and specific, and are probably not what the speakers themselves would define the terms to mean. What that would mean for an academic paper is a lot of instructive examples of those loaded terms being used precisely and demonstrably in those ways. That is a lot of leg-work.

    2) I would call this a sociolinguistic question. It sounds like you’re more interested in studying the sociological aspect, but the subject itself is linguistic. I would recommend looking into semiotics if you’re not familiar with the field, and into Roy Bhaskar’s work in “critical realism” as a framework for doing the sociological analysis of language-as-sign (though critical realism does come with its own amount of leg-work).

    3) I am not aware of anywhere this has been done, though I would be shocked if it has not. The Seattle School of Psychology and Theology would be thrilled with this kind of work, though I don’t know anything about your context or possibilities. I think either a religious or a secular school could work, though you want one with a strong religion department, whatever you do.

    Looking forward to seeing you follow up on this.

  • This sounds like a very interesting topic for grad studies. What your interested in sounds a lot like the sociolinguistic studies that I have read and used for my own work. Some texts that you may want to explore are: “Discourse Strategies” by John J. Gumperz. Gumperz looks at code-switching by bilingual speakers, but his theory can easily be applied to what you are discussing. If you look at the language used by members of the church and the fact that, often, Christians tend not to switch to a more understandable code when among those who don’t understand it, it fits very well with what Gumperz discusses. “Politeness: Some universals in language usage” by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson. Brown and Levinson focus on how individuals switch codes in order to manipulate a particular situation to get certain results from those they are addressing. “Linguistic Variation as Social Practice” by Penelope Eckert. Eckert’s study focuses on how teenage boys and girls use language differently in order to move up in social circles. While the focus is on high school students, the theory she develops from this study is applicable to many situations. These texts are foundational to the study of sociolinguistics. In terms of the type of university, I would probably recommend a secular school, mainly because I think you would have less constraints, or feel less pressured to adjust your study to be more forgiving of the Church. Although, no matter where you go, the professors will always have their opinions and try to influence your work to meet their expectations, but a good professor will guide you, rather than insist you write to fit their views. I could also see your study using psychological linguistics, as well, but I am not familiar with the texts for this discipline. One thing you may want to do is to go speak to a sociolinguistic professor at a university near you (more than one, if you can). They would be able to give you an idea of where your research interests might fall. It is better to e-mail them for an appointment, rather simply go to their office hours, because they might be able to give you more time that way. Also, be sure to keep your e-mail to them pretty short because most professors won’t want to read a long e-mail laying out your interest – best to keep that for the face-to-face conversation.

  • sdpeters

    I’m no expert, but your theory seems very valid. I don’t think you’d need to pursue this study at a Christian institution (my first gut reaction was that this is a sociological issue, and my second a linguistic issue. it’s probably both.), but it may be helpful to do so.

  • I just found your blog, like, a week ago and I love your voice! This post is making my imagination go nuts…so, my favorite bit of reformed lingo (that was used on me recently) is, “I just want to check your heart,” which is intended to mean, “I want to point something out to you about your motives, so you can take responsibility for examining your own heart.” But this is delusional; the literal meaning of the phrase does not mean the receiver is doing the “checking,” but rather, the speaker. It’s such a nonsense phrase, but I hear it everywhere.

    Your “stop-think trigger” theory is interesting; it reminds me of a couple of concepts that I only vaguely remember from a language acquisition course I took in undergrad. One is fossilization — when usage of a certain grammatical structure is engrained, and no amount of effort is going to dislodge it. The other is (and this is really fuzzy) a theory about our internal censor–a “mediator”–that governs our language use. Sometimes when language-learners feel stressed, threatened, or frustrated, this mediator will get stuck, and learning will not take place. That sounds a lot like a “stop-think trigger” to me! I searched around a bit, and I think this stuff is in some way related to Vygotsky and his theories about how we mediate and internalize cultural norms. (?)
    So for what it’s worth, it sounds to me like you are interested in psychology and language; I’m sure there are programs out there that combine these things.

    • Ohh, good things. Fossilization sounds interesting. I’ll have to look into this.

  • The subject matter at hand is something of interest to me and I was keenly interested in the topics you addressed in your blog essay. I will copy and paste your questions in order to answer them. If all goes as planned, your questions will be boldened compared with my answers.

    1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

    I think the lingo used by these orgs is a subtle form of thought control. Also, the words as inhibitors of thought is of interest. I would call it orthosteric inhibition of free speech. Oh, I went to a neuroscience journal club yesterday and the topic at hand was the area of the prefrontal cortex involved with deceptability or your level of scepticism (spelling oy.) Try to find, “http://www.frontiersin.org/Decision_Neuroscience/10.3389/fnins.2012.00100/abstract
    ok, it did it for me. We discussed fundie groups exhibiting similar patterns.

    2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy?
    Interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming increasingly popular. I would add behaviorial Neuroscience and Neurobiology to the list.

    3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?
    I have noticed a crop of blogger that is an older child in a large fundie homeschool family. I think they are the first swell of a huge wave of people that have a similar story of extremism that will eventually turn into a segment of the adult population that will need to be treated in some capacity as a result of their traumatic experiences.
    Although I am a Christian, I would not trust a Christian institution based on some trends I have noticed particularly the lack of concern for victims of sexual and physical abuse within SGM and the support of powerful alpha males within the conservative Christian community and the dearth of support for victims. I say that with a heavy heart.
    By the way, kudos for pursuing your education, may your studies be successful!

    • John Schellhase

      “Oh, I went to a neuroscience journal club yesterday…”
      That sounds like just about one of the most interesting things I can possibly imagine. Where does one find such clubs??

      • Generally, universities with a strong neuroscience program.

  • Having just left a cultish church I would say, yes your theory is spot on. It is interesting that having left certain words or phrases now trigger me into panic attack and the flight/fight response – one of those phrases is ‘being one’ or the word ‘unity’.

    As a Psychology graduate I reckon the best discipline would be Psychology, specifically in the field of Pragmatics (as part of Psycholinguistical study) – Pragmatics is of course part of Linguistics – which is a Department all by itself – at my university I studied it as part of Psychology.

    Is this the sort of thing – I’ve only scan-read it but it might be relevant? It’s written by a Swiss professor in the Department of Linguistics at Neuchatel University: http://www2.unine.ch/files/content/sites/cognition/files/shared/documents/

    • Oh! Never head of pragmatics, but that’s about right. I’ll look into this more. Thanks.

  • I think you’re on to something here. Thoughts:

    1a: Identity. There’s definitely been a lot of work done in terms of the linguistic aspects of group identity, from the big (Norse as the language of the conquering, male ruling class in Kievan Rus, being replaced within a few generations by the local Slavic dialect while retaining some status and navigation-based Norse words, for instance) to the small (specialized language used to create a sense of group validity and superiority among, say, postmodern literary theorists). You see this everywhere; using “y’all” in the lower east side of Manhattan is very different from using it in the bayous of Louisiana, despite the fact that it’s function (2nd person plural/formal) is objectively useful. Arabic is littered with Islam-affirming phraseology, such as “inshallah,” “ma’ashallah,” “as-salaam aleykum,” etc. These phrases become “fossilized”, as Charity mentioned, but still retain a certain subconscious power; English, for instance, is inherently monotheist (my God! Goddamnit) etc, while Quebecois French is inherently anti-religious, with most of its profanity being specifically blasphemous towards Catholocism. The list goes on.

    2a: Euphemism. In this case it seems such phrases serve as “reward-surrogates”, used to perform a specific action (eg demanding conformity) while not doing so explicitly. At standard levels, that means we talk about “going to the bathroom” rather than “shitting,” et al, but in some cases the language seems to serve as a replacement for the social rewards of contribution: for example, someone deciding to do something would just do it, rather than talking about “purposing to”, and someone who wanted to be nice to people would obviously be nice, and wouldn’t have to talk about “being a blessing to.” You see the same thing happen in corporations: “let’s dialogue about this” makes the speaker seem “more professional” due to the use of linguistic markers of business, as in 1a, even if his/her actions are not in line with professional etiquette or objectively beneficial to the corporation.

    2a.a: Manipulation. In line with what you were talking about above. An advanced system of guilt and manipulation can be constructed through instruction, then attached to a trigger word or phrase that, in this case, is also designed to seem innocuous (ie, a euphemism). It’s a shortcut to social pressure, and is universal — the word “evil” is among the most common examples, and people like George Orwell would use this phenomenon intentionally with words like “thoughtcrime” that linked certain previously nebulous government actions to a specific, negative concept in people’s minds.

    2. I kind of agree with folks below about philosophy being a good approach, though seems like sociolinguistics would be good too. I’m not a big fan of the modern state of sociology — too nebulous and conclusion-first for my taste — but hey, maybe you can change the field. 😉

    3. Secular. They’re just better. You could always try for the Rhodes — a friend of mine got hers by comparing her upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses with her international experiences, learning Arabic, Turkish and Swahili in the Muslim world. She says presenting yourself as capable of providing a unique perspective on the human social condition is more important than tests and GPA and so forth in that regard.

    Anyways, there’s my two cents. May the Great Old Ones damn this inflationary climate, inshallah.

    • Good thoughts. Love French profanity for that very reason. [shh. secret.]

      The idea of “reward surrogates” is one I need to explore more.

  • John Schellhase

    I have some thoughts on this. I think the theories definitely have some merit. I think it is possible (I think – not sure) that you are too narrowly analyzing the minds of the leaders in a lot of these cases. I’d guess most of this would fall under Sociology, but with a definite Psychology aspect in the case of how trigger words/phrases affect the brain.

    I’d write out all my thoughts, but I’m deep in the throes of Diff EQ at the moment…. Don’t let me forget to talk to you about this though. It’s super interesting! 🙂

  • Kenneth Garrett

    Great topic for study! I was referred to this site by Julie Anne Smith, a good friend!

    1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

    Very relevant to anyone who is interested in the phenomena of group-think expressed in exclusive language and communication styles. “By their fruits you’ll know them,” and the fruit of a false prophet is mostly his/her words. (Mostly, but not exclusively) A great parallel study might be the vocab. or abuse on a political scale, with such considerations as the Third Reich Stalinism etc., with a glance over of the use of language to control in Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” It certainly applies to the life of the abusive church/cult, and (I think) even to more extreme, high-demand parachurch ministries, who have developed their own group-speak. I’m not saying every group with its own, distinct vocabulary is wrong/evil/abusive, etc., but simply that every group ends up affirming (and even developing) an acceptable vocabulary to use amongst its own members.

    2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy?

    I’m not familiar with what goes into this decision, but the sociological approach seems best to me, and perhaps the most accessible to other, non-academically minded, readers.

    3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?

    I’m sure a study of vocab. in relation to group dynamic has been discussed/written of, but I’m not aware of much in the way of churches. Ronald M. Enroth (Churches that Abuse) might be a person to check with on that, as far as consulting with a published expert.

    A study that included not only consultation with former members of abusive groups, but also with current members of suspected/allegedly abusive groups would be fascinating if you could ever pull it off. I created a short “vocab list” of the abusive church that I was a part of for 12 years, and left 16 years ago. If you would like to contact me I’ll email it to you by attachment. Would rather not toss it out into cyberspace….

    Good luck!


    • I’d love to see your list! Thanks for the input.

  • 1) I think your theory is spot on. Language impacts religion. For example, in my Catholic background, the official versions are Latin and the argument is over translation. Translations can changed at the local level to say or not say what the speaker wants. The choice of how to translate something can have a significant amount of meaning to the audience.

    Note: Very few English speakers have read a word of the Bible. Nearly all of us have read translations. Quite a bit is lost in translation.

    2) This sounds like linguistic anthropology or anthropological linguistics: The study of culture through language.

    3) I would pursue this under a secular or “academically tolerant” Christian institution.

  • janel

    Came from Rachel’s website. This sounds phenomenal. I think thats fascinating. I also think that as you investigate this you will have a large ‘push-back’ from those in leadership who don’t appreciate your investigation. This to me means it definitely needs to be done. I have no idea what school you should consider but I believe there is one out there

  • I think this is a fabulous idea – it’s also incredibly interesting how this kind of language influences one’s perception of God, and thereafter any fallout one may experience on leaving a cult. Anyway, I haven’t got much beyond that because I’m not academic, but my gut instinct would be, like other commentators have mentioned, to go for a secular school rather than a religious one. You may not be coaxed to a certain bias.

  • hey, love.
    i think your theory merits your attention and further study. i loved your recent post, referred to in this post, about naming a problem as a first step in realizing

    • zut alors. didn’t mean to post that.

      – as a first step in tackling it.

      the closest thing I’ve seen to this is in linguistics. my anthropology class at gcc covered it briefly – these kinds of theories are pushed further sometimes to say that (oversimplifying, of course) if you don’t have a word for a thing, you can’t experience it as truly as someone who has a (or a more exact or more descriptive) word for it (e.g. people living in snowy regions for hundreds of years developing a dozen labels for crunchy snow, fluffy snow, wet snow.). dr. ayers seemed to think that the theory to this extent was silliness. but your point still works — it becomes easier to address crunchy snow when you’re not still stuck in translation.

      although there’s been a good amount of research on naming/signs/symbols, I would love to see your work in respect to “internal cult dialects.”

  • Pam Elmore

    I’d say it depends on what angle you want to study the issue from. You’ve observed a sociological groupthink phenomenon that has individual psychological repercussions — you could certainly study and discuss it from either angle. Do you want to draw attention to the social system and thereby try to dismantle it, or do you want to study and/or help those who are individually impacted by that social system?
    (One question/possible correction: in the paragraph about “reformed big dogs” — do you mean Mark Driscoll?)

    • No, but he’s of a similar sort. He’s not as close with the group I’m referring to, though.

  • intheNickoftime

    I’ll pray for you.

    Normally it means I will pray for you.

    SGM speak it means, “I will pray for God to bring you around to my way of thinking”.

  • Have you thought about going to Divinity school proper? I love this concept too, and pursued it in a linguistic anthropology class a couple years ago. If you were to select a Christian institution, make sure it’s one with resources–it makes all the difference in the world and usually yields a lot more professionalism from religiously-affiliated institutions. And you want to have lots of potential material at your fingertips. Would you be pursuing a PhD?

  • 1. As someone who grew up in a cult-ish church, and as a psych student with a wild interest in this, I think your theory is absolutely right, and definitely merits further study. While I was reading your post, I kept thinking about phrases that came up in church a lot that essentially just shut down any dissent. The pastors were “anointed,” and as such, were untouchable. Anything that got in the way was construed as “spiritual warfare.” This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME, and it doesn’t get talked about much outside of evangelical blogging circles, it seems.

    2. This would fit well in a number of fields. Personally, I think it would be best suited to psychology, or maybe sociology.

    3. I have never heard of a study like this. I’m no expert, but I do try to keep up with this kind of thing (due to personal interest, mostly). It’s possible that there’s something out there, but even if there is, more research definitely couldn’t hurt.

    Best of luck with this 🙂

  • I really enjoyed this. Reminds me of some of the work I did in college with grammar, linguistics, and rhetoric. Hope you’re able to pursue it!
    I particularly appreciate any attempt to investigate a phenomenon using full academic rigor. Systematic analysis and investigation doesn’t come naturally to many people….

  • Elena S.

    I’m an undergraduate anthropology student, and your theory sounds like it would fit nicely into the discipline and make a strong research topic. I think linguistics could get a little too technical for your purposes, but it seems like linguistic anthropology is very much in line with your interests in this particular topic. As others have said, if you pursued this topic you’d probably find yourself doing a lot of cross-discipline research, e. g. in linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc. Anthropologists tend to have a lot of freedom with interdisciplinary approaches in my experience, and if you felt so inclined, you could even approach your firsthand experiences as a kind of ethnographic fieldwork. Really intriguing stuff! Looking forward to see where you go with it 🙂

  • Christine

    I think your theory sounds unquestionably correct. Have you read 1984? A portion of the book is about this sort of manipulation through language. I agree that the fact that this sounds so spot-on and so obvious and known is actually a good reason to study it, rather than a reason to not study it.

    Coming from a physical sciences background, I can’t really comment on exactly where this fits, but some of it sounds similar to what I studied in my Peace and Conflict Studies class – it’s an interdisciplinary field, and there is a lot of interest in methods of controlling people. You might also want to consider psychology – it’s what Bob Altemeyer (the guy who wrote “The Authoritarians”) studied. Remember that it doesn’t need to be a perfect fit, but you do want your supervisor to have some background in the field so they can direct you.

    I’m probably biased here because of my PACS experience, but I see no reason that you can’t study at a religious college. (I’m from Canada, and we don’t really have a lot of academically serious universities – religious institutions are normally just one college at a regular university, and people who aren’t affiliated with the college can take courses there, just like people who are affiliated can take all or most of their courses through outside departments.

  • kristina grob

    love this. and *yes.* agreed on the sociolinguistic weight of the question; you’ll be doing heavily inter/postdisciplinary studies with this anyway. This kind of inquiry would definitely be at home at a Jesuit university (bias: I am at one now) and you’d benefit from the strong philosophy and theology faculty these institutions tend to have.