Superstition II: Do words have power?

‘Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself,’ Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling).

One of my very good friends recently expressed concerns about his kids using the killing curse from Harry Potter, ‘Avada kedavra!’, in play. He’d heard that it was taken from a real Aramaic spell, and wasn’t happy about the idea of his children unwittingly speaking real and potentially powerful or evil spells.

Now as far as I’m concerned this is an urban myth, and the Harry Potter killing spell is based on nothing more sinister than ‘Abracadabra!’. But it raises an interesting issue – do words or phrases have power in themselves? Should we be careful what we say, not simply because of the possible impact on the listener (e.g. calling someone stupid), but because our words might unleash spiritual forces for good or ill?

I mentioned in the previous post that a well-meaning Christian once warned me against saying ‘Blimey!’ because it was asking God to blind me (‘Cor blimey’ originally derives from ‘May God blind me’). As a trying-to-be good Christian, this troubled me; as a student of language, it made me laugh. Words just don’t have this kind of power, and what matters is the intent of the user, not the etymology or original meaning of the phrase. When I said ‘Blimey!’ I meant ‘wow!’ or ‘I’m amazed’; I wasn’t inviting God to blind me, and he knows that.

Not coincidentally, the person who warned me was a follower of the ‘Name it and Claim it’ school, or officially the (Word of) Faith Movement, which I’d now see as a misguided quasi-cultic hyper-pentecostal offshoot. One of their key doctrines is that our words do have real power, particularly if they are spoken with ‘faith’. They quoted lots of out-of-context scriptures to support this position, mainly from Proverbs about words having the power to bring life or death, plus the famous passage from Mark 11:20-24 where Jesus appears to say we can literally move mountains if we speak with command and belief.

So let me state here and now that I don’t believe words have any inherent power in and of themselves. If they have any power or force at all, it’s only because of

  • The power we attach to them or accord them; the hold we let them have over us (e.g. the fear that we’ve invoked bad luck or attracted the devil’s attention by speaking a particular phrase);
  • Their actual meaning and intent – the thing they refer to and the intent of the speaker (e.g. swear words have a force related to the strength of the taboo they invoke and the degree to which the speaker means to shock or hurt);
  • The power of any spiritual being that’s being deliberately invoked through them, and the relationship we have with that being.

So if I automatically say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, I can fairly confidently state that it will have no effect whatsoever, either spiritual or physical.

Equally, if I say ‘curse you!’ or ‘damn you!’ in jest or in exclamation, or ‘Avada kedavra!’ in play, I don’t believe that these have any real meaning or power, any more than if I say ‘bang bang you’re dead!’. If I exclaim ‘blimey!’, I seriously doubt that God will blind me. The only effect these words may have is psychological, producing fear if we let them.

Even if I say ‘curse you!’ in genuine anger, I doubt it would have any effect – I don’t have that power. In that Mark 11 passage again, Jesus was able to curse a fig tree and make it wither but if I tried it, I suspect nothing would happen. I might give it a go with a houseplant and let you know what happens – though I have a sad talent for accidentally killing off pot plants without any cursing involved.

Bear in mind also that a set of sounds that means something to us may well have a very different meaning in some other language. As a silly example, when Winston Churchill said ‘blessez-vous’ to a Frenchman who’d sneezed, he meant ‘bless you’ but in French the phrase means ‘hurt yourself!’. The word ‘can’t’ is only a strong accent away from a highly offensive swear-word. So it’s conceivable that in some language I’m not aware of, the combination of sounds that we understand as ‘Praise God!’ might mean something hideously evil. What matters is clearly not the actual words or sounds, but what the speaker intends and, to a lesser extent, what the hearer understands. And I think God is generally fairly capable of working out what we mean.

Power and relationship

Now it’s just possible that if I said ‘By all the powers may (person X) be cursed’, speaking with authority and genuinely meaning it, then perhaps – just perhaps – someone or something might hear and respond. I can’t say for sure, and I don’t think it’s all that likely – I think you need to have a genuine relationship with whatever powers you’re invoking for such words to have any authority. But it’s not something I plan to put to the test. Essentially it’s a prayer, albeit a dark one.

Equally, if I said – and really meant it – ‘May the Lord bless you and make his face to shine upon you’, then again that is a prayer, and God may well honour it – particularly if I have a genuine and active relationship with him. So in this sense some words, spoken with real meaning and intent or authority, may have power because of who or what they invoke, and based on the depth of the relationship or covenant you have with that powerful being. But just exclaiming ‘blimey!’ or ‘curse it!’ in irritation has no meaning or power in itself – you might as well have said ‘Squoggle it!’ or ‘Pinklewomp!’ for all the meaning and effect the words will have.

In the same way, I don’t believe that ritually-repeated prayers spoken without meaning or relationship have any real power – they’re surely what Jesus referred to as ‘babbling like the pagans’. Prayer has meaning primarily because of the quality of relationship with the one you are praying to, not because of the quality of the particular words used.

Now I’ll concede that it may be possible to learn how to speak words with such meaning, power, intent and authority that they do have an impact on the spiritual and physical realms. I’m agnostic about that, as I am about telepathy/ESP and other so-called ‘psychic’ or paranormal powers. I’ve certainly never witnessed any genuine cases of it, and I’m fairly sceptical.

Again though, if it is possible then I suspect it is merely because in speaking these words one is aligning oneself with, or drawing on, some other source of spiritual power, whether good or ill. And either way, this is certainly not the case for repeating Harry Potter spells or particular exclamations that may have once meant something for good or ill like ‘blimey’, or ‘bless you’, or ‘damn it’, or ‘goodbye’ (originally ‘God be with you’).

Emotional power

The real power which I do think words can have is emotional and psychological power. Words have the power both to wound and to heal emotionally; they have the power to produce fear and anxiety, and also to reassure and comfort. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me’ simply isn’t true. If I repeatedly tell my children that they’re worthless, stupid or incapable, they’ll probably come to believe it and act accordingly – particularly if I back it up with the rest of the way I treat them. Conversely, if someone uses words to offer me genuine forgiveness for a wrong I’ve done them, or to show me that they really care, that can bring healing – though again it needs to be backed up by attitude and action. Words in themselves are rarely enough.

Over the years I’ve been deeply hurt by words others have spoken to me or about me; I’ve also been profoundly helped, encouraged and inspired by words people have spoken. So words can have power over our hearts and minds, if we let them. But I don’t believe they have the power to make things happen or to cause physical harm.

Our words matter; several biblical writers warn us to be careful what we say, to guard our tongue, to be quick to listen but slow to speak. This isn’t because our words are magic spells, but because they do have real meaning and can have real impact upon both our listeners and ourselves.

We don’t need to fear words or names; we just need to use them wisely and well. Bless you all. 😉

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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