In my last post I made reference to the band Mumford & Sons’ use of a “cuss word” in their song “Little Lion Man”. I thought I should say more about Christians and profanity, so here’s some thoughts. Firstly, in Mumford & Sons defence, they make no claim of being a “Christian Band” (by the way, the Boar’s Head Tavern is currently having an interesting back and forth on the issue of “Christian” art and business). So I don’t want to dwell on Mumford & Sons specifically. But how do we talk as Christians about profanity? I think we’ve all dropped a few expletives in our time. I’ve let a few things fly that would make sailors blush (I remember distinctly the look on a bible college classmate’s face when he dropped an f-bomb and I let fly with worse, at a greater volume… it actually helped set him straight… priceless memories). But the words we often dub “profane” or “curse words”-do we have a biblical basis for calling them that? When Paul refers to “obscene talk” (e.g. Eph. 4:49, 5:4, Col. 3:8) what does he have in mind? Obviously if he is telling his readers not to use such words, he wouldn’t give a list of the words he wants Christians to avoid. We could speculate as to what he’s thinking, and perhaps investigating Greco-Roman and Jewish obscenities would be interesting. But of course, Paul doesn’t have English words in mind. But is there a basis on which we can evaluate our choice of words; guiding principles that we can use to better understand how we can honour God with our language use? Or are there words which are just obscene in and of themselves?
Well, I think I’ll side with the camp that sees the criteria for defining “obscenities” as primarily cultural. The reason I say this is mainly because different language groups use different types of words as explicit. The French use words connected to Christianity which when in the context of Church service or theological dialogue are appropriate, but not so appropriate when spoken in frustration when cut off in traffic. We Anglos have a whole other set of words we aren’t supposed to use, unless of course we are looking to create a gimmicky stand-up comedy bit. But most of the “vulgar” words are synonyms for other words we are ok to use. So is it wrong to speak of fecal matter or intercourse? At one time it was, and perhaps maybe at the dinner table it still is (though some would probably still say public discourse on bowel movements and human sexuality are inappropriate), but the meaning of the word doesn’t warrant it being dubbed “obscene”. Yet our culture decided there were certain things not to spoken of, and still are certain words we can’t use on TV or in front of children- even though we can now use a synonym.
What the New Testament says on the matter doesn’t seem to suggest that the problem is the word itself. Here’s Matthew 15:10-20
10And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness,slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Jesus is instructing his disciples regarding Pharisaic application of ritual purity and eating, not really about language. But what Jesus is saying is that dirty hands and bacon aren’t what make someone morally repugnant, but the hatred, apathy, bitterness, disdain, etc. bottled up inside that make some spew immoral life onto the unsuspecting world. Words aren’t evil or morally “wrong”, souls can be. When a word is used to express hate, it become evil. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” And again in 5:4, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” In other words our language is to be used for certain purposes, to express ideas that are helpful, instructive, or to express gratitude and love. Can an f-bomb do that? It’s most common uses don’t, but in theory, it could. Same goes for that other word. It’s possible. While I don’t always agree with the “conversionists” (to use Niebuhr’s categories) but I think there is something to the idea that Christ is the “Transformer of Culture” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, chapt. 6). Can Christ also “redeem” words? I think Christ’s redemptive power living in the human heart brings new life which flows out, in cultural creativity as well as language.
I’ve read a few arguments is that “profanity” properly defined is something that takes something valuable or sacred, and degrades it, belittles or devalues. For instance, the prohibition against using the Lord’s name in vain is a recognition that because God’s name is holy, using in any way other than proclaiming his holiness is thus profaning his name. Of course many have extended that to suggest “O God” in frustration is profane; neglecting to realize of course that “God” is not his name, but that’s a whole other issue. So then, do certain words devalue or degrade something by nature? Does calling it a bowel movement intrinsically communicate more value or a different sense than the other word I’m not supposed to use? Perhaps, but I think each Christian should make that decision on their own. But on this, I think Paul’s advice fro 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 is the best solution. We have freedom in Christ, but we also have an obligation not to cause anyone else to stumble. If my choice of words offends Christians around me, our fellowship may be compromised, so it would be best to tread carefully.
Something else to make note of is the distinction between words used to express frustration or pain versus expressing anger or hate. I would argue that there is a difference between the words use when I stub my toe versus the words we use to address the person who almost caused a ten car pile-up because they don’t care enough to check mirrors and blind spots or use a turn signal. The expressions that flow out of physical pain are different from those which flow from rage directed at a person. If we throw a blanket ban over the words used in both contexts we miss the point- that we are meant to address the root problem, not the cause. Paul writes in Colossians 3:18, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” See how slander and obscene talk (whatever that means) are lumped with anger and hatred, probably because Paul understands that words have power, and words communicated in hatred have destructive force far beyond our typical comprehension.
Finally I also want to make note of the new use of certain words as unnecessary additions to a sentence, like “I went to the store” does not need an f-ing, first because the store cannot be engaged in intercourse, but also because it lends nothing to sentence. Unfortunately, the English language is picking up a lot of these unnecessary place-taker words just thrown in which are just tacky and awkward. Not just those words we consider “profanity” but also words such as “like”, “you know”, “totally”, “whatever” among others (e.g. “And I was like, all, totally, you know, whatever and f-ing stuff” is a “complete thought” to some teens I’ve met). This isn’t profane, just poor use of the English language and it annoys me.