GREAT UNCLE LEROY
My great-uncle Leroy is a man of no uncertain force. After serving in World War II, he came home from the Navy with an imposing anchor tattoo on his forearm. He went from near illiteracy to being a high-school English teacher in only a couple of years. And he loved to box; he routinely challenged anyone at the dinner table to go a couple rounds after the meal. (Including my mom’s then-serious boyfriend, who wisely refrained and lived to become my dad.) He’s spent the last 50 years as a traveling minister and radio preacher, coaching people to spend more time with God in prayer. (His signature move is a sharp finger-snap and the words, “Now listen up!”)
He’s undoubtedly one of those men we’d describe with a certain compound word. You know the one. It starts with “bad” and rhymes with “mad as.” It pays tribute to more than just his age or number of academic degrees. It means you’d better not get between Great-Uncle Leroy and his business. It’s a term of respect.
But if he heard me say it, about him or anyone else, he’d probably wash my mouth out with soap.
(Which kind of makes him even more… that word. You know?)
Uncle Leroy is the best kind of Bible-beating fundamentalist: the kind who would spend a week praying with you (or for you, if you can’t do it yourself), but who also would reprove you for saying “golly” or “doggone.”
“I’m very hesitant to say this,” he told me on the phone recently, “But of course that’s a euphemism for… God… damn… it.” Even in explanation, saying these words cost him an effort. “We should use our tongue for the righteousness of God, not for vulgar slang expressions.”
Wherever he travels, Uncle Leroy calculates the number of prayer hours that could be “going to the throne” if each person in his audience spent just 15 minutes a day talking to God. I imagine the idea of wasting our words on social vulgarities, when we could be using them to pray, is for him not so much a moral outrage as a woeful inefficiency.
Ever since I got over my own self-righteous reflex against profanity (living in New York City will do that to you), I’ve been wondering whether if what I was made to consider was right. I’ve heard plenty of Christians use plenty of profanity. Some I look down on for it — the ones who seem like they’re trying to be a big deal. Some I admire for it — the impassioned ones, who resemble my uncle Leroy in everything but their vocabulary.
Fundamentally, I admire and appreciate honesty. Even (maybe more so) when it comes out ugly. But I’ve been wondering whether there are, even in our most authentic moments, words that Christians must not say.
In asking this question, I quickly learned one thing. If you’re going to challenge people’s freedoms, keep your chin down and your hands up. Among the many defensive responses I encountered, the most articulate went like this: “I feel like you’re taking this conversation in a direction that I don’t want it to go.”
I was talking to Curt Gibson about his mentoring program for at-risk youth in southern California. He calls it an “incarnational ministry,” wherein he models to his students a way of life that they’ve never before encountered. Part of that includes using, in his words, an “elevated vocabulary.”
That seems a fair enough approach to take with the urban underprivileged. But I wanted him to specify which words ought never to be spoken among mature Christians.
Whether we keep them or break them, we all crave rules as means of self-identification. That may be why Christians indulge in some grey areas as if they were still black-and-white. It’s not the activities so much that give us pleasure, as the force with which we propound our opinions about them.
There’s a self-evident answer to the question “Do Christians cuss?” We’ve heard it from preachers of the Mark Driscoll/Tony Campolo stripe, whose strategic use of profanity was hailed by Patrol Magazine as “the new fire-and-brimstone.” We’ve heard it from those of gentler manners but equal passion, such as John Piper, who was admonished after the Passion 2007 conference for the use of a mid-level profanity. It’s now fairly common practice among the church’s rank-and-file. Profanity helps us fit in, puts others at ease, and relieves our emotions.
Should Christians cuss?” is problematic. Salty-mouthed preachers and laymen alike cite Philippians 3:8 as a precedent, where Paul uses what might be the Greek equivalent of “shit.” (The bolder derive the principle from Jesus calling the Pharisees “fools” in Matthew 23.) They say that they are “redeeming language” by calling a bad thing a bad name, using the vulgar in service of the holy.
These words are more complicated when it comes to their expletive use. Can we (or do we) ever express love with spontaneous profanity? Is it harmless to cuss out a stalling car or a malfunctioning phone, if we believe that these things are provided by God? Whom are we addressing when we say, “damn” in surprise, even in appreciation? (Though this use of the word is probably ironic, there’s still an implied object being wished to hell.)
INTIMACY TO OBSCENITY
And though a word for sexual intercourse might seem inoffensive in the face of misfortune, or as a mere intensifier of another word, the vulgar implications could degrade how we regard sex, misfortune, and the world at large. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the linguistic philosopher, examined how our perception is shaped by the words we use to describe what we perceive. He said, “The harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.”
Lovers and pedants alike lament that English offers only one word for a wide spectrum of emotional affinities: love. This one word has caused many to prematurely declare themselves “in love,” when they only feel toward a person the way they have felt toward a product.
D.H. Lawrence marveled in his incendiary novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover that a word for a precious intimacy has become one of the vernacular’s most intense obscenities. But according to University of Ottawa linguistics professor Andre Lapierre, that’s precisely the point: “You swear about things that are taboo.”
In its essence, profanity is a means of fighting back, of exerting violence linguistically, rather than physically. This is where the “should” part of the question becomes thorny. Maybe spiritually renewed hearts “shouldn’t” feel such violent anger, but they do.
FORCE OF EMOTION
For both sides, then, “Can Christians cuss?” is the simplest question to address, which is why I pressed Mr. Gibson and everyone else for the one or two words they won’t, on any account, say. Some balked at the use of “damn,” as being too denotatively harsh for even colloquial use. Most stopped short of the F-word, on the grounds of cultural offensiveness. And everyone seemed to agree that the third commandment proscribes any profanity referencing God. But the prevailing attitude is well summed up by one pastor’s wife: “I don’t swear vocally very much… anymore.”
There was one apologetic for profanity that seemed tenable to me. (Maybe because it’s been my own excuse.) As one friend put it, “Sometimes there is no other word that fully expresses the force and brevity of an emotion.” Besides, the virtue of self-control can function as a blind for passions that we’d rather not confront. Michael B. Allen, co-producer of the popular documentary Beware of Christians, is familiar with the religious habit of avoiding the acknowledgement of evil along with the appearance. “It’s not that hard to resist saying those eight bad words,” he says. “It doesn’t require the power of the Holy Spirit to [not do] things that aren’t culturally acceptable. We should understand that there are many more offensive things in our hearts and in our minds to God than the language we use.” By way of contrast, he told me about a friend of his, a 60-year-old Christian man who spends his days on the street with the homeless. “He loves God. He loves people. And he cusses like a sailor.”
BATTLE WITH FLESH
Receiving the hand-slap for his verbal indiscretion, John Piper wrote: “I am sitting here trying to figure out why I say things like that every now and then. I think it is the desire to make the battle with Satan and my flesh feel gutsy and real and not middle-class pious… I don’t like fanning the flames of those who think it is hip and cool to swear for Jesus. On the other hand, I want those hip people to listen to all I say and write.”
Language is a strange matter for a writer, much as morality is for a Christian. It wavers between being a tool and a liability. I’m intrigued by it. I want to have a natural grace with it. But at times, nothing it offers seems to fit.