Thursday, July 12, 2012

Christian Profanity

NOTE: In order to discuss the topic, the following contains some language that is improper in polite conversation.

A recent discussion got me thinking about the use of profanity in Christian writing. The discussion was on Steve Laube’s blog and it was triggered by an article by Rachel Held Evans. To put it simply, Rachel Held Evans doesn’t like it that Christian bookstores, like Lifeway, are removing books and movies from their shelves because of profanity in the material. It has been common practice for a long time for Christian bookstores to be selective about the literature they sell. And more than a few kids have had the experience of their Christian parents washing their mouths out with soap. The question is, which is right? Is the long held assumption that we shouldn’t use profanity correct or is there some basis for Rachel Held Evans’ crusade for profanity in Christian literature.

The only way to answer this is to go to the Bible. Without it, it becomes a matter of personal preference. First, let’s consider what we’re really talking about. Rachel Held Evans would have us believe that we should use profanity in Christian literature because the Bible uses profanity. She points to Philippians 3:8 in which Paul says, “Yea doubtless, and I count all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them dung, that I may win Christ.” Rachel Held Evans replaces the word dung with the more offensive word. And frankly, I can’t find anything wrong with that, other than she purposefully uses the word with the most shock value. The original word, the translator’s word and her word can all be used to refer to excrement. But is that enough for us to conclude that the use of profanity in our writing is okay?

There are several ways that words that may be found offensive can be used. First, there is the original meaning. Take the word hell, for example. We use the word hell to refer to that place of torment where unrepentant sinners go. Another way hell might be used is as a curse word. An example of this is when someone says, “Go to hell!” This is different from using it as a swear word. We see this when someone says, “There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he’ll come up with the money.” Then there is the use of a word as a byword. For example, “Hell, I don’t know.”

You won’t find any evidence in the Bible to indicate that a word should not be used in the first form. This is the way Jesus used such words. This is the way Paul used such words in Philippians 3:8. While it may be uncomfortable for us to use some of these words, using them to refer to the thing that defines them is at times necessary. We may need to consider younger audiences and when it is appropriate for them to consider the topic, but there is nothing wrong with using the words when they reach an appropriate age.

Curse words are a different story. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 5:22. “…But whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” There’s a thought. In God’s eyes, just using what most people would consider a minor curse word is worthy of hell.

Jesus had something to say about swear words too. “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:34-37)

That leave one form, the use of bywords. What is intended by a byword? Is it to use the word as originally intended? What does a person mean when he says, “Hell, if I know?” I believe this is a shortened form of swearing. Instead of the longer form, “May I go to hell if I know,” the speaker is drops the first as if it is implied. The shortened form has been used so long that we’ve forgotten what is implied, but it is still a swear word.

So, I don’t believe Christians are wrong for wanting to remove profanity from Christian books and videos. It isn’t our place to go around cursing people and we don’t want to encourage others to do so. Neither do we want to go around swearing by things we have no control over and we don’t want to encourage others to do so. I believe we can arguing for using the same words when they are used in a form other than as a swear word or a curse word. That is why I went ahead and included some of these words in this article, but even then, some people may find these words uncomfortable

Often, we don’t need to use these words anyway. With a little creativity, a writer can get a point across without crossing that boundary that make parents question whether they should be letting their kids read the author’s books.