Bleeping Language

Last week I blogged about forgoing entertainment choices which offer a surfeit of profanity and other not-so-nice things, stating this un-niceness will erode your relationship with God. I realized later that I had made a rather grand assumption with that post: using profanity is actually bad. It wasn’t until later in the week when I was exposed to the controversy surrounding that idea. This week, then, I intend to back up a step and talk about language — specifically bleeping language (the language which is bleeped).

Tradition seems to hold profanity is, well, profane, unholy, something counter to God. Words we consider to be “adult” or vulgar or “cuss words” have some intrinsic evilness to them. Some people dissent from this view and believe no word can be bad on its own merits. Taboos and profanity come from cultural values, and since those values are artificial and arbitrary, profanity isn’t profane at all; it’s just a meaningless value thrust upon a combination of sounds. Since I mentioned Deadpool last week, I find it fitting to continue to use Marvel characters to label my views. Those who hold to the traditional side of the argument will now be called “Captain Americas” (see the second Avengers movie), and those who disagree will become “Deadpools.”

. . . Work with me here.

To be fair, both the Caps and the Deadpools have valid points. Words are themselves random combinations of vocal noises to which we assign meaning. To get technical for a minute, the word “buck” is simply a voiced bilabial followed by a schwa and ending in a velar. (You got all that, right? Good.) Another way, it’s just the noise we make by blowing air while pressing our lips together, grunting, and then sticking the back of our tongues to the roofs of our mouths. (Kind of.) But those random noises (each specific sound is called a phoneme) refer to a male deer, a $1 bill, the action of throwing someone off your back, or other things. How did it come to mean all of that? Because the English-speaking culture assigned it those values when forming the word in our language. You can get most of those referents from other combinations of sounds — and thus in other languages.  The Deadpools are right in that respect: a word is just a sound or series of sounds which signifies some referent in the real world. (Thus the miracle of language!)

But the Captain Americas are right, too, in that specific phonemes when combined in specific ways signify specifically evil things. There’s no way around it. It’s true that the severity of these can change across cultures; for example, most Brits would blush at how casually Americans toss around “bloody,” and while Americans use “fanny” to refer to their backsides, it has quite another meaning across the pond (if you google this, I will not be held responsible). At the same time, however, we all know some words are pretty much irredeemable. The so-called “F Bomb” is never going to be a universally-accepted word. “GD” is never going to mean anything other that what it already does: a call for God to utterly condemn something to hell. Personally, I think such things might be holdovers from ursprache, the “before language” all humans knew at the dawn of creation (or at least pre-Babel). We were created with an innate revulsion to such things the same way we are repulsed by other sins or rotting corpses. We know they violate God’s goodness. They aren’t holy; they’re profane.

In a Christian context, it’s a pretty universal belief Christians should eschew such language. Some (the Deadpools of the Church [copyright pending]) totally disagree, saying such profanity is valuable to emphasize a point even when preaching. They point to Philippians 3:8 as support. Here Paul writes, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ.” The word Paul uses for garbage is skubalonSkubalon is a contested word whose literal definition refers to precisely two things: the crumby leftovers from a meal (think chicken bones, half-eaten biscuits, broccoli, and other general garbage) and human waste. Some commentators place a vulgar emphasis on the latter definition and say Paul is swearing in first-century language. I don’t buy it. For one thing, it’s a jump from “scraps” to “sh__.” For another, the word is widely used in academic writing, particularly medical texts, as a clinical term much the same way we use “feces,” “guano,” and the like. I have no doubt Paul chose the term deliberately as a sort of linguistic extreme, and he may have even done it for shock value. But is he truly using profanity? I’ve yet to see a convincing argument for it, and given Paul’s emphasis on holiness, I don’t think I ever will.

For example, back up a chapter. Philippians 2:14-16 says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. . . . ” Would Paul really decide to participate in the warped-ness and crookedness less than a chapter later? I doubt it. Would he consider this as conducting himself “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27)? Nope. I believe he would agree with James and count such things the “deadly poison” of which the tongue is full (James 3:8). James also writes, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (1:26). Scripture is rife with exhortations to personal holiness in speech as well as deed. I can’t believe Paul would violate all of them, including his own rules, just to make a point.

And neither should we.

Linguistically or theologically, I can think of no reason why profanity should ever be accepted or utilized. Even “Christian cussing” like “dang,” “crap,” etc. should probably be curved more than we believe (and more than I myself personally practice; I, too, am chief among sinners). Let us cease to speak profanely. Let us cling to the holy and speak words of life and peace, blessing and joy. Spread the Good News with good words.

That’s Entertainment

The recent release of the Deadpool movie causes mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, they put one of Marvel’s most entertaining characters on the big screen (chimichangas optional). On the other hand, “The Merc with a Mouth” is exactly that: a mouthy, vulgar, profanity-laden anti-hero. I find it telling that when typing “Deadpool review” into the search bar, the second autocomplete option is “for parents.” If you try “Deadpool ch” (like you’re searching for Deadpool with the aforementioned chimichangas,” the third option down is “Christian review.” As fun as the movie may be (I haven’t seen it), it raises some issues about propriety, parenting, and the theology of media.

We live in a world saturated with media. Everywhere we look, everywhere we go has some sort of image/song/video. We haven’t been safe in the car since the invention of the radio, and now DVD players are prevalent in “family vehicles” (which I put in quotation marks because I operate under the assumption anything labeled “family” involves spending time with one’s family, not isolated into individual consumption of Loony Tunes or Spongebob Squarepants; but I digress). While you’re stationary, there are a variety of options: the cinema, Netflix, smartphones (another way to avoid talking to anyone), the Internet (in all its beautiful and horrific glory), iPods . . . you name it. It’s little wonder the average person encounters 600+ advertisements a day as a conservative study estimated. No matter where we turn, we’re bombarded with media and the ads which keep it going. (And the ads are frequently more vile than the actual programming.)

Several obvious questions arise from all of this. How do we decide what to watch/listen to? Are there biblical guidelines about mp3s and Internet usage? If something is labeled adult, can I watch it in good conscience as long as I keep it away from my children? How much swearing, sex, and violence is permissible until I’m obligated to change channels or leave the theater?

I think the simplest answer is simply to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and maintain an attitude of constant discernment (and constant vigilance). In order to do that, however, we should take a look at a few keys verses:

  • Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.  (Luke 6:45)
  • What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. . . . Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them. (Matthew 15:11, 17-20)
  • Be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16

In our world, many things compete to fill our hearts. The entertainment industry is a major player, seeking to shape our thoughts and opinions just as much as it tries to take up our time and provide amusement.  When our hearts encounter evil things on a regular basis, they slowly change to reflect that input. And while it may give you nightmares or anxiety, there are far more dire consequences than that. Think about it: do you tend to swear more after you’ve been around people who swear constantly, or do you use more profanity after studying your Bible? Are you more likely to come home drunk after a night at the bar or after a night playing board games with your small children? Do you become so desensitized to violence after watching episode after episode of a particularly violent show that you forget seeing such gore is not normal in the real world? Do you crave violent, abusive sex after watching reruns of The Brady Bunch, or does that come from prolonged usage of pornography?

What we let inside our hearts and our minds eventually gets reflected in our souls. Our personalities can change simply because of the movies we see, the books we read, and the songs we listen to. Once that internal change happens, then the things which defile us — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander — start showing up in our external lives. You didn’t mean to become a habitual liar; it just sort of happened after binge-watching __________.  You were horrified your toddler used that word . . . and then you remember where he/she heard it. Repeatedly.

For this reason, Paul says we should dwell on things with are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. When we let these things into our lives, our hearts become oriented towards them, just like the negative things. We become receptive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit shapes us into people of holiness, we begin to show the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The garbage is cleared away, the weeds are torn out, and we become a fruitful people who live lives pleasing to God.

Don’t get me wrong: you can’t hide from everything which might potentially be offensive. It’s important to maintain a critical attitude of discernment to determine what is and what isn’t appropriate entertainment. If you follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I believe you’ll make the right choices about your media consumption. Just take time to consider what you watch and listen to, always with an attitude of holiness. And if all else fails, remember two things: God will always love you, and every television comes with an off switch.