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 skubalon. Skubalon 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.