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.

F.A.Q. #8: Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage

I’ve been hesitant to address the topic of homosexuality for a few reasons. The first is simply that so contentious an issue should probably be discussed in person. I’m not sure something you read on the internet is going to change anyone’s mind, and there’s a good chance it will only lead to confusion or animosity. Second, it’s a remarkably complex issue. Okay, it’s really not, but things have become so muddled it’s difficult to get a consensus on any give interpretation of the pertinent passages of the Bible. In order to give a full view of what’s going on, I have to not only give you my own views, but also spend time addressing the common rebuttals. That means any post on the subject would not be short enough for a single post — or even a series of posts. For example, in my last ministry placement, I shelled out around twenty-three single-spaced pages of biblical and theological interpretation. That’s just too much information. Finally, I didn’t want my words to be misconstrued and be labeled as homophobic or hateful or something like that. I want to be very clear: God’s love extends to everyone equally, regardless of, well, anything. With that said, it’s also in God’s nature to be holy — and that means hating sin in any incarnation. It’s not judgmental to call sin what it is; indeed, it’s actually loving to point out — from the context of a loving relationship — the things which tear someone from God. I would hope my loved ones care enough about me to tell me I shouldn’t be doing such things. After all, that’s what love does: it offers correction, chastisement, not blind acceptance of evil. But love is often hard to express in the form of a written word from someone you will probably never meet, and so I didn’t want to run the risk of being misunderstood.

Recent events in my own life have made me reevaluate those reasons, and so I want to be clear on what both the Bible and two thousand years of church history actually say regarding the LGBTQ community. To that end, I want to make two statements.

First, I unequivocally believe both Scripture and sacred tradition maintain non-heterosexual orientations and actions to be sinful and to run counter to the will of God. I base this upon passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some of those texts are hotly debated, but once you cut through the specious arguments (a.k.a. “exegetical gymnastics,” as I like to think of them), there’s only one faithful way to read the whole of the Bible which eliminates conflicts and political/cultural agendas. I hate to state something in such absolute terms, but I fully believe that to be true.

The second statement is the full explanation of the first one. Below is a link to download a pdf version of my research. It’s dense, it’s technical, and it plows through a few different languages. And it may offer some corollaries you might not like. Regardless, this is what I believe to be truth, and I feel I stand in good company. (Later, should the full statement be too much information, I’ll return to the topic and make a TL;DR version.)

I invite you along on the journey, and as always, I welcome thoughtful dialogue (and forbid deliberately inflammatory comments).

Note: I wrote this statement before gay “marriage” was legalized in the United States. It’s possible that some of my statements are already dated, despite being two months old.

Gay Marriage

Thanatopsis

Now that the holidays are over, the blog returns!

On 29 December, my grandfather (my father’s father) passed away after a lengthy hospital stay following surgery. I officiated at his graveside service (he refused to have a full funeral), and it was undoubtedly one of the harder things I’ve done in my life. The family has many long days ahead as we continue to mourn and deal with the process of sorting my grandfather’s belongings.

All of this has me thinking a bit about death. It seems to be the one universal constant: things are born, then they die. Our possessions slowly decay or are used up until they are no more. The cycle of seasons devotes a quarter of the year to the slow, inexorable decline and slumber of the environment itself, which will then lie dormant for another quarter year before returning fully to life once more. As I write this, I can look out my window to see bare trees standing upon dead grass — the savage beauty of winter.

But is death really all there is? Is our immutable fate truly the end? Can death really have the last say?

Well, no. I don’t think so. I believe in an afterlife (which, in my opinion, is a bit of a misnomer; we’re still alive, after all, and our bodies will be again as well). With the historic confessions of the Church, I, too, believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For me, and for all Christians, death is more of a parting of ways, a segue into something different and better. One of my favorite authors is the grandfather of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, who once said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Asimov was an avowed atheist, but he’s still right in this case. We love the living, we often forget about the dead, and we seem to worry about the transition a great deal.

The transition should be the least worrisome part to a Christian. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And again elsewhere: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), something often paraphrased as “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” So if we live in this life, we serve Christ. If we die, we worship God “in-person,” if you will. There is nothing “on the other side” that should scare us, worry us, or give us pause. The abundant life we enjoy now comes to full fruition after our death.

Eventually, at the end of the age, the Bible tells us two things. The first is that we will inhabit a new creation, a place free from sorrows and pains and trials and heartaches. The new heaven and new earth (and new Jerusalem) is a land where God shall wipe away the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21). We’re also told repeatedly in Scripture that death will be defeated (Isaiah 28:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14). Death is a defeated foe, and one day, the reaper will be reaped. The victory won on the cross will come to completion at the end of this age, and death and the grave will lose all power.

This should give us hope and remove from us the fear of death. God has already beaten it, and He passes on the victory to those who bear the name Christian.