Saturday, April 25, 2009

Christians and Vulgar Language . . . .Great Article


The article below was sent to me by a Navigator staff friend. He has always been a breath of fresh air, plus, he tells me that the Navs have really changed since my early experiences with them. Heck (pun intended) when I was with the Navs, it was deeply frowned upon to say "darn," "shoot," or "crap."

I member going to a national youth conference (in Ft Wayne, IND) with a Christian Church group. I was a Nav and we thought that we were head and shoulders above church people. But I went because I had the hots for a gal in that youth group an she invited me. I took a friend with me (who eventually married that gal-smile face here). We had one speaker was doing ministry in an inner city somewhere. He looked rough. He had also recently lost his 7 year old son, who had been hit by a car. While he was speaking, and when he went to mention his son, he looked angry and said, "God didn't send that damn car to hit my son!" Some people started cheering. Us Nav people were appalled.

But good heavens (pun intended again) if you can't say "damn car" that killed your son, or "shit happens" then are you really in touch with reality?

The first time I attempted to publish a book, a children's book, I was shocked by the editorial guidelines that I was given by the major Christian publishers. They would not allow any "off color" words, including darn, shoot etc. They also would not allow a story to have anything but a happy ending. There could be no mention of sex (even within marriage) no mention of alcohol or smoking. So, in other words, up on the 50th floor of the reality building.

Enjoy the article:

A Tasteful Examination of Using Salty Language
no one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian

Is it okay for Christians to curse?

I have a friend who works in the Christian publishing industry. He was recently telling me how conservative it is, and for emphasis, he added, “We can’t even print the b-word.” I rolled through a catalog of words in my head, trying to guess which b-word he might be referring to. There were so many choices. Was it bitch, bastard, balls? Surely any one of those could be the vulgar culprit. Or, perhaps there was some other curse word that I hadn’t been exposed to yet; some urban street-slang that these publishers were on to, one that would soon be infiltrating our suburban high schools, possibly even making its way into the mouths of our church youth. I remained silent, not wanting to guess the wrong word or expose my lack of street cred regarding the youthful slang that the Christian publishers were so down with. God forbid, I certainly didn’t want to show my age. Not hearing a response, my friend volunteered the answer to this trivia question. “The word is ‘breast’.” He said. “Breast. Can you imagine that?”

No, I can’t. What I can imagine, though, is the abrupt and final termination of any misguided notions I had for snagging a book deal within the Christian publishing industry. I pictured myself sitting across the desk from a pastorly editor, who is suddenly infuriated upon reading the word “ass” in my manuscript. Enraged and offended, he pulls me up by the ear and briskly marches me through the building, shoving me out the door, back onto the cold, harsh streets of Grand Rapids.

I never thought of the word ‘breast’ as risqué, really, not when it is used in an appropriate context. I mean, we are all adults here. And I bet most readers are either women or married men, which means that we either have them, or have had them in our sights at one point or another. Why work so hard to pretend that the breast is not a functional part of a Christian’s every day lifestyle? Read the Song of Solomon, for goodness sake.

It’s not that I am a foul-mouthed libertarian. I have always been fairly conservative when it comes to language. The Christian publishers’ attitude reminded me of my own conservative upbringing, and the taboo that was expressly reserved for any utterance remotely resembling a curse word. I never, ever heard swearing in my home, growing up. Even the words that were quoted during King-James bible stories in church and Sunday School, words like “hell” and “ass” (the animal ass, not the body part), were strictly verboten. However, with age, a more robust group of Christian male-friends, and quite possibly hanging around too much with my own teenage daughters, I have definitely loosened up my tongue a bit. Especially as I started writing, I developed a healthy respect and appreciation for the use of a salty word now and then to round out a story, or to drive home a point for emphasis.

Plus, it’s pretty much how we talk. “We,” meaning the friends from work and church who I spend time with, those with whom I fellowship and share my life with, even the most spiritually mature brothers and sister in Christ. We feel quite free to use an off-the-record reference now and then. Not every day, not usually in a crowd, and certainly not in every conversation, but occasionally, yes. I know several men, spiritual pillars of their churches, who will occasionally drop the word “shit” into their conversations with me. And hey, to me, it usually sounds just fine. Sometimes that is exactly the right word choice, just what the doctor ordered. “Golly, Brad, I think I just got on my pastor’s shit list,” one gentleman confides. Other times these folks are referring to the actual tactical meaning of the word, especially coming from those who are associated with the agricultural industries—those hard working men and women who till the soil and work with livestock. “I was out in the barn and got shit all over my shoes!” the godly Christian farmer will say to me, and he doesn’t even know that it was once a forbidden word in my Evangelical fundamentalist household growing up. None of these gentle folk are being vulgar, foul-mouthed, or inappropriate. We are just friends, talking to each other about our lives, in our own tongue.

So why can’t it be so in my own writing, where I am also sharing my self and spiritual life with my friends, you the reader? How we talk in real life is not at all like the Christian publishing market portrays. I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but sometimes I can not relate to the sanitized, simplistic, hyped-up and over-spiritualized language that is often passed for inspirational literature. Everyone is trying to out-motivate everyone else. I worry that these authors and publishers are more concerned with spiritually one-upping the reader, rather than getting down to the mat, revealing the messy truth of life, which is where the bulk of my real, normal life is taking place. It just doesn’t sound real.

Of course there are plenty of insights and inspiration to be gained from reading and listening to the pastors, motivational speakers, theologians, and writers who are out on the circuit today. And God knows we all can use some wisdom and guidance on our journeys of faith. But lately, for me, I am too often left with an awkward disconnect between their well-meaning spiritual advice and my real-world experiences. It’s as if these experts don’t quite get what my life as a “normal” person is like. I mean “normal” in the sense that giving spiritual advice is not my primary occupation.

I can understand the reluctance of Christians to print or speak words that may compromise or call their piety into question. Maybe they find it hard to know where to draw the line, and thus prefer to err on the side of caution. None of us wants to fall under James’ admonition of being unable to tame the tongue, “uttering both praise and cursing out of the same mouth” (James 3:9-10).

I try to imagine if Jesus ever used a cuss word. Especially the teenage carpenter-apprentice Jesus, after accidentally hitting his finger with a hammer. I doubt it. But what about the disciples?

Take Simon Peter, for instance. Well, no question there. Peter definitely cursed. He was the one with the potty-mouth, the one the other disciples had to keep apologizing for. “Oops, sorry Jesus, about my brother’s TRASH-MOUTH. He got into this bad habit of cursing when he was working in the Galilean Fish Workers Union a few years back. But he’s a good guy. PETER CAN YOU PLEASE JUST TONE IT DOWN? Goll-lee! Jimminy Crumpets!” Peter was probably no different from any other fisherman you might be acquainted with—you know, “salt of the earth” and all. He may have toned it down some after becoming a full-fledged apostle, but I can still see him dropping some Aramaic f-bombs when he got worked up—he did have a temper, after all.

What about Paul? Rumor has it that if you look carefully at the original Greek manuscripts, you will find that he used a saucy word in one of the epistles, and not by accident. This scandalous idea was first presented to me over twenty years ago while in college, by a speaker at one of our InterVarsity Fellowship meetings. This gentleman was expounding on Philippians 3:8, “I consider everything a loss compared to the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” After the speaker preached on the magnitude of Paul’s commitment (”So should ours be,” he said), he went on to tell us that the word “rubbish” is not quite the literal translation. He continued on this tangent and with a wink and a sideways smirk told us, “You folks might find it interesting that the original Greek word Paul uses here is a slang word. It means something a little more explicit than the word ‘garbage.’ It actually refers to human excrement.”

“Whoa! Dude! All right, Paul!” That’s what most of us guys were thinking. But I never heard anything more about that translation again, and avoided saying that particular slang word for human excrement when describing my commitment to Christ, or in any other context, for that matter. Fast forward twenty-five years. A few months ago I stumbled across that same proposition while reading a book called The New Christians by Tony Jones. Tony makes the exact same point in a little sidebar—that the Greek word Paul uses in Philippians 3:8, skubalon, is the equivalent of our vernacular word, “shit.” Most bible translations will use words like “refuse” or “dung” or “garbage.” But the real translation from the Greek is a slang word for human excrement. You know what it is, so I won’t say it again.

Well, there you have it. Paul used a street-word for its shock value, to get his point across. But Paul wasn’t “cursing” just then, was he? He was using a slang word in a certain context to bring a punch to his very strong point. There are certain slang words that are actually appropriate at times, more relevant or at the very least functional. There’s a big difference between using slang and actually cursing. Cursing involves outright vulgarity with an intention of offending and condemning the listener. Which is not what I, nor my good brothers and sisters, ever intend when speaking. And, I guess that’s my point. Or my question. Just what exactly qualifies as a curse word anymore?

I serve on a Board with one of the pastors from a mega-church in our area. A couple of weeks ago we were about to receive a presentation from someone who wasn’t quite so polished in his use of language. Like Peter’s handlers, I warned the pastor that the presenter might accidentally drop a couple of off-color words into his presentation, by accident. Words not typically heard in his weekly sermons. This pastor replied: “So what. I think an off-color word can be refreshing once in a while.” This is actually code for “I am so effing tired of being censored by the Evangelical language police.”

Can you imagine that? A pastor who welcomes salty language as “refreshing?” Maybe I can someday imagine a world where Christian-oriented material is published with language that really sounds like me, my friends, my church, like we are having a real conversation about real life. Not that it would be nasty, irreverent or blasphemous, and certainly not cursing others, just talking. That’s quite a stretch, I know. But, dang-it-all, I can dream, can’t I?
Bradley J. Moore posts regularly on the challenges of business spiritually engaged at Bradley is an executive in a large corporation in the Northeast which shall remain nameless. On May 31 and June 1, 2009 he will appear (along with InsideWork contributor Stephen G. Payne) at Leadership and Spirituality: Transforming the Workplace, a first-of-its-kind Princeton Theological Seminary event addressing the dynamics of spirituality and leadership in the workplace.


pennyyak said...

This is great. A lot of chuckles through this one. I remember the first time I read explanations of why King Saul exactly was going into that cave (where David was hiding) and dropping his loincloth around his feet. Or what Moses' wife really did with that blood from her son's foreskin (if I remember this right). She touched it to Moses' what? Ha! The Old Testament is very "euphemistic" in some places.

I thought the article pretty much balanced and real. When there's some tremendous disconnect between what we say in a church building and what we say when sitting around exchanging BS with our next door neighbor, ya gotta wonder.

Anonymous said...

While doing some research on the topic of inapropriate or worse, words for christians to use I found your posting.
All I know is that in 1975 when I go tsaved out of a Grateful Dead/hippie type/drug culture within days I realized the one thing I didn't do at all anymore was curse. I used the f word fluently and frequently. Cursing, vulgarity, coarse jesting, minors and majors, GONE and not by my thinking upon it. I was too knew in the Lord and a bit brain numbed to think much of anything about God. Only God could have done that. Why would he? Amazing how I know that is the testimony of many Christians but in recent yrs many Christians have moved back to minor cursing and coarsenes as the world continues to move towards more. Sinner lite, maybe?