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What is offensive changes. Language, and the meaning we socially construct with it, morphs and shifts as society transforms (this is one of the things that postmodernism is all about). Curse or swear words are socially constructed as well. I had a friend from Sweden stay with me for several weeks and he was cussing like a sailor. Every time he met someone he would say “hello how the f*$@ are you?” I had to apologize to everyone he met…he thought this was really funny. Not being a native Anglophile he had no concept of what he was conveying…he had no social framework for his language.
Curse words are nothing more than icons we ascribe meaning to. I am sure the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon would not use the phrase “nigger entertainments” today as he did in an 1891 Sword and Trowel publication. There is a reason today’s Bible translators use “urinate” or “to relieve oneself” instead of the King James employment of “piss” (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8). In the last two decades, even the word “sucks” has mellowed and is no longer the hotbed of Christian offense.
I was able to repay my Swedish friend a few years later when I was in Stockholm. The gravest of words utterable in his country is the Swedish word for Satan (though ironically no one believes in Satan…it is one of the most atheistic countries on earth). So being the good friend that I was I relished every opportunity to call things Satan…he found a new appreciation for the position he put me in. Offensive words were religious terms that threatened punishment and damnation. It is the same in France (another very atheistic country). My French speaking friends tell me the most offensive words in their language are still along the lines of religious cursing and calling someone a “devil”. In English, the words “damn” and “hell” used to have a harsh edge but have softened over time. The names of God and Christ and Joseph/Mary are often called up to create offense. In fact, the word “cuss” is related to “curse” which has religious overtones, as does the word “swear”.
At Sunday School, I was told not to use words like “Geez Whiz”, and “Jeepers” because they were toned down versions of swear words. There were lots of these words – “Gosh”, “golly”, “dang it”, “heck” . . .”s’truth” which means ‘God’s truth’ and is still popular in Australia. In my mother’s household children would have to say “Amster-naughtyword” instead of Amsterdam BUT . .. she was allowed to repeat the refrain “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe . . ” That was not offensive in her day (to white people at least).
These offensive words were normally associated with private body parts, bodily functions of a toilet nature (I remember when I wasn’t allowed to say “fart” or “puked”), and sexual relations. The shift began in the 1800’s as the Industrial Revolution drove a deeper wedge between the male and female spheres. Victorian morality of the period frowned upon discussion of any aspect of sexuality. A “cult of purity” arose…people fetishized the “pure” to ridiculous extents, going so far as to replace the words for chicken “breasts” and “thighs” with “white” and “dark” meat. Now the words “ass” or “crap” or “piss” – all functional words that previously served a purpose – are offensive.
Marginalizing people due to their race, gender, disability or status is about the most offensive thing you can say. The School Success and Opportunity Act (transgender school bill) that recently passed here in California highlights the centrality of this shift. Being “pure” is no longer the concern of school discipline, but it is being fair and equal. Bullying and language of exclusion are the threats of today and the language associated with them is often seen as expletives. When I was a teenager it was common and acceptable in youth circles to hear words like “gay” or “retarded” used to describe something as odd…but not today. Such words have been removed from the cannon of what is acceptable. Hip-hop producer Russell Simmons recommended eliminating “extreme curse words” from the recording industry.
Note the absence of sexual- or bodily-function-type cuss words. These days, no one loses their job for saying “shit” but if you say “Bitch” or “Nigger” in the US or “Ching” in Australia or “Paki” in UK then your entire career might be on the line.
In the USA a lawsuit was brought against a Southwest Airlines Flight attendant in 2003 for using this rhyme, even without saying the n___ word. What she said was “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, pick a seat, we gotta go”. Its the same refrain I used to repeat when choosing between toys.
I am not trying to make an argument for offensive language, but I would like to look at meaningful language. The triteness of our dilemma over language may illustrate the state of our hearts. What are we really concerned with when it comes to cussing? Allow me to illustrate with a line I’ve used in a sermon before from Tony Campolo: “While you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Campolo illustrates the problem of putting “morality” before sincerity. What compels us? Are we turned off by the appearance or language of someone before we can engage their hearts?
St. Paul says something along the same lines in Philippians 3:8. For those interested here it is in the Koine Greek: ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου, δι᾿ ὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω”…
The word you want to keep your eye on is “σκύβαλα“—pronounced “skubala.” Here’s a literal translation of the verse: “But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ…”
Yes, you heard me right. Skubala means shit. Not only does it literally mean shit—i.e. human excrement—but it also has the same connotation. It is a vulgar word. Paul would not have said it in mixed company unless he expected a reaction. It’s difficult to find Christian sources that discuss skubala, but it’s use in ancient writings outside of the Bible makes clear that it was considered very impolite and yet he used it anyway. Why? To make a very clear point and to speak in a way that his audience would undoubtedly understand. They got the message. Sometimes, we need extreme language to help us contrast the extreme distance between a life with God vs a life without God. The leading modern Greek lexicon BDAG glosses skubala as “refuse,” “garbage,” “human excrement,” “crud,” and “crap”—very strong words for this Christian scholarly book. So the original text of the sacred Scripture contains a fowl word. English translations don’t like this word. They take the edge off it:
The same can be said of Isaiah 64:6 “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” That word for “filthy rags” would be better translated from the Hebrew “menstrual rags” or more modernly “used tampons” – paints a different picture. The sterilized version of filthy rags makes me think of a dish cloth, not used sanitary napkins.
There is something reassuring to me about an author of Scripture employing a vulgarity and about Paul caring much more about the passion and depth of our commitment to Christ than the shit of this world. It highlights Paul’s humanity and the intensity that should be conveyed with spiritual truth. Isn’t the truth of what is being communicated more important than the language used?
The problem is not if you are cursing or not, but are you uplifting or not? Cursing fulfills two functions: 1. A filler for poorly constructed sentences, leaving you sounding unintelligent. 2. A means to elicit a reaction. Some times that is humor or shock, some times it is to offend. But then there is a double standard to what is offensive…if you are a part of the minority group it is ok to appropriate your slurs and wear them as a badge of honor. Does the slur make a difference? I could sing about slapping bitches and hoes or I can sing about assaulting women and girls…it is still equally offensive to me…I simply feel the full impact in the first statement. It conveys what I am really trying to get at.
So I could call all the things of this life “dung” or I can call them shit. They both say the same thing, but the second gets more to the point. I think this get’s to what Martin Luther meant when he told people to “sin boldly”: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” This gets to the heart of the cursing dilemma. Not that Luther wants us to be full of sin, but that we would realize we aren’t saved by our morality, our clean language.
If we are concerned more about the words we craft than the subject of them (form over substance) we miss the point. Dallas Willard calls this type of religion “sin management”. That kind of hypocritical concern with the appearance of things is what most of my friends hate about “religious people”; funny enough, Jesus had a few things to say about those people. Cursing emphasizes what you are trying to say…cursing isn’t usually the problem, what we are saying is usually the problem. So the same author who urged us to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” can call something shit. There are plenty of “moral” Christians whose vocabulary is clean, but whose language is empty.
Noah, I know lots of Christians. Unfortunately, I instinctively associate “Christian” with words like: judgmental, hypocritical, and just out right fake. I so enjoy watching you and Jaimie. You are both so real. I see you both staying true to your beliefs, but I never see any judgment or hypocrisy. It is just so refreshing and inspirational to me.
Whoah Lindsay, what a great compliment…I really appreciate it. I messaged Walker a while ago about getting together…still haven’t forgotten about that – it needs to happen. In the mean time, we would love to have you pop-in to Kairos one day, maybe we could grab dinner afterwards. I am with you guys…Christianity conjures up a lot of images I am not happy about. Funny thing, Jesus only seemed to condemn and judge the religious and the rich…interesting.
Have you read Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing? Came out this year from Oxford University Press. Hits on obscenities from a sociological and historical angle and talks about the how what was considered most vulgar oscillates between “the sacred” and “the shit.” Pretty fascinating book!
Good stuff man!
I remember you telling me about that book…sounds good