This post contains three uses of what some people would call “coarse language”. I think most of my readers are old enough to deal with that kind of thing anyway, but you have been warned.
I was inspired to write about this topic following a conversation I had in the kitchen with my “boss” recently. After calling out one of my coworkers for the language he was using, she asked me if I had any interesting thoughts on profanity. I said that depending on the contexts it’s used in, I don’t always have a terribly big problem with it. Allow me to explain…
I grew up being taught the usual warnings against profanity. I would accept what my parents, teachers and even some of my peers would tell me about what words were and were not OK, not questioning it because “that’s just the way things are”. And even though I experimented with it a little in my early teen years, I still held the view that that kind of language was wrong. But then I started to ask questions.
After studying the English language for two years at A-level, I began to realise that the meanings of words are just as important as the words themselves, if not more. Part of my study involved looking at the meanings of words in society, and how these can and do change over time (for instance, the word “gay”, which has a totally different meaning now from what it meant 100 years ago). I began to see that words are only offensive if society deems them so. There are plenty of words that, if spoken even 50 or 60 years ago, would’ve incited something close to hysteria, yet have since lost whatever it was that made them so loaded.
Then I began to notice double standards in the words that we are allowed and not allowed to say. Some people showed me ‘mild’ alternatives to unacceptable words, that I could use instead. But what is it that really makes some words more or less offensive than others? Why is “crap” considered acceptable, but not “shit”, when functionally they may as well be the same word?
Within a Christian context, many people are keen to point out Ephesians 5:4 – “there must be no evil talk amongst you, and you must not speak foolishly or tell evil jokes” – as evidence that swearing, as we know it, is off-limits. Yet somehow, I’m not entirely sure that that was what Paul was getting at. Read as a whole, that chapter describes how God’s people ought to conduct themselves – in ways that honour what is righteous and prove that there is a better way out there than to sin. And while yes, using language that society considers uncouth might send the wrong messages, that “evil talk” surely can’t be limited to just a few four-letter words.
For example, if I were to hypothetically tell you about all the sexual triumphs I’d had with different women over the past week, using nothing but ‘clean’ language throughout, what would you make of that? Chances are, you’d pay far less attention to the actual words I was using than to the content of what I’d said. It wouldn’t matter that I had gone without dropping any ‘f-bombs’; all that you’d remember would be that I had an unhealthy attitude towards sex (or a very healthy one, depending on who you talk to…).
Conversely – and if you’ll forgive me for bragging here – I remember a friend of mine telling me he’d read one of my posts to this blog, and that he’d thought it was “fucking awesome” (it was this one, in case you’re wondering). Now, to be honest, I could overlook the fact that he’d swore; what was important was that he had complimented my writing, which suggested that he had enjoyed it. That he had used profane language didn’t matter so much to me, since he had done so in a way that built me up rather than tearing me down.
What connects both of those situations is that the actual language that was used was not as important as the messages that were conveyed. Put simply, one person was using ‘good’ language to share a bad message, while the other was using ‘bad’ language to share a good message. I don’t know about you, but I have far more issues with the former of those than with the latter.
Ultimately, I suppose I’m not one to rejudge one’s entire personality, or Christian testimony, based on the language they use. I felt sorry for P.O.D., the Christian rock band, when people would dismiss their faith based on the use of the word “fuck” in the song “I Am”, despite the fact that Sonny Sandoval was singing in character. Nowadays at least, I try to pay more attention to what people are actually saying rather than how they are saying it. Not that I’m always successful there, but I have found it saves me a lot of energy by not getting too worked up about surface features like this. I reckon we, as both a Church and a wider society, could benefit a lot from taking that approach.