%#@* That: Should Christians Swear?

Mar 30, 11 • Culture11 Comments

Burner the Elder (not pictured) is TERRIFIED of having his mouth washed out with soap.

Don’t cuss, drink, smoke or chew, and don’t date girls that do. — A Bible Belt Proverb

Some time ago, The Burner participated in a discussion of theological ideas at a local watering hole, immediately violating 20 percent of the above admonition. The person whom attracted the participants in discussion used some strong language causally as the discussion went on; this practiced was echoed by some in the group. This perturbed another participant to the point that he left the discussion but not before letting the swear-er know that the discussion was disappointing and not “edifying.” The swear-er was either miffed, chastised, surprised or all three.

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The mother of TB used to prohibit any use of the word “butt” unless it was used as a verb or with the descriptive “pork.” In the early ’90s, Roseanne was doing it’s best to open up the use of “butt” in conversation while Beavis and Butthead did their part to appeal to the youth of the era. Mother The Burner did not allow TB to watch either show. “Butt” was rebellious and socially risky to use in polite company.

Mother The Burner now says “butt.” Times change.

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Wikipedia has a fascinating entry on the topic of profanity. It notes that there has been a recent encouragement by psychologists to use swear words to express pain, anger, or any other extreme emotion. Whether or not Christians should ever swear, this does seem to be the appropriate time (at least for non-Christian pagans) to use these extreme words. They’re there for a purpose like any other linguistic tools: We need words to express our emotions and/or the significance of the situation. Even Brian McLaren says in Naked Spirituality that part of being angry with God is expressing your feelings honestly, even if that means swearing–a seeming new trend in Christianity long threatened by lighting bolts from Heaven. Maybe swearing does have a place.

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From the world of media, the FCC has content standards that network television and radio cannot broadcast. There are some certain words on this list (George Carlin famously did an act around it), but The Burner finds it more interesting to read “What Not to Swear,” a survey published in 2010 by the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority, because the results show how ‘bad’ New Zealanders find certain words, and also because other English-speaking countries have some funny cuss words. The point is that governments–worldly, pagan, non-Christian human systems of power–have decided that some words should not be used in public media.

But the boundaries are being pushed, as boundaries are wont to do. The Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says” has over 2 million followers and was made into a CBS sitcom starring William Shatner. While it was panned by critics, it won Favorite New TV Comedy at the People’s Choice Awards in January. Similarly, TB has already blogged about the ABC show this fall called Good Christian B_tches.

This week’s Billboard Hot 100 features Cee Lo Green’s #4 hit “F**k You” and Pink’s #7 hit “F**kin’ Perfect.”  Enrique Iglesisas’ #12 “Tonight (“I’m Loving You)” is edited from it’s real version “Tonight (I’m…”) well, you get it.

Green’s song is very peppy and for radio edits has been changed to “Forget You.” It’s a change that sounds a little like a R-rated comedy broadcast on TBS. Pink’s song uses the f-word as an intensifier in encouraging a friend (if you like, watch the disturbing music video to see her encouraging intent–it’s either “purient” and “gratuitous” or “real” and “honest” (TB can’t decide). Iglesias’ use of the f-word doesn’t change the theme of the song to be any different than The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” but it’s radio edit to “Loving” changes an explicit song’s voice from a probable sex predator to a more romantic and amorous (and vigorous!) lover. (Don’t watch that video.)

So these words still have meaning and some importance in our culture, and even if frequent use strips them of both, the FCC still finds them to be important to filter out for public decency.

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The Burner will in the next five years punish Burner the Elder and Burner the Younger for saying “ass.” In the next 15 years, TB will start using the same word and think nothing of it.

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So while the popular culture is becoming more accepting of swear words, what does the Christian culture do? TB has lost count of how many times his Christian friends and leaders have used swear words in polite conversation–even TB is not innocent. But is it worth cheapening our special words for expressing less than our most violent or intense emotions? Sure, there’s no condemnation…

…but to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcom, these Christians at the watering hole were so unconcerned with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

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What do you think?

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11 Responses to %#@* That: Should Christians Swear?

  1. HB says:

    I too, like TB, am guilty of breaking the 20% of the Bible-Belt-prohibition above, if that 20% revolves around the “don’t cuss” part. I tend to have seasons of being lax with such “foul” language and other seasons of “watching my mouth.” As I reflect on my own habits/practices of cussing I see a pattern: there is a time and place for it. I’m not speaking based on any Biblical passage that can back that up. Rather, I am speaking based on my own experience and practices, which probably much of the time break a few Biblical mandates. After all I am a “broken vessel,” as St. Paul would say.

    For now I’ll leave it at that. I have more to say, or maybe just questions, particularly when it comes to rearing children and teaching them how to speak politely. The university I currently attend is full of teenagers and young adults walking around being “potty mouths.” When I hear such language, I think of how I hope my kids don’t talk that way when they are in college.

    The bottom line: is there a time and a place for cussing? If so, when and where is that?

  2. When I was little my mom gave us “substitute” words (i.e. shoot instead of sh*it, dang instead of damn, etc). Is this really the point?

    I think the real concern comes from what is behind the word. I could spew a million “creative” words in a slanderous hateful manor that wishes no good to person. Is that any better than calling them a b*tch? I’m not quite sure.

    After slamming a hammer into my hand is there a difference between vomiting swears into the air or yelling “golly gee willikers that’s painful.” There is a difference and my hand will always feel better swearing. The pain is being cursed.

    What is the intentions of the words (swears or non swears). Are they an expression of emotions or feelings, or intended differently.

    And sometimes there is time and place for everything: that little sh*it that takes my first born daughter on her first date, better respect her or his ass is grass.

  3. elijah says:

    While I find obtuse profanity unnecessary and uninspired, there are times when the perfect word seems to be the explicit one. Now, what makes those words perfect and powerful in those situations is their specialness. Frequent use mitigates their effect. If you say any word enough times, it loses its meaning.

  4. Ben Wideman says:

    I totally agree with Elijah. But I have to admit this debate is one that I have little interest in (but maybe that is because I don’t feel like swearing is a big part of my social circle).

  5. Cory says:

    I am guilty of bad language. “Language” being the key word. In our culture language is cheap and cussing has turned into a form of sensational speech. Often cussing does not add to the conversation but there are times when I believe that it does. I think the issue for me is not the use of a ‘bad’ word but more the meaning behind it. Language is a gift and has the ability to inspire, transform and give life to others but also has the ability to erode, hurt and cheapen everyday life. Putting a little thought into our language and choice of words will probably go a long way in all of our live.

  6. Ryan Strebeck says:

    Burner,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I too was condemned for using “butt” at home, though if i was on the farm, it was perfectly fine to employ “ass.” (surely there is something wrong with that dichotomy!)
    There have been some good comments on language, and its culture preserving/creating role. I think that’s a good place to ground this conversation, because it takes beauty into account and not just functional idea transmission. Poetry has used “cuss” words well over the years and i’m on board with the use of strong language in the midst of “crying out.”
    When i instruct the kiddos on what we can say and what’s better to leave out, why exactly do i tell them not to say “sh*t” or “cr#p”? The best answer i have at this point is illustrated in our friend’s departure from the conversation at the watering hole. These words, in some contexts, distract people to the point of repulsion. While we’re not responsible for their reactions, I do think having this knowledge ought to give us pause before we unload a clip full of pop-cusswords. Should care-full use of language include restraint and tact in such instances?
    Otherwise, I don’t find a great argument for choosing “jerk” over “son of a b.” (And I certainly don’t understand when Christians get bent out of shape because they hear offensive words in public.)

    Careless language becomes offensive in almost any context – we probably should have a better handle on our tongues in general (whether we are grumbling or blessing). Maybe that is the key.
    RS

  7. Sean Davis says:

    I’m a coach. I coach with other coaches who are more creative with their cuss words than we are with our everyday vocabulary. Sometimes it can be extremely funny. In a world of HIGH emotion the right words dont always come as fast as your mouth or mind can move. Still it’s not an excuse. I’m not justifying it but when stress and tension are running high there are words that cannot emphasize the importance or the message. There just aren’t. Plain and simple.

    When I’m pissed or fired up in any situation there are only a handful of words that express my true emotions. Sometimes this can carry over into a “normal” situation or conversation. Sucks. Most of the time I just end up sounding stupid.

    At the end of the day I use those words. All of them. I try to only use them when nothing else will do. My intentions I hope are always for expression and not just because.

  8. Jennifer Smith says:

    Good blog post TB. I have to say that it really annoys me to no end when Christian leaders in supposedly “cutting-edge” ministries use profanity for shock value or to supposedly “connect” more to their audience. It’s like a 55 year old dude wearing a muscle shirt, bleaching the tips of his hair, and getting a back tattoo just to fit in with a younger demographic. It’s annoying.

    I think that profanity in the correct context is hilarious. Is that a terrible thing to say? I mean, Dave Chappelle’s stand up act, “Taken to the ghetto” wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the profanity. I also think that you have to know your audience. I know for a fact that it would be incredibly disrespectful to curse in front of my parents or my grandparents. I don’t feel like it is worth the effort to figure out if I am using the word in correct context or going to offend someone, so I don’t use profanity. My subconscious holds onto all the profane words I have ever heard and releases them only when I experience sudden pain or if I am about to have a driving accident. Yikes.

    So I don’t think I answered the question, but all in all, I don’t think that Christians using curse words is a terrible thing depending on the context of the word and who they are saying it around. I definitely don’t think it is right to use the name of Jesus as profanity. I find that incredibly offensive.

  9. Lenae Moore says:

    One of my criteria for making those cultural decisions (drinking, discussing certain subjects, cursing, etc.) is 

  10. I have to admit I’m amazed, and that’s not even close to strong enough, that this is even still an issue in the church. The debate over cursing demonstrates just how deep legalism has sunk it’s roots in our collective Christian psyche. I can understand new believers struggling to come to grips with this topic, but any mature believer (you’d think) would be way beyond this juvenile discussion. Alas, we’re not, and worse of all I still fall into this trap continually. To this day if I hear a Christian curse I’m surprised instantly exclaim internally “oh wow they swear, they must not be very faithful!” It’s outrageous that decades after realizing there is no law about Christians cursing that this still pops into my mind like a knee jerk reaction. It’s not that I’m intentionally judging, but that in this area my mind is set to the default of judging – I don’t even have the option to offer grace first.

    There’s obviously tons of merit in a believer choosing their words carefully, but at the same time can we move on to a topic a little bit more weighty than this? 

  11. phunnyphilly says:

    I once worked for a “Christian” woman who was scandalized if one used a swear word in her presence.  Another (religious) coworker described the woman as evil and that was an apt description.  Actions will always speak louder than words, but if the action is in fact a hammer whacking one’s thumb then a good cuss word is essential.
    My mother was a pretty strict Catholic, but you knew she was mad when you heard, “goddammittahell!!”.  She is now a staunch agnostic, and is more tolerant of strong language, but doesn’t curse any more than she ever did.

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