Monday, June 30, 2008

Profanity


This week I received an email from a friend who is working on a position paper about profanity--he's against it.  :-)   As he wrote to me, he said that a friend had told him,  "it is possible to write about murder, and to read about murder, without committing the sin of murder.  However, one can neither write nor read profanities without committing the sin (or, at the very least, being coarsened)."

I wrote back to him . . . and here's what I said. 

Warning:  plain talk ahead.  

Dear ***, 

If you'll allow me to play Devil's Advocate for a moment--

Yes, we can read about murder without committing murder, but if we harbor the thought of murder, and how delicious it might be to kill someone we hate, then we have committed a sin . . . Jesus said if we hate our brother, we are as guilty as if we had murdered him.  

And we CAN read a profane word without using that word.  It's if we allow that word to linger in our thoughts and begin to use it, that we fall into the sin of using corrupt language.  But simply reading (or hearing) a profane or ugly word is not sin--if it were, we would have to wear earplugs and lock ourselves away from the world.  While some Christians might love to do that, it goes completely against Jesus' prayer in John 17 when he prayed, "I pray not that you take them OUT of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one . . ."  

We must also realize that words are only symbols of the things they represent.  The word "God" is not actually God's name, it is a symbol for Him (and is still considered holy and worthy of respect just as we realize that a flag is not America, but a symbol of America, and must be accorded respect.  I love the orthodox Jewish practice of spelling "God" G-d.  An obvious sign of respect and honor.) 

But when referring to, for instance, feces, who can say that "poop" is less representative than the s-word? Yet all young mothers find some euphemism to teach their children when potty training.  It's not less representative, it's less vulgar.  And who sets that defining standard?  Society.  

(I have been chided by readers for using the word "anal-retentive," and it becomes obvious that they don't understand that it's a legitimate psychological term, not a vulgarity.  Makes me wonder if they'd object to "asinine" because it sounds like "ass." )  

On the other hand, I completely dislike the word "suck" to mean "bad" because when I was growing up, it meant something usually described on the walls of bathroom stalls.  Today's young adults, however, frequently use it to mean "that's bad."  Societal standards do change, no matter what connotations we dinosaurs bring along with us.  

Bottom line:  Jesus said it's not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him.  The evil that proceeds out of our hearts and mouths.  

That's why, as a Christian writer, I don't feel coarsened by reading profanity or hearing it--I don't dwell on it or mimic it. But I cannot in good conscience use words in speech or in writing that I know most of my readers will find offensive (according to the standards society has set).  I do this for their sakes, not because I think certain words are sinful in nature.  :-) They're just words. I do it  to obey the Lord's admonition not to use corrupt communication, which also extends to gossip, lying, criticism, etc. And why are we not to use corrupt language? Because it hurts other people, and we are commanded to love. 

In other words--words, in themselves, are harmless symbols.  But they are so closely tied to the things they represent that the average person does not disassociate the two. So we Christians need to watch our speech and make sure that it is grace-filled and honorable, even when we are writing or talking about bad things.  

Have you heard the story about (insert name of preacher here)?  This is pure hearsay, but I heard that once he stood up at a preacher's convention or something similar and talked about starving children in Africa.  Then he said, "How many of you give a s***?" 

Then, as the audience gasped, he said, "Why are you so much more alarmed about my saying the s-word than you are about the starving children in Africa?" 

I get his point--and it's powerful--but I'd have been just as shocked if he had unfurled a portrait of a Playboy bunny or stabbed a visiting preacher.  Sin is sin, and need is need.  So often we find it easier to focus on eradicating the former instead of the latter. 

And so--(and goodness, I didn't mean to write a position paper!) -- while it is good to point out that many believers are losing focus on holy living, we also need to be reminded that the world doesn't always notice if we don't cuss.  What they DO notice is if we love, give, and reach out to others.  

I'll hush up now. 

Angie 

11 comments:

Leslie said...

Amen and Amen.

(for the record I've never understood why people think anal-retentive was a bad word - but then, that's probably because I first learned it while studying about Freud! LOL)

Kay Day said...

I've often thought about this...why some words are considered "bad" and other are "ok" when they mean the same thing.
And why is hell considered a bad word? It's a bad place, but it seems to me that saying "Oh heavens" would be more disrespectful than saying "oh hell"
But none of this is based on logic.

I've just finished reading Schaeffer's The Mark of a Christian, and it all comes down to Love. You are right about that. Well, you are right about most things. :)

Mocha with Linda said...

Very well said. You should write books. :-)

As I read this it reminded me of the uproar years ago in Washington when that guy correctly used the word niiggardly (meaning miserly, a word that goes back to the 1300's Scandinavian/Middle English roots) and people got so bent out of shape thinking he had made a racial slur that he had to resign.

Mocha with Linda said...

Don't know how an extra "i" can pop in there, even when I preview. Sigh. That would be niggardly.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Angie! You can write position papers for us any day of the week. I expect most of us devour them. Glad that Linda brought up the situation about the man fired for using the word "niggardly", because that one comes readily to mind when I think of words that "offend". Sometimes we allow our sensibilities to wander when we should be looking instead at the big picture. May God forgive us our frailties. Clyde

Carrie K. said...

Very well said. My husband and I listened to a sermon online - I think it was Mike Gunn, a pastor of a church plant out of Mars Hill in Seattle, about the verses "Let no unwholesome talk proceed..." He made the wonderful point that many Christians self-righteously think that their speech is wholesome because they don't use words from some list that society has deemed "vulgar." They will then turn around and say unkind things to their spouse or children, gossip about their pastor or church leadership, and talk critically about people still in bondage to sin. Which grieves God more: someone saying d*mn when they hit their thumb with a hammer, or spreading evil gossip through a church body and causing division? It's all about what's in the heart, like you said.

Leslie said...

Carrie K - You reminded me - the other day a nice Messianic Jewish lady was driving when all of a sudden we hit an ice cooler that had dropped into the middle of the road - I had seen it, but not in enough time to warn her - and also being from New York she let out a "s**t" For two weeks everytime she saw me she apologized.

I kept trying to tell her that I understood! It didn't offend me - seriously - what is the difference with saying that and with saying "jeepers" or "gleeps" or "sassafrass 123" or "son of a motherless goat"- they are all expletives - its just some are "ok" and some are deemed "vulgar"

Dazer LindaG said...

I always told my children that their vocabulary was a reflection of how smart and educated they were. And that people who use profanity are actually showing how stupid or uneducated they are.

I was very disappointed several years ago when Bill Cosby spoke at the National PTA convention. He felt it was necessary to use profanity to illustate his points.

Smilingsal said...

I agree in total.

Carrie K made a good point about the critical talk. Words--they are powerful!

And, while we're at it, thank you for writing without using profanity; it's one of the major reasons I enjoy Christian Fiction and how I discovered your books.

When I read, I find that words, thoughts, phrases DO stick in my pea brain and come back to haunt me; therefore, I have become more careful of what I read.

Todd Michael Greene said...

As an aspiring novelist I've struggled with this issue. I think it's possible to write a good story with evil running rampant and good overcoming-without using profanity. Thing is, I'm not sure it's being very real to do so. I read Ted Dekker's Showdown. It had the most evil villian, and yet he never used profanity. It seemed weird to me. I read Tony Hines never Waking Lazarus and imagine my surprise when I came across a character using a single profane word. I actually applauded. Why? Because had I been in the same situation I'd probably said the same thing. Or worse. Not proud of that. Just being honest.

Angela said...

Todd, I have developed a reader base, and they've learned that I can be counted on to do certain things and not do certain things. Hopefully, I always provide a good story with certain elements. What I do not do is make them endure profanity. That doesn't mean that my characters are either saintly or stiff, it means that I find ways to be more creative and impart my meaning.

I'm writing a general market book now with a murder and some very bad people, but I'm not using profanity. If I break the trust I've established with my faithful readers, I don't deserve to keep 'em.

A.