Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On the Subject of Profanity; or, "Dang, Gina."

Speaking of swearing like a pirate (or a Canadian), there have been not a few feathers ruffled in the Christian blogorama about the issue of swearing. At the center of the issue over the last few weeks are two figures: one is Pastor Mark Driscoll, who in a recent book recounts a conversation without editing the salty (or, some could argue, salt-less) language involved. This caused a bit of a reaction (though--to be fair--Challies, in the original book review, only gave it a parting mention), as does Driscoll's alleged propensity for using such language from time to time, which is not seen as offensive by the flock he cares for. (I say "allegedly" because I haven't seen or heard any evidence other than the report of others.)

The other figure is the blogger Centuri0n, who used an expression that some of his readers deemed unsavory. First, he tried to explain his use of the phrase, and then recanted, based on his own conscience in the matter, and I respect that.

Others have commented on the subject, either to defend one or both instances, or to lambast them. I'll do neither. Instead, I'll do what I do best: work from personal experience. (In other words, "this is where I'm at" on the subject.)

I have a problem with profanity, and I have for several years. I picked up my wide use of profanity in college, particularly through theatre (the actual practice of it, not the people involved...necessarily). Not blaming or pointing fingers, just stating fact. Before college, I was a really uptight church kid who'd much more easily slander or reject others than use a four-letter-word in front of them. As I matured (in some respects), my attitudes and habits changed. While I'm now less likely to mistreat or reject people who act or believe differently than I do, I'm also more likely to use what some consider objectionable language.

[If pressed to choose, I'd prefer to be guilty of the latter than the former. However, I shouldn't have to choose one. I should strive for that option of "neither."]

Do I believe that using "swear words" is absolutely wrong? I know you're waiting for the answer to that question, either ready to attack or defend with chapter and verse. The answer is... I don't know. Sort of?

Some of you are disappointed, I'm sure. You probably have proof texts that you are ready to paste into the comments. That's fine. Thank you for your concerns. But if you do any amount of study into the commentary on those common texts, you will find that the definition of "filthy language" is not exactly crystal clear. There are a host of cultural and interpretive factors to consider.

Now, you know me. You know I hate the goofy, pandering academic drivel (apologies to you academics) that over-analyzes and weakens Scripture with exceptions and caveats, until it is powerless, meaningless pulp. But in this instance, I think there is some merit to considering the bigger meaning behind the text, and you have to consider how one's context affects things.

Or not. You may believe that these four-(or five or six or seven or eight or twelve)-letter words are never acceptable under any circumstances. If that's you, I support you one hundred percent. And sometimes, I feel the same way.

Of course, that does make the issue of "substitution words" a troubling one. Because I think a "bad word" is bad due to what it means, rather than the letters and sounds that comprise it. So, in that context, do words like "dang" and "crap" and "shoot" and "dadgum" and (dare I say it?) "frak" constitute sins of intentional profanity, if not actual? Does this mean that any emotional exclamation, other than one of love and/or praise, comes dangerously close to that uncrossable line?

I'm not trying to nitpick--really, believe me, I'm not. But this is the type of thing I wonder about.

So again I say, I don't know. I don't know, outside of a few obvious things, if there are words that are never appropriate in any context.

The few obvious things, off the top of my head (and subject to further additions--but no subtractions):

--Misuse of God's Name: There is clear Scriptural teaching that it is never appropriate under any circumstance to use God's name flippantly or disrespectfully. This doesn't just apply to the big "G.D." I think even careless uses of "Oh my" etc., are wrong. And I will confess that I do this too, more than I want to admit. It's wrong, and it's sin, because it diminishes the sacredness of the Name that we have been unworthily and graciously allowed to call upon. It's taken me a while to really grasp the seriousness of this offense, but it's something that I have recently been convicted of.
--The F-Bomb: I can't think of any justification where such a thing is defensible as benign or inoffensive speech. There is no meaning or variation of it that is not repugnant or unnecessary. Yet, like the other, I have used it and continue to use it from time to time. It is one part of my speech that I really want to eliminate.

That stated, I use these and other profane words. Much worse, I like using them sometimes. There are times when I find a certain word or phrase to be the most appropriate and expressive one at the time (which may belie a lack of linguistic imagination on my part). I feel a little less awkward knowing that others feel the same way from time to time.

But Cent brings up a valid point immediately after admitting he gets satisfaction from a properly employed profanity. We should question whether we should allow ourselves to feel any sentiment that we require profanity to express. As he aptly quotes, Christ teaches that out of the overflow of the heart does a man speak. So whatever thought is coming out of my mouth, it doesn't just appear. It has its genesis in my heart and mind. [This brings up a whole 'nother issue that's just as big and messy: what we feed our minds and hearts, and how it affects us. I almost got sidetracked here, on this point, but I'll save that for some other time.]

This brings up a root cause of my profanity problem, and one I'm often resistant to address: part of me doesn't really want to change. I don't want to give up those words. But as much as I can argue and justify and give examples of context and exception, deep down I know that a fully mature believer just doesn't speak that way. In my heart, that's what I believe... I think.

That doesn't mean I condemn or accuse or confront other believers who do, with the exception of the first exception above--I'll call you out on that. And by that same token, I expect and allow you to confront me (gently, please) when I make those mistakes. As for the other stuff, the other "profane" words, I'm trying at least to limit, to cut out, to substitute, to sidestep those words where and when i can. I absolutely refuse to use them in specific and certain contexts, which are obvious with any amount of reflection.

I'll close with two anecdotes. First. I have a friend who attends the Sunday morning Bible study I teach/lead. He's a relatively new believer. We were talking one day after class, and he said that he felt like he's still learning the "proper" Christian practices. I knew immediately what he meant. There are certain things you do and say (or don't do or say) when you interact with other believers. He talked about how he says "God" as an exclamation or filler word sometimes. He said that, after our class barbeque a few weeks ago, his girlfriend pulled him aside and commented that he needs to watch out for that. He felt bad about it and told me, "Dave, I feel so embarrassed. I just didn't know, you know?" What I told him is, yes, there is clear Biblical teaching that what he did was wrong. But I said, "Man, there's grace for that, you know? God knows your heart, and He knows that you didn't mean disrespect at all. Now that you know, you work on it, but you don't need to sweat what's already done. Ask for forgiveness, and move on, yeah?"

I believe this is absolutely true. There's grace for the repentant swearer. As long as we're seeking God's face in this matter and doing what we can to walk in God's continual process of renewal for our hearts and minds, we'll be okay. We don't have to sweat it. If we fall, we confess and receive forgiveness. We change. We grow. It's all good.

Second. Before class one week, I met with the other teachers for a time of prayer, as is our weekly practice. Somehow, the discussion turned to the subject of bad language, and the single adult pastor talked about how appalled he is at the use of the "F" word. I sat, silently, riddled with guilt. I had used it just the day before, for something that little merited such strong language. Flippantly, in other words. And I knew I would use it again (which, of course, I did--that very day, I think). I sat there, wondering what this man (who is my supervisor, essentially, in this ministry) would think if he knew the kind of language I've been known to use.

Finally, later, I realized that someone else of higher authority knew already. God Himself knows that I'm a man of unclean lips, and that despite my best efforts, I slip up and say something foul sometimes. And even though He knows this, He still called me to be a Sunday School teacher. This is not to say that I have the right or freedom to curse like a pirate (or a Canadian) in my classroom, or anywhere else. Far from it. But it does mean that my brokenness does not disqualify me from being used of God. Nor does yours disqualify you. God knows your faults, your petty sins, your "big, bad" habits. He knows. And He still loves you deeply, and calls you to follow Him and do His work in the world. So, rest on grace. And don't sweat your imperfection. Follow. Seek. Trust.

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