On Writing (and Speaking) Profanities, Part II

When I was in college, the leader of Campus Crusade for Christ, Mack, was a witty, talented man. One of those talents was his quiver of cliches for every occasion. I remember how he would respond to students around him who would say things like, “damn,” “shit,” “fuck,” or “hell,” “Do you eat out of the same mouth you talk out of?” was his familiar, belittling, question.

Profanity Defined

The word profanity is from the Greek word, profanus, which literally meant “In front (or outside) the temple.” From the beginning, it carried religious connotations that it was describing language or words that were secular (non-religious) or worse, against religion. While the concept starts with language that was related to the polytheistic system of the Greeks, it was quickly adopted by Christians and other religious entities to help mark decently. I honestly don’t know if eastern religions have such an attitude toward certain word use. I have a sense that the connotation is not as strong in Islam as it is in Christianity. I heard even devoted Muslims use such intense language if the situation demanded it. But my understanding of Arabic was limited and my have missed the social cues. But I do know that in the Arab world in general, they are more comfortable with the expression of emotions than we are in the West. Therefore, most of my discussion will focus on Western civilization, down to the American perspective, and since Christianity has had such a shaping influence on the morality of this society, much of my discussion will address the Christian perspective. The claim of Christianity is that their views are from the Bible. I disagree and will address that specific claim as well.

My Agenda

Before I move forward, I want to be clear of my purpose in this discussion. I am not addressing the use of profanity with the hopes of persuading people who find such language offensive, to start using it. Good heavens no! At most, I hope to lay out an argument so that those who see certain words as a sign of indecency or sin by the people who use such words, would have a more gracious view of those people. In my argument, I will also make a few bold statements that I expect most people will not agree with. But that is okay. I don’t expect people to agree with me and I still consider them my friends and worthy of my respect. Lastly, I will add that my thoughts on this topic have come from a long period of study and thinking and is not simply off the cuff. I do believe that my views are consistent with those who know the most about these areas, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and historians. I am a humble learner and if you have evidence that differs from what I claim, I will consider it, but not within the context of a personal argument.

Christian Morality, a Cultural Perspective

I grew up in the Bible-belt. The surface markers of a decent person, were: 1) not using profanities, 2) going to church every Sunday, 3) not drinking alcohol, and 4), not smoking, unless you were a veteran of World War II, then smoking was overlooked.

We Christians often think our morality comes straight out of the Bible. That is not true. Our morality, as well as much of our cultural views, come from a long history of ideas, much of it not found in the Bible. I will boldly claim that most of what we call “Christian” has nothing to do with the Bible. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know the origins of your views.

I’ve stated before, the hallmark of all subcultures is: 1) defining who is in and who is out, and 2) mores or codes of conduct within the group to determine a ranking of conformity. Christianity is no different than other subcultures. However, religious subcultures take both of these measures much more seriously than, say, the Kiwanis club. For example in Christianity (and I think so in Islam) you are either in or out. If you are out, you are pure evil and hated by God. If you are inside the group, you are loved by God and full of redeeming values. Likewise, the social mores are not just customs (in their eyes) but commands of God. If you do not conform to the mores of the Christian group, such as not saying profanities, you are in sin or disobeying God.

My cultural influence became very clear to me when I was living in a radically different culture than the Bible-belt one in which I was raised. In this new (Egyptian) culture, most of my friends were Muslim and a few were Christian. Even those Christians I did know were from Arab sects, such as Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Arab-Catholic, and even Druze. Each with profoundly different customs than my background. These Christians had more in common with their Muslim Arab brothers than their American counterparts. To some, chewing gum was considered sin while saying “fuck you” was okay. They (mostly) see Israel as the devil, while American Evangelicals (since the 1970s and the publication of Late Great Planet Earth) see Israel as incapable of doing wrong.

For the first time, I began to see my own culture in layers like a book that has been left out in the rain. Once the books’ pages get wet, they expand and you can start to see the layers (pages) that you could not see before.

The History of Profanities in the Christian World

I love philosophy and I will try to make a statement while avoiding going down a philosophical rabbit hole. When Christianity appeared in the first century, one set of powerful, secular influences was the writing of the Greek philosophers. The main one was Plato. The Christian Gnostics adopted Platonic Dualism as their guiding metaphysical view. In that perspective, there is a sharp division between the seen and unseen. The Church first resisted these ideas, the great Church creeds addressed dualism as it relates to Christ, who is both seen and unseen. However, when Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion, Platonic Dualism was embraced as a means to power. If the only thing that matters rests in the unseen (heavenly), then all things in the material or seen world become insignificant. In that model, then the Church/emperor has all the power because they control the unseen or spiritual realm.

During this early time, all profanities were likewise confined to the unseen or spiritual. Many of these terms persist until today, but words like “hell” “damn” “goddamit” “Mother of God” “Jesus,” and even “bloody.” “Bloody” is the favorite profanity of the British and Australians. The original, pre-renaissance, term was “The blood of Christ” or “The blood of God.”

This perversion of Platonic Dualism went to seed as the dark ages (if this physical world doesn’t matter, culture dies). The Renaissance delivered Europe from Dark Ages and made the seen (material) important again, bodily functions became the key subjects of profanities, “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “dick,” “cunt,” “pussy,” and etc.

From what I read, as long as you did not say those things in Church during all those hundreds of years, it was not considered immoral or a marker of not being a Christian or of good character. Even children’s school books and street names had some of those words and no offense was taken. The very first use in writing of the word “fuck” was a British legal document on December 8, 1310. It listed the name of a criminal as “Roger Fuckebythenavele.” It is believed that the state decided to use derogatory name to suggest that he was so stupid he didn’t know the proper way to have sex. But the point was this was in mainline British culture and in the fourteenth century, that was okay. It was not offensive. What happened?

The Victorian Transmutation

This all changed during the Victorian age, which roughly corresponds to the reign of Queen Victoria or the nineteenth century. While not directly related to the queen, there was a social transformation in England and the US. It was a time when Christianity had reached its pinnacle in Western societies and at this peak it was a driving social force for defining decency. Some historians have called this period the “The Cult of Respectability” where more and more social rules were introduced as social markers of decency, none having anything to do with the Bible or essential Christian teachings. It was during this period of time that certain words or language were deemed taboo. We still bear many of these social mores.

The Victorian Age

What Does the Bible Really Say About Profanities?

Nothing. The Bible is a book of history, poetry, and in places, law and instruction. The law of the Bible is simple, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and that is raised to a higher level in the New Testament with Jesus’s sermons. Most of the rest of the Bible was never intended as law. However, it is like a Rorschach (ink blot) test. You will see what you want to see. You want to see certain things because that is what your subculture dictates. When I was an evangelical, a long time ago, I mined the Bible daily looking for obscure rules that I could follow that would give me the sense that I was better than other people who didn’t follow them. Self-serving.

Rorschach Ink Blot Test Sample

I will assert that the reason religions create a long list of dos and don’ts (as in the Victorian Ages) has much more to do with appearance than substance. If there is such a litany of mores that I must follow to be a good person, or even a Christian, then it works in my favor if I follow these rules. I appear better than others. It is about our self-esteem. “I don’t say swear words, therefore I’m a better person than those who do.”

Here is what the Bible does say about language, which is often misinterpreted as profanities.

The third commandment says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” I was taught that this meant saying, “God dammit” or even “Oh, God!” If you were raised like me, you cringe just thinking about this phrase. But what I’ve read by Biblical scholars, it means assigning responsibility to God, that is not deserved. For example, there were several (gay-haters) who said that the hurricane Katrina was sent to New Orleans by God to punish it because of its gay population. In the 1980s we heard the same thing from Evangelical leaders about the AIDs epidemic. This is taking the name of God in vain, and sin.

But those who mine the Bible for rules that aren’t there, work hard to condemn those who use words in their language that our society has deemed immoral. Here is an example of such rule-mining. Let me define some of those words in their rational definition. “Do not swear” has nothing to do with what we now call “swearing.” Profanities are relabeled with those Biblical terms to make them look Biblical. Read the passage in context and you will see that the issue was lying. People swore (“I swear by this or that”) because their normal answer might be a lie, but this answer with a swear was at a higher standard. James was making it clear, make your normal answer the truth and there is no need to swear to something.

Another Biblical word that is used to label profanities is “cursing.” The vast majority of profanities have nothing to do with cursing, but some do. I would be very hesitant to say to someone, “God damn you!” That would be a case of cursing, or placing a curse. The New Testament teaches that the language we should use is a language of love. Some, who ascribe to the idea that profanities always being bad, would argue that if someone said, “You are one bad mutherfucker!” is not the language of love. But in some subcultures,I think it is.

The Advantage of Profanities

I mentioned in the previous post that normal language is stored in the left side of the brain, primarily in the Broca and Wernicke’s areas while profanities are stored deeply in the emotional parts of the brain, such as the limbic system. In that case, profanities might serve a useful purpose in venting or processing emotional situations. Stubbing your toe and shouting, “Dammit!” might be one of those cases.

I know that since my diagnosis with Multiple Myeloma, I’ve had periods of intense pain, and frustration with trying to do the basic functions of life. Using profanities when pain strikes out of the blue has been a healthy response for me.

One concern is that during the Victorian Era, not only did certain words become inappropriate, but our emotions became illicit as well. It is where the concept of the stiff upper lip came from. Where good Christian people would smile during their child’s or spouse’s funeral because they knew their loved one was with Jesus. It is the idea that the parents sitting in a hospital waiting room, while their child is enduring a life-saving, but dangerous surgery, would stay calm. I’ve watched how Muslims handle such situations and it is profoundly different than evangelicals. They express unfiltered emotions, tearing their clothes, sobbing uncontrollably. It is not due to their lack of faith, but their living within reality.

I will say, those subcultures where every sentence they speak is laced with profanities, I suspect that those words end up residing in the area of the brain where normal words are kept, having no emotional link anymore, having lost their punch or benefit.

In Conclusion

I am making the argument that using profanities are not a mark of someone’s decency or morality. Those who deem it so, should reconsider the moral link to language. No, I’m not advocating for using more profanities, especially by those who don’t now. I am advocating for grace toward others’ language, in speaking and writing, with an understanding where this unfavorable bias is rooted.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Mike

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2 responses to “On Writing (and Speaking) Profanities, Part II”

  1. In Ephesians 4:29, Christians are told by the apostle Paul to avoid using the kind of words that corrupt and harm others but instead use words that build others up and provide grace to the hearer. This is a principle not a fundamentalist command like don’t cuss, and I agree with you that some profanity is benign enough to not harm another. Yet words like F*CK, GD, using Jesus’ name as a profanity, should without debate be seen as violating this principle. The F word refers to the sex act, and the latter two words use the names Christians are exhorted to worship as everyday obscenities to use flippantly. It is certainly not treating God or Jesus as Holy, other than us and worthy of worship and praise. So- while I do imbibe in a bit of profanity myself from time to time, Christians do have higher standards of behavior than the unbelieving cultures they live in because they are called to be set apart and different, holy, loving, moral agents and ambassadors of God’s truth on sexuality, and so many other areas. So, I do respectfully disagree in some areas.

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    • First of all, your opinion does not offend me in any way because I’m sure it represents the view of the vast percentage of Christians and all my Christian friends. Some days I think my life would not have been cut short if I had just conformed to the Christian norms, rather than raising these kinds of questions. As you said, I think we are in total agreement that our language and behavior should be loving toward others. But I assert that it is a big leap and a cultural phenomenon to pick certain words arbitrarily and declare them unloving or evil. Shit is evil, poop not so much. Those who say “Fuck” are bad people, but those who say “sex” or “Sexual intercourse” are not. From my point of view, that kind of labeling reminds me of how the pharisees created religion to make themselves look better than others, and Jesus was totally against that. I think it is harmful to make subcultural mores, that have nothing to do with the Bible, Christian essentials. When it comes to saying “God” or “Jesus” it is more complicated, if we want to stick with the truth. I don’t use those names because I don’t have certainty about this. I mentioned that one interpretation I found is that the command to not take the name of God in vain, ( https://www.crossway.org/articles/what-does-it-really-mean-to-take-the-lords-name-in-vain/ ) means not assigning responsibility to God for things he was not responsible for. Christians do this all the time. I gave one example above, but when I was an evangelical we were constantly saying that God did this and God did that, when we knew that it wasn’t something God had done. Lastly, the argument about Christians must be set apart from others by their language and etc. is the argument I always heard in the Bible belt. So, again, arbitrarily we pick a lexicon of words that are good words and those that are bad words (none of these words mentioned in the Bible) it seems silly. Why don’t all Christians dress like Waldo, that would set them apart. Why don’t all Christians speak Esperanto, that would set them apart. No, I agree Christians should be set apart, but that difference should be based on things the Bible does talk about, loving others, seeking peace, seeking justice, not just not saying “shit.” A survey in America (https://www.christianpost.com/news/only-3-in-10-american-adults-hold-positive-perception-of-evangelicals-barna-research.html ) showed that only 3 in 10 Americans saw Evangelicals in a positive light. That negative view, by most, is not because of the lexicon of Evangelicals, but of the perceived behavior of being unloving, hypocritical, hateful, racists, and the list goes on. In my opinion, those are the areas that Christians need to clean up, not their language. So, you and I share the same principals but differ in the application.

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