Sunday, March 30, 2008

Powerful Language

As usual, Jon Birch over at ASBO has managed to get some interesting discussion going--this time on Christians and "bad" language. This is something I've been meaning to post on for a long time. Barry, over at Honest Faith has also addressed the subject, but I think he misses a few things.

First off, a few contextual things. I went to K-12 in a pretty conservative, though not fundamentalist Christian school. Over a hundred different congregations were represented in the student body and faculty, which gave me an instinctual grasp of "Mere Christianity" very early--I'll always be grateful for that. But it was a place where, if you were caught saying "shit" in the hallway, you'd land in detention. "Catcher in the Rye" wasn't on the shelf in the library.

I remember in fifth grade, my teacher rounding up the entire fifth grade class and attempting to bludgeon the third commandment into our heads. He'd become very upset at the increasingly casual punctuations of "Gawd!" and "Ohmigod" that he was hearing and tried to explain that this was taking the Lord's name in vain. Most of the class didn't pay much attention.

Now, I'm a believer in the power of language, to a nearly mystic degree. I think that we really don't even begin to comprehend the importance of "The Word was God." I believe that the characters and places that we create with our words are true creations--more real than we usually believe. I believe this so much that, when I was in college, my then-fiance-now-husband was starting to worry that I was losing my grip on the distinction between reality and fiction. I won't say that I've mellowed on the subject--but I've taken a step back. Living in that place of confusion was, in some ways, one of the realest times of my life. And I still believe that in the new heavens and the new earth that God will take our creations--the poor, broken idea matter and rough drafts from this fallen world and help us perfect them and make them real in a way that we can hardly dream of now. God makes things by speaking them into being. He gives us the gift of naming and promises us new names written on white stones. I'm not entirely sure but that those fantasies that posit that if you could ever find the true name of something that you would have real power over it aren't more right about the way things really work than our poor, rational, modern world.

So is it any surprise that during this same stage in my life my language started getting saltier? More profane? Words are powerful things, and in a very real sense, by my senior year of college, I was drug-tripping on that power. I graduated with a double major in literature and writing. If there are words that are more powerful, more expressive, more evocative, then I wanted them. Needed them. Still do. But this is what I've found.

1. The name of the Lord is not ours to use. The Word that made the universe--the God whose name is I AM, whose speaking of himself brings into existence, is not ours to mess with. God is too big. Too Holy. Too incomprehensible. And if, as Erin so aptly pointed out recently, none of our words for God are sufficient, the small facets of his being that are revealed by our various names for him are still powerful. They are not simply the italics for our own conversation. In this, my fifth grade teacher had it right. Though "Ohmigawd" is considered acceptable fare for the Sunday funnies these days, though culturally it is not even considered swearing, I increasingly find it the most offensive form of profanity. Indeed, in English, it is one of the few things that is actually profane.

2. Much of what gets labelled profanity is simply scatalogical or sexual vulgarity. The church has lost the habit of distinguishing between profanity and vulgarity, and I think that it's an important one. The two things say different things about us. I find vulgarity distasteful, and I think that it tends to coarsen our thinking. But it's just not in the same class as profanity.
  • Sex is a lovely and good thing, and that every time someone is told to "f*** off," it's another step in cheapening it. I think that the beauty of sexuality is like crystal, or glass filigree--that its beauty is in its being, clean, clear, delicate. If we treat it as something that we can simply bang on (pun intended), it shatters what it was meant to be. Yet our society keeps trying to convince us that sex is as indestructible and worthless as plastic. I have a friend who once explained to me that she would use "fuck," when, in her judgement, it was the most accurate term to describe the physical interactions she heard tell of . . . when the euphemis "making love" simply couldn't apply.
  • Scatalogical is something else yet. There are times, I think, that "shitty" can really be the most appropriate and evocative adjective for something. (And after seven and a half years of always having at least one kid in diapers, believe me--it's evocative.) I remember a good friend. Homeschooled-Christian-conservative-girl, sitting and weeping over the shallowness of so much interaction. Of churches that would love you one month and forget you the next. Her saying that when someone says they'll be there for you and then just isn't, that's it's really shitty. She was right. The way we flush people out of our lives is inexcusable. And I've heard the argument that in Phillipians 3:8 what is commonly translated as "rubbish" would be best translated "shit." Yet, only a chapter later, we get this from Paul: "Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things." It seems that the habitual use of vulgarity, and the use of it not to actually mean anything, but rather as attempted exclamation marks, robs those words of power that might otherwise be very useful occasionally and instead leaves both the speaker and listener with a mind littered with things which are most definitely not pure, lovely, and excellent.

3. In between these two you have, to my ear anyway, the theologically grayer area of "damn it!" and "What the hell?" Ultimately, of course, it is not ours to choose to damn things to hell or not. Though if you truly desire that God should do so for you in certain circumstances, look to David and the Psalms for an extended treatment of how to ask for such poetically and at length.

Ultimately, language is one of the most profound gifts that God has given us, and he calls us to use it in such a way as recognizes and honors that. Creatively. Creating. Beautifully. To most of us, excessive vulgarity is just ugly, and we don't need any more ugliness in this broken world. And for those cases when it's just a way to vent anger and hurt--well, the language is just a symptom, and I think that God would prefer to address the anger and hurt. But that when he works, he will address our words as well--because they are never as casual as we think they are.


Ruth said...

Sara you've articulated some things here that have been floating around in my head that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Yes, there is a difference between profanity and vulgarity. (thanks for the dictionary links)

I think often colourful language is used just to be cool or fit in and it doesn't necessarily reflect the heart. And sometimes it's a symptom as you said of something deeper.

"And for those cases when it's just a way to vent anger and hurt--well, the language is just a symptom, and I think that God would prefer to address the anger and hurt"

I try not to be offended by the language of others but it feels a bit like a punch. Not the off the cuff, can't think of another word to use, kind. It's the words empowered with anger, distain or irreverence that pack the most punch.

Sara said...

When I posted that the language was sometimes just a way to vent, I was thinking of situations like this one:

Under the circumstances, I'd be prepared to cut poor Sean a bit a slack.

You're right, of course, that anger and disdain can empower words . . . there are people who can take completely G-rated language and wield it like a scalpel.

Ruth said...

I checked out "stuff christians like" and it is hilarious!! and so true. I just love it.

Vevay said...

You write very well.