Friday, April 29, 2005


It's funny how this topic keeps coming up. I answer questions from people at church about it. I come across the conversation while reading blogs like Walking Circumspectly, Marla Swoffer, Reflections of the Times and probably a few others lost somewhere in the browser buttons of my brain. And for some reason I'm led to blog on the topic myself, in spite of the fact that I very well may have nothing new to offer. But it touches me nonetheless.

The topic is swearing, cursing, using profanity, speaking in a vulgar way, uttering obscene words and all-around, old-fashinioned cussin'.

I'll be honest up front. I don't do it. Swear, that is. Or any of the other descriptions of the topic listed above. Don't misunderstand. I know all the words. I just don't use them. I attribute this to two things: an upbringing where I would have been in big trouble if I used those words, and working as a DJ on commercial radio stations where I would have been in even bigger trouble if I used those words. It was a habit I never developed. And luckily I have the personality where I don't get suddenly angry too often, so it wasn't too hard of a habit to keep.

So what kind of expertise do I bring to the topic? Well, maybe I have a bit of objectivity. Or maybe I don't have a clue of which I speak (or in this case, do not speak). Yet I have observed many people and their foul-mouthed actions over the past 43 years. And while there isn't much which offends me, sometimes profanity coming from the mouth (or the keyboard) of a Christian does just that. So why do people swear?

One reason is that because some people see those words as part of the language. I've long been told that if someone has to use foul language regularly, it's likely because they don't have an especially good vocabulary. Profanity is the only way they know to express themselves. There is wisdom in this reasoning. I see this in the younger people today. The obscene language is everywhere -- common, accepted, unstigmatized. What's the big deal?

Some swearing is of the expletive variety. You know. It slips out. You hit your thumb with the hammer. You drop your hot fudge sundae. Someone cuts you off in traffic. If you're old enough to remember President Nixon's Watergate tapes, you'll remember that the transcripts of those conversation were peppered with profanity which was replaced in print by "expletive deleted". Honestly most of those weren't expletives, just old-fashioned cussin'. But a few likely fit the description pretty well.

Some swearing is done simply to shock people. This is probably the only viable use of profanity to my knowledge. When the swear words come out, you know the person is serious. On the old All in the Family series, Archie was pretty foul-mouthed for television in the early 1970s but his wife Edith didn't use that type of language. Until one day she was seriously angry with Archie and ol 'Arch was pretty dismissive of her until she broke out the curse word. Then his face changed immediately. He understood the gravity of what she was trying to say. But of course that only works for someone who almost never uses such language. If you start cussin' everytime you get angry, you're not going to shock anyone into taking you seriously.

The reason which bothers me is that of a person trying to fit in. This is where the whole "swearing by Christians" topic comes into play. Many Christians see no need to clean up their language because it makes them more "authentic" to unbelievers. It's also a good excuse not to worry about what they say or write. I've heard the argument, "A non-Christian isn't going to take anyone seriously who doesn't use that kind of language." I've always said that a non-Christian who won't accept a Christian on that basis is much more bigoted than the believer who won't swear. I don't expect completely clean language from an unbeliever. Why would an unbeliever expect salty language from a Christian?

There are plenty of other arguments people have thrown at me. They still use "George Carlin logic" as well. Carlin was a comedian who made a name for himself in the mid 70s with a routine called "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television". (Incidentally I've personally heard three of the seven on network, over-the-air TV in the past ten years, so his credibility should be shot by now, but I digress.) Anyway, Carlin's argument was that they were just words, but society and the speaker's intentions gave them their offensive meaning. It's an interesting theory, but for Christians we all know the meanings and our intentions before we say them. Thus we have no excuse.

So should Christians be using such language? I'm not going to go into a long exegetical reason why we shouldn't. We all have conscience. We should know better instead of simply looking for a way to justify our sinfulness.

I understand we're all sinners, so when the expletive pops out I'm not going to be the one to condemn. I think we can find more effective ways to call attention to what we have to say aside from shocking people by use of an obscene word or two. I'm pretty sure we have enough language skills to use words besides the offensive ones. And I'm also quite understanding that our Christian walk is a process and that it takes a good while, sometimes a lifetime, to clean up our language. Yet when a believer is writing a book or a blog or a note to the teacher or whatever, there is time to go back and eliminate profanity. But some don't. Is the need to be cool or to fit in really strong enough to mold your convictions?

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