Why are Christians swearing so much lately?
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It was three separate incidents over a period of as many weeks that persuaded me swearing is no longer the taboo it once was for Evangelicals. Three distinct gatherings of Christians during which casual profanity presented on the lips of fellow believers.
By casual I mean no one hit their thumb with a hammer or was venting at injustice, pain or rage. No one erupted with expletives in response to anything or anyone. The cussing Christians in question simply nonchalantly used vulgar words. And no one seemed to bat an eye.
Let me clarify that I’m not talking about blasphemy. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is still verboten among believers. Every Christian I spoke to for this article insisted they do not use Jesus’ name as a curse, and are uncomfortable hearing others do so.
In her book Holy Sh∗t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 2013), author Melissa Mohr observes that while profanity is "unstable" (words today considered cusses may once have been mundane) over the centuries there have been "two spheres of the unsayable – the religious and the sexual/excremental … [which] have given rise to all the other ‘four-letter words’ with which we swear."
It’s the indecent punch of those "sexual/excremental" words that I’m writing about.
The first incident occurred during a seminary class, when a student raised his hand and asked a question incorporating a word that denotes both nonsense and the excrement of male cows. Then, at a conference for Christian writers, I heard the sexual (f-word) and the excremental (s-word) used, calmly, by panelists and speakers alike. Finally, at dinner one evening with my husband and three other couples (all of whom would self-identify as Evangelicals), our hostess described something using the adjectival form of the same excremental word.
Each episode, I am certain, would have been unthinkable in similar settings 15 or 20 years ago.
What’s going on?
Of course, foul language is a prevalent part of our surrounding culture. In Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, 2015), author and New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris asks, rhetorically, whether the casual use of profanity in English has "reached a high tide," observing wryly, "I’m not sure how much further we can take profanity and still enjoy it."
Christians may be late to the profanity party, but we seem to be enjoying it like never before.
"Part of it has to do with the reality of our culture, the coarsening of culture," says Lee Beach, co-director at the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies at McMaster Divinity College. "There’s been a movement towards more graphic, vulgar depictions of different behaviours, as well as the language around that."
"As people we’re just not as easily shocked as we once might have been. Culture to us is like water to the fish. So all of that reshaping and coarsening of culture finds its way into the discourse of evangelical circles as well."
Cool to cuss?
When the coolest of Christians casually cuss, there is a ripple effect. When world-renowned singer Bono of U2 accepted an award at the Golden Globes ceremony more than a decade ago, he pumped his trophy heavenward and exclaimed, "This is really, really f—-ing brilliant." The comment provoked not only applause and laughter from his audience, but condemnation from the F.C.C. (the U.S. broadcast regulator) who ruled the comment indecent. It also may have helped to legitimize such vocabulary in the minds of legions of Christian fans. After all, Bono openly professes faith in Jesus. And who could be cooler than Bono?
Nadia Bolz-Weber is pretty cool.
With piercings and sleeve tattoos, the Lutheran minister, author, speaker and founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colo., is a passionate Christ follower who blogs at www.Patheos.com. In a piece titled "I Love Jesus, But I Swear a Little," she writes that some people "are relieved that they don’t have to watch what they sayaround this particular member of the Christian clergy."
Which raises the question: Are cussing Christians exploring the limits of Christian freedom? Or could the use of vulgar language be an attempt – conscious or otherwise – at improving dialogue with nonbelievers, a sort of cross-cultural communication?
When the coolest of Christians casually cuss, there is a ripple effect.
I remember well the awkward, conspicuous way I felt when working in a large Toronto newsroom back in the ’80s, when a colleague apologized to me for his bad language. I remember reassuring him, apologizing for the fact he felt a need to apologize to me. I didn’t swear, but I didn’t judge him for doing so. If abstaining from bad language can pose such a barrier to relationships, perhaps some people swear as a way of building a bridge?
It’s not a helpful bridge, according to Tim Huff. Currently with Youth Unlimited (Toronto YFC), he has cared for homeless and at-risk youth for decades and says in his experience swearing is "a detractor" when communicating with the street involved, that establishing a gentle tone works best.
"Coarse, vulgar language feels harsh," he explains. When ministering to homeless youth, or people in prison, he believes "their whole life is harsh. What they need in every regard is some gentleness. It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I always try to show kids that we can communicate without" cursing.
Dion Oxford ministers to homeless adults. He calls vulgar words "part of the jargon" of the street and admits, "It is quite possible" that some of that jargon has slipped into his way of speaking as a result of his time there. But there’s also something deeper at work. Oxford says his theology has changed, and that change might be reflected in the odd curse word that slips out of his mouth.
"I grew up in a very conservative evangelical church and home, where one of the things I grew to believe was that if I swore, it was a one-way ticket to hell," he explains. "If I stubbed my toe and said f—- without thinking about it, and Jesus were to return at that particular moment in time, I was doomed," he says. "So when I swear now, which is not common, but perhaps more than others, I find it quite liberating because I believe that Jesus still loves me even if I say one or two of these words. Legalism is often the reason why people don’t swear."
Is cussing a sin?
Yes, Jesus loves us, even if we swear. But is cussing a sin?
"I think that it can be very situational," says Beach. "My answer would be ‘Not necessarily, but in some contexts it could be.’ How we use language has to do with the context and the reason we might choose certain words. If someone is going to use swear words in a way that is used to demean someone, then yeah, it’s a sin. Not because of the word, but because of the intent of that word."
He says that some of the prohibition surrounding swearing among believers has dissipated over time, just like it has for things like dancing, going to movies or playing cards. "These were once things we put a premium on in terms of how we demonstrated our Christian faith. We used to overemphasize these things as part of a sanctified life. But there are so many other things that are so much more important."
And yet, "Profanity functions as a psychological assault." So says Richard Beck in a 2009 article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, while Mohr describes swearing as "a hammer" in the toolbox of language.
In other words, even if casual cussing seems cool and not sinful, even if it doesn’t bother us, even if we feel we’re merely putting our authentic selves forward and know that Jesus loves us anyway – it could be bothering someone else. It might even be an assault on our own psyches. Minds can be dulled to the impact of vulgar words through sheer exposure. As I researched this article, I found I bristled internally, just a little bit less, each time I read the f-word.
Minds can be dulled to the impact of vulgar words through sheer exposure. As I researched this article, I found I bristled internally, just a bit less, each time I read the f-word.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009) suggests increased tolerance for profanity among Christians can be a slippery slope.
Many people today choose vulgar words as a kind of verbal shorthand. But, says McEntyre, "When we rush to hyperbole, we obliterate the fine and subtle and careful distinctions that the language is capable of making. And if we lose the language for such things, we become incapable of making those distinctions." She suggests as our language becomes careless or sloppy, our thinking also grows sloppy. "It’s not just that four-letter words are offensive, it’s that they obliterate a whole spectrum of experience."
Christians profess allegiance to the living Word, and believe in the power of the written Word, which teaches that it is out of the overflow of our hearts that our mouths speak, and also that words can be honourable – even though the heart is far from God.
Both Beach and McEntyre point out that the Scriptures use raw, earthy language in a straightforward vernacular, which at times is far from pristine.
"There’s also the model that Jesus gave us," says McEntyre, "in hanging out with prostitutes and fishermen who probably didn’t have the cleanest mouths in the territories. So then it breaks down into two questions: What are we willing to hear compassionately and what are we willing to say?
"I’d like to be completely open to listening to an angry hip-hop song, for instance, and talking with people whose feelings it articulates, keeping an open heart, and listening into the very language I might choose to avoid for truths I might need to hear."
Language – like all of life – is a gift from God, who breathed everything that is into existence with words. McEntyre believes caring for language, being careful with our own words, is a moral issue.
"Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes," protests novelist Stephen King, whose language certainly doesn’t in his memoir On Writing (Scribner, 2000).
But for those who follow the living Word, thoughtfully considering our audience and ensuring our language takes appropriate measures – like brushing its teeth and washing its face before going out, if you will – could be more than just a matter of being presentable. It could be a practical way of loving others.
Patricia Paddey of Mississauga, Ont., is a senior writer at Faith Today.