THE PAST two months have seen a spike in evangelical discussion of swearing—most of it fussy squabbling over this or that cultural happening, and much of it distracted with the “pros” and “cons” of Christians uttering dirty words. In June, the Southern Baptist Convention devoted numerous hours and resolutions to opposing the disturbing new trend of cursing preachers. In August, numerous Christian reviewers obsessed over a lone obscenity on Derek Webb’s latest album. And earlier this week, the Web site of Relevant, a leading purveyor of American Apparel-clad fundamentalism, suggested that the confused, lost masses encountering these newly salted believers are probably longing for the days when Christians used cute words like “darn” and “butt.”
There’s no doubt that those suddenly addressing the “issue” of Christian swearing have missed the cultural train. What David Bazan arguably started with his potty-mouthed lyrics has been fully realized as younger Christians have thrown off the church’s traditional linguistic taboos with nearly as much fervor as they have embraced alcohol and rejected partisan politics. Considering how widespread and essentially non-controversial Christian swearing has become in the past decade, even in the Bible Belt, it is surprising that a Christian musician only now had to battle with a record label over a lyrical obscenity. It’s also remarkable that a number of Christian publications seem to think they can keep up with the times by discussing swearing at this late hour—even by imagining they anticipate a counter-trend.
The mistake of this ankle-deep wrangling over Christians and profanity is that it misreads a significant cultural shift—one deeply grounded in intellectual conviction—as a rebellious or apathetic flavor of the moment. No doubt, many a young Christian at university has slipped into colorful language almost involuntarily, without having a well-considered justification for his new vocabulary. Only in a few instances does it require moral courage to utter the word “fuck.” But to imply that most Christians who swear do so out of lapsed scruples, and can be pricked back into conscientiousness with a quick devotional from their favorite journal of “progressive culture,” is to profoundly misunderstand the change that has prompted so many of them to dismiss the petty social preoccupations of their forbearers.
No, the obscenities now uttered by young Christians have transcended the milquetoast rebellion of the “emergent” movement and are likely here to stay. They have arisen as peripheral indicators of a whole new level of intellectual openness, and an almost masochistic devotion to honestly sorting through the horrors of our time. With young Christians in unblinking pursuit of the big questions, it’s hardly a surprise to find them uninterested in who is saying “shit” or what corporate behemoth is gifting funds to gay rights. In an adult world of strong ideas and strong language, puerile fixations on “bad words” and partisan allegiances are no longer even part of their consciousness.
When they do address language, they typically make use of far more weighty arguments than one is likely to find in the publications neatly arranged in church lobbies—arguments that exhibit both a robust view of the English language and respect for the intelligence of their listeners. If we are to be concerned about our “witness,” then not drafting semi-literate, scruple-ridden cases against “bad” words is a very good place to start. Furthermore, the sailor-like Christian cusser addressed in Christian periodicals is largely a mythical creature: look for him boorishly spewing obscenities every which way without regard for his company or social setting, and you are almost certain to return empty-handed. Thus the admonition that we “clean up our mouths” is, besides being the weakest possible defense of a conservative position, based almost entirely upon straw men.
The latest episodes of the Christian swearing “discussion”—Christianity Today’s Web site complaining that Derek Webb’s album would be better without the word “shit,” Relevant’s Web site writing that the “issue” is “cut and dry” [sic]—have the feel of a certain Focus on the Family publication that counts the offending words in every major motion picture. It is a neurotic obsession that continues to sink the heart and numb the mind. And considering how much thought and practice have evolved on the subject while Southern Baptists and Christian magazine editors apparently had their heads turned, it continues to miss the point.
To read previous Patrol editorials, visit patrolmag.com/opinion.
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