Holy sh…er…crap! What a week it’s been. Since last Friday when we published our second “Friday editorial” we have been delighted by the discourse that it has prompted. Immediately after running the piece we received a lot of compliments and support for our stance on what we perceived to be the non-issue of swearing among evangelicals. Many people agreed with our sense that the focus on four-letter words had spiraled out of control and appreciated our attempt to reign it in by pointing out that, for most of us, it just doesn’t matter that much.

But just as quickly as the praise came in, so, too did we receive some earnest criticism from readers who took issue with the editorial. The emails, tweets, Facebook responses and blog posts that challenged our opinion were very much appreciated. Both Sessions and myself love knowing that we stimulated a conversation, and particularly one that drew in not only many readers, but also many of the largest and most respected evangelical periodicals as well. Most of the responses were well-crafted, fully realized and, if not completely convincing, at least challenging. Of course there were those that were less so, those reactions which were insulting and terse; none more so than being referred to as “pathetic and dumb” by a tweeter from a prominent magazine.

Where we have been happy to dialog with people, from those that responded online to personal friends here in NYC and beyond, we have done so on the grounds of mutual understanding: the reader fully comprehends where we are coming from and what we were trying to say and then takes issue either with the subject itself, or the way we said it. Where we have been disappointed and let down by the direction the conversation has taken is where we are most unfortunately misrepresented. I believe this is the case in a recent blog post on the website of the magazine First Things.

There are minor misrepresentations, such as referring to Patrol as “an online journal for hipster evangelicals.” Without getting into it too much, this mischaracterization shows not only a lack of understanding as to what Patrol is, it also misses completely that “hipster” is not just a label for people who like music you’ve never heard of and dress kind of funny.

But that was a minor misrepresentation. The more disturbing examples begin with the piece’s title, “Swearing as the New Intellectualism” and continue through to the conclusion where we encounter this bit of misreading, “Patrol wants us to ignore the question of swearing altogether and simply accept the fact that all the kids are doing it.”

One would be hard pressed (and, in fact, the author of the piece never does attempt it) to make the case that we desire to frame swearing as any kind of intellectualism. But it is certainly an attention-grabbing headline. I understand that this faulty assertion is based on our observation that younger evangelicals seem to be more concerned with loftier intellectual pursuits, but it misses the point entirely. Swearing is not the new anything, we are saying, because it simply doesn’t matter in the face of the weightier issues of our time.

In light of this, the mischaracterization that we at Patrol are concerned with what “all the kids are doing,” really is just a low blow issued to delegitimize our position as intelligent and engaged observers of evangelical culture. Certainly we are young (the same Twitter post that called our article as “pathetic and dumb” also called us “kids”) but, as we said in the editorial, it does not follow that we are acting out of some kind of angst-ridden rebellion.

That kind of stereotyping, however, does bring light to the larger issue at work here, one that Patrol hoped to continually shed light on. There is a significant cultural shift happening in evangelicalism. We have chosen at times to refer to it as "post-evangelicalism," a term that, admittedly, made me cringe the first time I came across it, but in light of this and other conversations, seems more and more apt.

We are proud to be a part of a global shedding of many of the ill-gotten and unnecessary baggage that evangelical culture carries with it. We are happy to shift our churches’ focus away from the reductive policing of such things as four-letter words and onto the constructive practice of living out red-letter words. No, there is nothing intellectual about swearing, but an intellectualism grounded in continually discussing such insignificant practices is not intellectualism at all, and is grinding intelligent conversation to a disturbing halt and preventing a more complete engagement with the world at large.

Don’t swear if you don’t want to. And, if you’re ever around my mom, don’t swear at all, she really hates it. If you’re an evangelical writer who wants to use your words and ideas to make an impact, whether on your fellow believers and/or non-Christian readers, get in the business of constantly moving the conversation forward. There is an entire world of ideas out there on which Christians have a unique and important perspective, let’s move beyond youth group concerns and begin to address it, indeed, as adults.

 
About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Closing Thoughts on the Swearing Non-Issue

  1. Joe Carter says:

    . . . none more so than being referred to as “pathetic and dumb” by a tweeter from a prominent magazine.

    I was the one that wrote that and regretted it the moment I hit the send button. (For what it’s worth, that was intended for my personal account and not for my magazine’s Twitter account.) I apologize for the rude reaction. It was overly harsh and uncalled for.

    . . . this bit of misreading, “Patrol wants us to ignore the question of swearing altogether and simply accept the fact that all the kids are doing it.”

    Whether that was your intention or not, that seems to be the reading of almost everyone I’ve talked to about the article. How else are we to understand such lines as:

    “There’s no doubt that those suddenly addressing the “issue” of Christian swearing have missed the cultural train.”

    “. . . 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.”

    “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.”

    “But to imply that most Christians who swear . . . is to profoundly misunderstand the change that has prompted so many of them to dismiss the petty social preoccupations of their forbearers.”

    One would be hard pressed (and, in fact, the author of the piece never does attempt it) to make the case that we desire to frame swearing as any kind of intellectualism

    Here is the key line that lays the groundwork for that contention:

    “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.”

    And:

    “They have arisen as peripheral indicators of a whole new level of intellectual openness, . . .”

    I think the misunderstanding it on your part. Anderson seems to have read the article with a greater level of care than you did (or that the editor’s intended). This may not have been what the editors meant but this is what they wrote.

    Swearing is not the new anything, we are saying, because it simply doesn’t matter in the face of the weightier issues of our time.

    If this was really what you were saying than I apologize that we bothered to respond at all. The old “Issue X doesn’t matter because there are more important issues” is an instantiation of the either/or fallacy.

    Also, if you apply this concept more broadly, than almost nothing Patrol writes about concerns “weightier issues of our time.” The fact that people are starving in Africa trumps anything that can be said about Settlers of Catan. Does that mean you shouldn’t write about games or music or movies or any other cultural concerns? Of course not.

    Similarly, no one is saying that swearing is a weightier issue than some of the more global concerns that we must address. But we Christians should be bright enough to handle a range of concerns—some important, some not so much—at one time.

    In light of this, the mischaracterization that we at Patrol are concerned with what “all the kids are doing,” really is just a low blow issued to delegitimize our position as intelligent and engaged observers of evangelical culture. Certainly we are young (the same Twitter post that called our article as “pathetic and dumb” also called us “kids”) but, as we said in the editorial, it does not follow that we are acting out of some kind of angst-ridden rebellion.

    It’s not that you are young that’s the problem, it’s that your arguments are immature. If you truly are “intelligent and engaged observers of evangelical culture” how have you missed the fact that this is an issue that has been brought up for decades?

    Since the beginning of evangelicalism (or at least the days of Carl Henry) young evangelicals have been swearing and trying to justify such behavior. My parent’s generation did it, my generation did it (I did it too), and now my daughter’s generation is doing it. It’s something each generation goes through and something we (almost) all grow out of. The only thing that is surprising is that such lousy arguments for the behavior would be made by a generally astute magazine such a Patrol.

    There is a significant cultural shift happening in evangelicalism.

    Actually, I don’t think there is. What is happening now is—once again—a pattern that occurs in every generation. Young evangelicals that want to be hip and cool decide that the ways of the old fogeys must change. So they try to conform to the culture rather than to the church. Sometimes it develops into a movement of its own (e.g., the seeker-sensitive movement) but more often than not it just results in young evangelicals becoming more worldly until there is nothing remaining of their former Christian identity.

    We are happy to shift our churches’ focus away from the reductive policing of such things as four-letter words and onto the constructive practice of living out red-letter words.

    In other words you’ve chosen to follow the Tony Campolo model of “evangelicalism”, substituting one set of “reductive policing” for another.
    The church should not have to police your language since that should be something that comes from your own heart. I don’t know of a single mature Christian that thinks that the public use of profanity is “no big deal.” It’s only young “post-evangelical” types who spend more time watching Gossip Girl than reading the Bible that think this is true.

    (Also: All of the words of the Bible are God’s words, not just the “red letter” ones.)

    No, there is nothing intellectual about swearing, but an intellectualism grounded in continually discussing such insignificant practices is not intellectualism at all, and is grinding intelligent conversation to a disturbing halt and preventing a more complete engagement with the world at large.

    Nonsense. Do you not even recognize how poor your justifications have become?

    How was Jesus, Paul, Augustine, [fill in with 2000 years worth of Christians] able to completely engage with their cultures without approving of swearing? Is this the first generation where by not turning a blind eye to Christian swearing—again we’re not talking about the behavior of non-believers but of *Christians*—is preventing us from engaging with the world?

    I’ve never heard a single Christian—before now— say that disapproval of Christian swearing is “grinding intelligent conversation to a disturbing halt.” I can’t imagine that you really believe this is true.

    We have chosen at times to refer to it as “post-evangelicalism,” a term that, admittedly, made me cringe the first time I came across it, but in light of this and other conversations, seems more and more apt.

    It appears that “post-evangelical” seems to mean discarding anything that has to do with historical evangelicalism. Not once have you attempted to justify your defense of Christian swearing on the Bible, or tradition, or anything other than the brute fact that some Christians swear. I’m not sure why you don’t just drop the “evangelical” part altogether.

    . . . let’s move beyond youth group concerns and begin to address it, indeed, as adults.

    I half expected that after being admonished by your fellow Christians that Patrol would reconsider and possibly even retract the former editorial (okay, maybe not expected, but hoped). The least I thought would happen would be that you would make an attempt to use arguments based on the Bible and or tradition to justify such behavior (assuming post-evangelicals still believe these are important). Instead, your response seems to be no more than “Times have changed, old people. We should be able to cuss now because that is the only way we can fit into the this $@#$ culture.”

    By the way, I spend some time with Derek Webb last weekend, and though we didn’t bring up this particular issue, I think he’d be shocked and appalled by your attempt to give a blanket coverage to Christian swearing. Derek is a Godly man and a mature Christian. And while he might feel it necessary as an artist to push a few buttons from time to time, I can never imagine that he’d feel comfortable with the idea that Christians can say the F-word as often as they want because “we’ve moved beyond youth group concerns.”

    Listen, I’m not trying to be the cranky old guy (I’m a 40-year-old Gen Xer) whose hates everything the young folk do nowadays. I get what you’re trying to do (at least what you initially set out to do). And I like Patrol a lot. I’ve published articles by David and Alisa and admire their work as writers and editors.

    But I also know people —young and old—that know the staff of Patrol and think that you’re going off the rails.

    I recommend that you reevaluate some of the positions you are taking. Talk to some older, mature Christians and ask them to evaluate and critic the work you are doing. The idea that the “old folks don’t get it” is a sign of immaturity.

    I can promise you that Patrol will never deal with a cultural issue that does not have a corollary in previous generations. As someone famous once said (I think it was Bono), “There is nothing new under the sun.”

  2. Joe Carter says:

    Good grief, I can’t believe how many typos I left in that comment. Even if it is 2 AM, it’s embarrassing and inexcusable for someone who gets paid to be an editor to make so many errors.

  3. Jay U says:

    The message seems to have gotten out of focus…

    I don’t know Derek Webb, or any of his music. If he is marketed as a Christian artist, he should probably refrain from that type of language. People buy that stuff for EXPLICIT reasons,, they don’t want to hear the 7 words you can’t say on tv, or urban slang that leads to dancing.

    At the same time, the man is free to say whatever he pleases,,, unless of course you believe that this ONE word will cause him to become a stumbling block to believers…

    I doubt that anyone else really cares…

    On the other hand, this type of wrangling about one word,,, and the freedom of an individual to use it, THAT, is truly annoying (especially to unbelievers like myself).

    This type of legalism appears to be what the editors of Patrol are desperately fighting against.

    In one fell swoop you have attacked their content and the form in which they hope to present it in a legalistic,,, even paternal fashion.

    Nothing grounds intelligent conversation to a halt like that combination.

  4. Joe Carter says:

    On the other hand, this type of wrangling about one word,,, and the freedom of an individual to use it, THAT, is truly annoying (especially to unbelievers like myself).

    But the argument is not about one word (i.e., s***). If it were I wouldn’t have bothered to respond at all. I’ve seen Patrol editors use that word on Twitter so I’m not surprised by their view of that particular word. It’s the broader issue—that the use of profanity, however vulgar is a “non-issue“—that concerns me.

    Besides, this doesn’t even have to be framed as a “Christian issue.” Most civilized adults recognize that there is some language that should not be used in polite society. The fact that Jonathan thinks people shouldn’t swear around his mom shows that he understands this point. What I don’t understand is why he doesn’t tell her to get over such prudishness since there are more important things to be concerned about.

    This type of legalism appears to be what the editors of Patrol are desperately fighting against.

    Every young Christian that has wanted to justify the types of behavior that have historically been discouraged attempts to frame it as a matter of “legalism” (of course, you’re not a believer so this doesn’t apply to you). Sometimes they are right, but more often than not they are applying the concept in the wrong way. I think this the case here, and the history of the church backs me up. There is a broad range between legalism and licentiousness and I truly believe that Patrol is falling for the latter more than I am guilty of the former. They’ve fallen for the “things are different now” excuse that comes around every generation.

    As for the claim that I am being paternalistic, I’ll readily admit to that. I think the arguments presented so far have been childish. I say that not to be dismissive, but because I think it is a fitting description—the arguments are the faulty types that tend to be made by children. The language used may be more advanced, but the editors attempt to justify behavior that their peers approve of—and their parents disapprove of—is the kind of thing you find teenagers doing all the time.

  5. Jay U says:

    As for point one: This is a Christian issue, and has been framed as one throughout this discussion. The original post that spawned this discussion began with the issue of swearing by Mr. Webb and the subsequent use of Christian magazines to defend/attack him and the utility/pointlessness of this act. Unfortunately for your argument, you don’t have to be a Christian to understand legalism. (BTW,I love your journal, and the way it embraces many different but convergent outlooks, but this arrogance on the part of your argumentation tends to diffuse most of the seriousness from your points) From my Jewish perspective, the legalism that you espouse in this case serves to break up the dialogue that magazines such as this one attempt to create. This discussion isn’t intended to take place on a Sunday morning in the Community Bible Church (Berean), or the Evangelical Free one that has 400 high school kids singing praise and worship in the youth service every week(although the latter is where most of these things start).

    Second point: The idea here with Patrol,,, as far as I can tell, is to facilitate conversation among people who are intellectually familiar with the Western Tradition and modern humanistic education, as well as have some (maybe a lot of) grounding in a faith background, in an attempt to reach out to those who are like them,,, more or less, on both sides of what you would probably call the black and white fence of heaven.

    I think that they (the editors of Patrol) still obviously consider this distinction to be worthwhile because it is implicit in their project. This is about the journey between where they were, and where they someday might be, a process you paternally take for granted and bully to be obviously cut and dried. For a lot of people it isn’t though,, both with the big picture issues of faith and also with small issues like swearing. Its about process,,, about becoming. It’s interesting and something that I can relate to in my own life and faith, and it’s why I, and others like me read it.

    I, and others like me, only read your magazine because sometimes you feature Rene Girard. I say this to make a point about readership, and the level that each of the source material attempts to engage the imagination of the culture.

    Speaking of Girard, he talks about some pretty grisly things related to sex. I don’t recall any swear words, but I am sure that he uses frank, sexual, language in a way that illustrates a larger point,, would not swearing (a la Mr. Webb) provide a similar point?

  6. John Wofford says:

    I think the sad part about this discussion is that it’s happening at all. If Mr Carter is correct, and the lean toward swearing is simply an act of immaturity, then so be it. I disagree, but I also don’t care about the issue enough to argue one way or another concerning it. Likewise, if PATROL has its finger on the pulse of evangelical culture, then so be it. If a shift happens, then it will happen regardless of the opinions of pundits – folks like me who scrap out a living attempting to sell our ideas being relevant to the forward motion of the faith.

    I’ve got to reiterate what I’ve already heard, though, and that is that this discussion is of little importance. We will move on eventually to something else, as a faith collective; in preparation for that, many of us have already washed our hands of the discussion.

    That being said, props to both parties for their discussion, which is obviously important to them.

  7. Joe says:

    “In light of this, the mischaracterization that we at Patrol are concerned with what “all the kids are doing,” really is just a low blow …”

    Not at all. The site is, unmistakably, shaped by youth culture, and you guys wear your young relevance on your sleeve. In fact, without it, you would not have a unique niche. And what is Twitter to begin with if it is not simply the embodiment of the concern with what all the kids are doing?

  8. Andy Shafer says:

    For what it’s worth – I’m a 28-year-old Christian, and consider myself pretty (damn? darn?) hip. I’m a Christian, and I own Derek Webb’s Stockholm Syndrome. I think that as far as his album is concerned, his use of the “s-word” is to make a larger point. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. I think that’s a big dividing line in this conversation. Why should or would a Christian pepper their speech with swear words? Is the point to fit in with the society? Is it carelessness? If it’s to fit in with society, that’s a bad reason. If it’s carelessness, that’s also bad. To sound hip is also a bad reason.

    One should always analyze why one does a thing. Far from legalism, a thoughtful Christian should always ask themselves what the consequence of an action might be. Historically, the Church has not done things because that’s what society does. That’s called pragmatism. And just because something is permissible for a Christian, doesn’t make it beneficial. (1 Cor. 10:23)

    PATROL, the article in question did certainly read to me (a trained reporter with a degree in journalism, and a guy with common sense) as if the argument was, “well everyone is doing it. Get with the times.”

    I could say a lot more, but far be it from me to aid in “grinding intelligent conversation to a disturbing halt.”

  9. Jared O says:

    I think that as the “Progressive” or “Emergent” movement evolves, those involved tend to focus more on their personal preferences and interpretations of faith and culture. Although I agree that the church is overly focused, obsessed even, with who’s swearing and who isn’t, Christianity still calls followers of Christ to a higher standard.

    If secular media and movie rating systems still holds “four letter words” as unprofessional, indecent, and not suitable for all audiences, it seems odd that Christians would stray from this cue. If, as a Christian, someone chooses “shit” instead of “crap”, I’m not going to question their salvation, but I will wonder who is, in their mind, watching them day to day. If Jesus appeared before you in all His beauty and power, would you exclaim “holy shit”? I doubt it. He is our “audience of one”, and is who we live our lives before each day. That is “red letter living”, knowing in whose presence you stand and whose ears catch your every word.

    Church, don’t get caught up in who said the “s-word” and question everybody’s salvation, but let’s not allow even simple compromise in our lives all in the name of “focusing on the greater issues of our time.”

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