Or: Why I Don’t Believe In Censorship
The first cuss word I learned was in church at Christmas time. It was during the joyful season, that I found myself singing the timeless classic: “What Child Is This?” I felt as though I understood the hymn well enough (someone was so confused about a baby’s identity, they decided to write four boring stanzas on the topic) but upon arriving at the second verse, I found myself lacking the definition for the animal that was feeding with the ox. Curious, I questioned my parents later that evening and learned that “ass” meant donkey. Simple enough, I suppose. But I later I stumbled upon greater perplexity when my mother had an incredibly abrasive reaction to me calling my sister a donkey. I couldn’t help but think that:
Indeed it wasn’t.
As it turns out, American’s, particularly Evangelicals, have a hard time when it comes to the idea of profanity. In short, we really don’t know what in the hell we’re talking about.
In his book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson lists some odd eccentricities about profanity. For instance, although many cultures do have “profane” words, the diction varies astronomically across culture lines. For instance, “devil” is terribly taboo in Norwegian culture- closely related to our f-bomb. In French, it is terribly insulting to be called a cow or a camel and Bryson notes that among the Xoxa tribe of South Africa the most provocative remark has to do with “your mother’s ears”.
The point that profanity varies across culture should be one to make us think twice of how we deploy both the words themselves and our defenses against them. In an essay titled “What Fundamentalists Need For Their Salvation”, David James Duncan chucklingly recalls an instance when one of his best-selling novels was “censored” by a local “Christian” education board. In this debacle, concerned parents went through his novel and proceeded to black out every instance of “profanity” they deemed “inappropriate”.
In doing so, Duncan noted, they failed miserably. True, they may have alleviated the every toe-stubbing inclusion of “shit!” from the book, but otherwise his main character had been allowed to “piss, puke, and fornicate, to insult door-to-door evangelists and even to misread and reject the Bible with impunity”. In an attempt for “purity” it seemed the censoring board had landed with an ignorant thud on the side of “prudishness”.
This is one of several reasons I’m against censorship. I’m against attempts conducted in a prudish spirit to conform to cultural standards of decency purely for the sake of an unattained idea of the thing. I’m against the butchering of true expression and artistic undertakings on the altar of cultural dictations. I’m against mimicking the actions of Thomas Bowdler, an Edinburgh physician who, in 1818, set about to censor Shakespeare’s works so that nothing which “cannot with propriety be read aloud in the family”. In doing so, he wasted countless hours and brain cells to eventually publish Family Shakespeare, subsequently robbing a generation of children of the actual meaning behind most of Shakespeare’s text. Today, of course, censoring Shakespeare is the last concern of any fundamentalist academic board because
“How?” say you “Can you make this proposition? What of James warnings against the dangers of the tongue? What of Paul’s words (and I quoteth Philippians 4:8) ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…’ What of these calls to decency and destruction of all profanity?”
Yes, yes you make a good point indeed. As Christians we are charged with proclamation of the gospel. We are charged to bear Christ’s image to all corners of creation and when necessary to use words (quoting Francis Assisi). Our voices should, therefore, be filled with words that are pure of heart and pure of tongue. I agree with all of this. What I don’t agree with is fact that we’ve decided to base our idea of purity on the Motion Picture Association of America.
Marilynne Robinson said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that any time we draw a line between the religious and the secular, we’ve lost the idea of religion to begin with. Believe it or not the Bible agrees:
See, we Christians have a tendency to draw a line down the middle of life, to say certain things are sacred and certain things are abominations. And we have done the same with our language. Rather, all of language is to be deemed useful to the glorification of God, not just certain words and inasmuch all language can be used to bring God glory.
Of course, my argument that every four lettered insult and vulgarity could somehow point to a good, gracious, loving and (by the way) poetic God, doesn’t seem to hold much water.
Well, then, consider the Bible.
Anyone who reads the Bible and isn’t struck by it’s frequently profane uses has missed several meanings somewhere. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as a brood of vipers; I can assure you this wasn’t a polite gesture, nor would this phrase have it have been included in any 15 A.D. version of “Finding Nemo” for ancient Jewish children to watch with their Teddy Grahams. In Job 2, the author describes Satan using a phrase we English folk have translated to “skin for skin”, mostly because a literal contextual translation of this would make a sailor blush halfway through “Oh yea? Well go fu-“.
Furthermore, how often do us pious, tight-lipped folk forget that the Song of Solomon, included in our Holy Scriptures, is so X-rated in the original language that Jewish custom held young men could not read it until they were….wait for it….30 years old. Solomon wasn’t talking about cuddling with his beloved, but was describing incredibly explicit and wonderful sexual acts through the muse of magnificent Hebrew poetry. But that’s okay because Solomon was an incredibly honest, faithful and entirely decen-
Throughout the Bible, we see vulgar and despicable language utilized in describing the hypocrisy of Pharisees and giving voice to the heinous nature of the devil. These words all inhabit a narrative, a narrative that points to the glory of God. Likewise, the explicit and frightfully specific sexual language of Song of Solomon (which, by the way, isn’t the only place such language is used) illustrates the depth of beauty and wonder that exists in a sexual relationship, a relationship which also exists as a mirror for the glory of God. Keep in mind that much of the Bible was an oral tradition (as in…all these words were spoken to groups of people, many, many people, many, many times) before it was ever written down. Now there’s food for the thought.
All this said there are certain instances when I do oppose the use of profanity. A speaker in a chapel service I attended once referred to something as being very “shitty”. He even made a point to clearly enunciate the word several times. I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of his chapel speech, I just remember the gasps and
echoing throughout the chapel. Profanity should never be used solely as a means of getting ones attention, just like sexuality should never be used as something provocative. No single word should never be given more attention or draw more criticism than it is due. For this reason, I avoid using profanity when preaching sermons; if the only thing people walk away from my sermon with is the controversy of my swearing, then I haven’t used language to glorify God. I avoid using profanity around elderly folks particularly elderly Christians. They’ve already put up with our generation throwing out their hymnals and moving drum sets into the sanctuary, they’ve already put up with the liturgical reverence being replaced with jeans, baggy sweatshirts and backwards hats one Sunday morning. The older generations have shown their flexibility, I can return the favor, bite my tongue and spare them one less heart attack.
In fact, if we’re going to get technical here (while we’re operating on principle of reading the Bible literally and what-not) then we should regard the most commonly used and excused profanity in a different light. The adjective “damn” commonly converted to the wonderfully adaptive “damnit” literally means to cast damnation upon something. The Bible says clearly (in more than one place but allow me just to share the most vibrant): “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
Why do we regard a four-letter word describing the arduous exchange of sexual relations (although, not nearly as eloquently, extravagantly or explicitly as our good friend Solomon) as more heinous than a word calling down judgment on it’s receiver and thus violating the commands of Christ himself in a hypocritical rage?
Allow me. The answer is because we’ve decided, within our culture, based on our Psuedo- Judaic-Christian roots, that certain words simply are not divine and thus we’ve divided our language (and most of our lives, for that matter) into compartments between the religious and the secular. We’ve decided that our views on what is good to say and what requires a blushful “tsk tsk” will be determined by a society that’s cast about like waves on the shore. We have not decided to let our yes be yes and our no be no, we have not decided that all words can be used to bring God glory (albeit some require more creativity to this ends than others) and we have not decided that we’re open to the idea of the Divine being expressed through uncanny means that are inferior to our own culturally enabled ones.
And while I’m on this soap box, it is worth noting that we are entirely self-deceptive if we think that just excluding certain words from our vocabulary makes us God-glorifying machines. You can tear someone’s humanity from them just as easily with G-rated language as you can with R, as many a censorship board has proven to any author with the audacity to say “shit” in one of their poems. If the Pharisees of Jesus time proved anything to us, it’s that you can talk biblical all the livelong day and still have a heart of black. When the point of prudish language is anything other than the edification of God and/or a member of it’s creation then it’s just as profane any four-letter word used in a porno.
So I apologize, have apologized and seek to continue to apologize for the numerous times in which my words have been something other than glorifying to the Divine. Whether this means the times I scream “goddamnit!!!! $%#$!” after smashing my toe into my bedside, or the G-rated conversations I have with friend berating another person behind their back, the abrupt nature in which I cut someone off in a friendly conversation or even just the lack of sensitivity I sometimes commit in silence. For all these things I constantly seek to apologize and hope I always will.
But I will not apologize for apologizing for being a “shitty person”, for the numerous times when “crappy” or “mean” just doesn’t describe the wrong I’ve done, and I won’t apologize for the honesty to address myself as such. I won’t apologize for the beauty of literature, songs and ballads across the ages, all of which employ words of all shades and meanings to tell and re-tell the narrative of the gospel in our world. I won’t apologize for the poetry of the Bible, in all it’s X-rated glory, the poetry that shines through euphemisms and analogies to bring us the brilliant love between a man and his bride, Christ and His church.
Furthermore, I will not apologize for seeing a sun set over a placid ocean surface, of seeing brilliant rays dive through molecules of water we call “clouds” and burst forth into a million different shades of orange, pink and purple before my eyes. I will not apologize for seeing this majesty and proclaiming in awe-filled wonder that it beats the hell, literally beats the presence of anything evil heinous and life-sucking, straight out of the surrounding landscape.
Profane words, like everything else in creation, have a role to play. Like everything else in our spheres of being, they can be cloaked with grace and used to narrate the antagonism of the world and even, in some ways, the actions of the Divine. Just like the rest of culture, language does not have a dividing line between the sacred and the secular, because, as Augustine said “all good is God’s good”. And at the end of time there will be some very profound profanity utilized to tell the story that (literally) sings the praises of Him who redeemed it all.
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