19 May 2006

Some thoughts on bad language

by Phil Johnson

This subject has been batted around the blogosphere for as long as I can remember. Ever since I began blogging, I have been planning to comment on it eventually.

Recently, heated discussions about the impropriety of vulgar language in the mouths (and blogs) of Christians have been provoked by episodes on two of my favorite blogs—one being a protracted comment-thread several days ago on our own Frank Turk's blog, and the other being a widely-discussed post at Challies.com today.

Where should we draw the line in deciding what language is appropriate or inappropriate for Christians, especially in a public context like a book or a blog or a sermon, when the whole world might be listening?

Here are some points I want to make clear:

  1. It's hard to be perfectly consistent on this question, because so much about it is inherently subjective. What's profanity in Hindi doesn't offend my ears at all, because it evokes no meaning in my mind. For that matter, certain English words that have no evil connotations throughout the Commonwealth are jarringly offensive here in America, and vice versa. (The late, greatly beloved founder of our ministry's New Zealand branch used to plead with me to try to convince our pastor not to use the word bum to describe a drunken derelict, because that word was simply not used for any reason in polite society by Kiwis from his generation. There's a totally innocuous British expression meaning "stay cheerful" that probably shouldn't be used in mixed company in America. I'd go on giving examples, but I don't want to offend anyone unnecessarily.)
  2. Nonetheless, we ought to aim at matching our words to our profession of faith. One of the World's Great Powerbloggers accused me of gross hypocrisy a couple of days ago for supposedly winking at Frank Turk's use of an earthy two-syllable Saxon expression. Powerblogger claimed I was being inconsistent with my own policy because I "didn't de-link him." But in point of fact, I did not link to that episode at Frank's blog for the very same reason I haven't linked to other posts elsewhere that have used PG-13 language. The reason I didn't comment publicly about Frank's use of the expletive when it happened is that I was quite literally in a plane on my way home from Europe on the day it happened, and I didn't catch up with the blogosphere until the whole thing was well and truly over. By then Frank had already apologized and spent his time in the penalty box. But he did apologize. And I resolved to post about "bad language" as soon as an opportunity presented itself. So here we are. There's no apathetic double standard here. We're going to try to keep it that way. (Note: Although I once refused to link to a post with an offensive expression at the Whimpering Nexus of the Intellectual Universe, I haven't totally de-linked them, either. Yet.)
  3. Dirty language and casual cussing seems to be a besetting sin in the "Emerging Church" movement. I don't know if it's a generational thing, a cultural thing, one of the ramifications of the blithe worldliness that pervades the philosophy behind the "Emerging Church," or all of the above. But I listened to the first few podcasts from Emergent, and I was floored by how freely vulgar language and "mild" profanity flows in the so-called "Emerging Conversation." "Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:10).
  4. I heartily affirm everything Daniel at Doulogos said about this issue. The comments in reply to that simple post show how volatile the issue is, and how recalcitrant some Christians these days can be in defending their indefensible use of bad language. Ditto for the comments at Challies today. (Here's an issue where I think we would all do well to listen to what Carla, Kim, and the majority of the homeschool moms are trying to tell us.)
  5. The Bible isn't all that confusing in what it says about this issue. In the comments at Challies today, several commenters pointed out that the Bible contains some language that would not be deemed polite for public reading under most normal circumstances. Others seemed to be suggesting that if there's no convenient set of rules or list of disapproved words in the Bible, pretty much anything short of taking God's name in vain is OK. Granted that the Bible records some instances of indelicate language, and there are a few occasions when godly men—including Paul, Elijah, and Ezekiel—used some shockingly graphic lowbrow imagery. But it's not true that Scripture is utterly devoid of any restrictions on the use of coarse language.
  6. Ephesians 5:3-4, for example, was cited by several commenters (and summarily dismissed by several others) at Challies today. That passage and its cross-references do establish a clear, albeit subjective, principle governing the use of coarse, vulgar, and filthy language: "But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks." The Greek expressions for "filthiness . . . foolish talking . . . coarse jesting" are speaking of exactly the same kind of language your mother used to wash your mouth out with soap for. Check any lexicon. It's a pretty sweeping prohibition against every kind of "bad" words. See also Ephesians 4:29.
  7. Granted, there's no banned-word list, and based on Scripture's own example, the prohibition against the mere mention of fornication is not as absolute as a woodenly-literal reading of that text might suggest.
  8. What's more, all of us are guilty of violating the standard these commandments give us. We do it all the time. In practical terms, it's impossible for us not to sin in this. "We all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man" (James 3:2).
  9. Nonetheless, Ephesians 5:3-4 means something, and it's worth pondering carefully. When we have an admittedly subjective commandment like this, that's not a warrant to push the envelope and see how close to impropriety we can come, especially for the sheer shock value of being heard. Rather, it's a good time to exercise extreme caution and stay as far away as possible from whatever is obviously in bad taste—perhaps even what is merely questionable.
  10. Finally, for those who always insist that absolute guidelines or rules written in black and white are necessary to make sense of (or practically apply) a principle like that of Ephesians 4:29, I can't help you. Just keep your coarse and filthy words off my blog.
Phil's signature PS:To save unnecessary comments, let me anticipate and address two arguments the pro-vulgarity lobby always makes:
  1. Are these biblical commands really concerned with words, or is this about attitudes and ideas? Both. Colossians 3:8 is expressly concerned with what kind of words we use. Ditto with Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4.
  2. Why are some words deemed taboo when an exact synonym might be perfectly acceptable in mixed company? The question has interested me for a long time. I work with words for a living, so I think about language a lot. The distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable words are admittedly hard to account for. But I still think there are good reasons to recognize and respect the boundaries civilized society places on language. For one thing, it affects our testimony. That alone should be sufficient reason for Christians to honor the distinction between bad words and their more socially-acceptable substitutes. After all, the fact that Paul bans "filthy language" in Colossians 3:8 without giving a banned-word list or any further guidelines suggests that he was expecting them simply to follow whatever convention was recognized in the polite society of that time. Again, there is a measure of subjectivity here. But that's no reason to throw out the principle altogether.

78 comments:

Carla said...

Phil,

I just spent the last several hours discussing this, in various formats - then came over here to see this.

It is so incredibly refreshing to see a brother stand up & speak out against this, that whenever I see it I sure appreciate it.

I know there were several (I haven't been back in hours) on the Challies thread that took a bit of flak for their stand, I sure appreciate them too.

So anyway, thank you for this.

SDG... Carla

Kent Brandenburg said...

I agree.

Stephen Dunning said...

It seems to me that Christians all too often want to get as close to the line as they can (and sometimes end up stepping over it). Thus some will use language that they feel is okay, but is as near to the world's use of language as they can get away with. It is the same with young people who are dating - the question is, How far can we go?

Surely the biblical perspective is to flee from immorality and not to give people even a mistaken belief that we have gone wrong (Eg: 2 Tim 2:22; 1 Th 5:22 (AV); Ro 12:17).

All things may be permissable, but not all things are helpful.

Larry said...

Well said Phil ... on all 10 (or 12) points. The emerging church's fascination with profanity and coarse language is disturbing. Fortunately, I did hear one of them recently say that he had changed and thought that in years to come many would regret things that they had said. I hope so.

Dr Thomas said...

Douglas wilson has some great comments on this topic. This post:

http://dougwils.com/index.asp?Action=Anchor&CategoryID=1&BlogID=1516

covers how teens dress as well but its pretty funny so I posted it.

Jerry Wragg said...

Great thoughts Phil! On those who defend their use of vulgar or questionable language...
(1) Why do they set limits upon their children and children's closest friends?
(2) Why do they ardently defend a practice so easily replaced with an endless array of alternative words?
(3) Why do they limit themselves in various contexts?
(4) Why is potential confusion (as these comment threads reveal) not enough to deter them from exercising this "freedom"?
(5) Why do they not defend the biblical principle of sacrificial love with equal passion?

For these and several other conundrums I remain perplexed as to the use of, and facination with, vulgarity on the part of Christians. A simple study of our American heritage will reveal clearer distinctions across social classes (though not all words are of equal question). Christians should'nt be the one's pushing the envelope of sensibility, on any "gray" issue (the precise points being made in Romans 14 and Ephesians 5:3-20, to say nothing of 1 Peter 2:12,16; 3:16-17). We are to live "excellent" lives, able at the very least to defend our behavior with biblical clarity. If our only defense is a sophomoric "there's no verse that says I can't"...then the soil of immoderacy and compromise has not only been tilled but seeded and cultivated.

David B. Hewitt said...

Phil,

This was well done and I think needed. I've read a few things Carla has said about it on her blog before, and was in hearty agreement. As she was, I too am thrilled to see you taking this one. I plan to link to this article!

SDG,
Dave

wordsmith said...

The other day I was getting something at the gas station, and the guy ahead of me used "colorful" language. He then realized my presence behind him, and immediately offered an apology ("Pardon my French.") Now, this fellow was a redneck of sorts - think: holey Harley shirt, somewhat unshaved, etc. - but he recognized the impropriety of swearing in front of the fairer sex. Why is it, then, that this unregenerate man had sense enough to admit that his choice of words was poor and offensive, while some who call themselves "Christian" would evidently seek to defend their vocabulary, were they to find themselves in a similar situation?

The Clinging Vine said...

Excellent post, Phil! And the comments are also valuable, with my favorite being this from Jerry:

We are to live "excellent" lives, able at the very least to defend our behavior with biblical clarity. If our only defense is a sophomoric "there's no verse that says I can't"...then the soil of immoderacy and compromise has not only been tilled but seeded and cultivated.

Brilliantly expressed, dear sir. ;^)

Anne

artfling said...

Phil, As to why some words are taboo and others are considered ok for polite society is hard to say, but with many of them I think it has something to do with sound. The taboo words are roughly onomatopoetic. This doesn't account for all of them. The words which are euphemisms for body parts seem to in some way make a reference to an animal and maybe were originally vulgar because of this. I happen to be a seventh grade English teacher, so I have done some thinking about this! But this is still just speculation. I haven't researched it. Hey, sounds like a great research paper for some of my students! ;)

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

Thanks Phil. I've often argued those points with the Emerging Church people, and I've even heard things from them like:

"Today the F-bomb has been redefined to be something different than it was a few decades ago, it's become culturally acceptable". Another EC guys says that use of such words enhances our ability to address the culture, and improves evangelism. Wow!!!!

artfling said...

One reason I think this has become an issue, at least in the Christian circles which I inhabit, is because men are attempting to learn how to become men again. Our churches have become feminized and many men feel that there is no place for a man in them. Many people have been waking up to this reality and as they try to figure out what it means to be masculine, will overcompensate. Is this sin? Yes. It still is. So lets point it out, but certainly not crucify a brother. For as Phil alluded to James, "We all stumble in many ways, if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well."

Mike Y said...

Phil,

Thanks for this post, as difficult a topic as it is to discsuss and justify.

When I was studying Greek, one of the first books I had to parse was Colossians where I came across this verse in 4:6.

"Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man."

I can also recall being told early in my Christian walk that profanity was nothing more than a feeble mind trying to express itself forcibly.

This struck me hard as an ex-sailor who used to pride himself on being able to string explitives together in such an artful manner.

However, when I got saved, certain things instinctively became wrong. I didn't have to sit through a class to be told not to cuss. The change came the very same day and through the Holy Spirit, I believe.

Despite this, there are times I struggle to convey things to my audience at work. If I find myself failing at it, I might adopt their expressions to make the point clear. It's a perfect example of the above definition. And it's wrong. I realize it's wrong almost immediately after it's uttered. And as the guilt and conviction sets in, I invariably find myself making apology for my un-Christian tone or language. In the end, I think it's actually the apology, which is the most affecting on them. Why would I apologize for speaking their way? And why would I violate such conscience to make the painful point.

Please understand, I'm not trying to justify my past deeds. I consider this to be the deeds of the flesh and in much need of mortification.

And to those who wish to justify and excuse such practice, while it may be lawful, it's not at all expedient.

Thanks again for the reminder, rebuke and encouragement.

-Mike

Nutria Boy said...

Phil,

This is well done brother and I agree with you 100%.

Ministering among Cajun bohemians gives me a looseness verbally that many cultures don't see, yet I have to guard the tongue perhaps even more so since I'm not always speaking in that context.

donsands said...

Excellent post. And fine comments. Very good stuff to read.

I thank the Lord that when He saved me, and changed my heart, He basically took my foul langauge from me. I used to say all the four letter words, but when I became a regenerated follower of Christ, that all changed quite quickly. I still have slipped on occasion, usually when I become impatient, or angry, but I am always convicted.

"Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You." Psalm 51:13

4given said...

Good point wordsmith.

artfling said: "men are attempting to learn how to become men again"

by being vulgar??? ummm.... I think not. Men are naturally vulgar, and so are women for that matter. Just like we are not naturally children of God and have to be adopted into the Kingdom of God... we are not naturally pure in our thoughts and must have our minds renewed daily through the Word of God.

It used to scare me a bit to address you in your blog, but this was an excellent post, Mr. Johnson. (And people don't scare me anymore. I don't have energy to waste on that... God, however, I fear appropriately)...
:-)

Nutria Boy said...

An additional comment -

After reading the references to the fluidity of meaning and the subjectiveness of certain language and words I wanted to bring up what Noah Webster and others have said about usuage. We tend to think that the dictionary is a list of objective meanings, but think a minute. Some meanings are fluid through the conduit of use.

Notice that words tend to have not just one meaning but many meanings when you look them up and you have to take into account context etc. in order to accurately understand. Webster believed that words if used enough by enough people would change and infact man can invent new words if used often - eg. diss.

So don't diss the subjectivity arguments while at the same token certain words remain more objective. It is a mixed bag that we must handle carefully.

For addtional reading on this topic check out Ludwig Wittgenstein and Noam Chomsky. Their modern work in languages is good and will help you think more fully in these realms.

Bring your aspirin though. ;)

Hooser said...

I am reading a book by Calvin Seerveld, a Christian philosopher of aesthetics, in which he touches on this issue. He begins by explaining how he communicates the evil of swearing to his children by 'telling them what a blessing it is to not be caught in that habit of empty speech; whether it be in the locker room or formalistically mouthed prayers.' He goes on to describe swearing as 'verbal farting'. I think that is an apt description. It is a sign that one has 'poor grammar and no mastery of syntax, no colour to his vocabulary,..one has no control, no depth, no persuasive power to his language.' He finally ends his discussion of it with this powerful image. 'Dirty and God-damning talk is terribly destructive. But that is not "strong language" any more than rape is passionate love'
(Quotes Taken from "Rainbows for the Fallen World" by Calvin Seerveld)

Your thoughts?

chamblee54 said...

Thank you for your comments about language.
This is a subject that has interested me for a while. It is interesting to see a biblical reference to back up your squeamishness at cusswords.
I would like point out a word that offend me. I have been shouted down, humiliated, and threatened "in his name".
This word has been used to hurt me.
This word is a source of misery to me.
Many of the believers in this word are hateful, angry people, and this word is stained with their anger.
This word has been thoroughly profaned to me.
The word is Jesus.

Carla said...

wordsmith said:

"Why is it, then, that this unregenerate man had sense enough to admit that his choice of words was poor and offensive, while some who call themselves "Christian" would evidently seek to defend their vocabulary, were they to find themselves in a similar situation?"

That's an excellent question and one that I think would be best answered by good old fashioned common courtesy.

Why some professing Christians don't seem to "get" this, is not as easy to explain away for me.

Nutria boy...

hey, long time no see brother. :o)
You have a good point as well, re: cultural context, and due to a conversation last evening with a friend, I've thought a lot about that today. Interestingly enough, I believe common courtesy applies there as well.

Now, if someone will please explain to me why some Christians don't understand this (and I'm not talking about new believers here), then I'd sure appreciate that.

I shudder to think what would happen if some of these men spoke this way in front of my grandmother. She has a bar of soap and has never been afraid to use it. ;o)

Kim said...

Very well said, Phil.

My mother, not a Christian, used to hear this cry from my older brothers when they chose to use certain words she found unbearable:

"But it's just a word!"

To which my mother would say:

"If it's just a word, why not use another?"

I like this part the best:

Ephesians 5:3-4 means something, and it's worth pondering carefully

A small section to ponder over, but with a lot to say.

theinscrutableone said...

For my part, I wonder how much of the profanity that's allegedly necessary or useful would be necessary if we were to control our tongues on a day-to-day basis.

Personally, I've had little inclination towards coarse language (although I've been known to speak in anger), so people have become accustomed to fairly civilized talk from me. Whenever possible, I try to give others the benefit of the doubt, and in case of disagreements regarding matters of indifference (as opposed to matters plainly discussed in Scripture), I don't mind submitting to other's wishes. Therefore, when I do have the occasion to take a stand, I find that all I have to do to get people to sit and take notice is say something like "I'm sorry, but that's just not acceptable, and here's why." Even though I haven't spoken a coarse word or raised my voice to a loud volume, the mere fact that I've spoken with greater firmness than usual is enough to communicate that I really mean business.

With this type of experience in mind, I just have to wonder why it is that people--especially Christians--think it's necessary to curse like the proverbial sailor. Perhaps if we were to diligently guard our tongues as we deal with our family, friends, and neighbors, we wouldn't need to cuss or shout to get their attention.

Dave

4given said...

someone with a really long name said: "I find that all I have to do to get people to sit and take notice is say something like "I'm sorry, but that's just not acceptable, and here's why." Even though I haven't spoken a coarse word or raised my voice to a loud volume, the mere fact that I've spoken with greater firmness than usual is enough to communicate that I really mean business."

This describes my husband, it describes his grandfather... and is something this long-winded woman aspires to be like.

Gummby said...

I wonder if the Super Blogger took the time to read the comments on Frank's blog, where even some of us regulars took issue with the excretory verbiage. Of course, you're a much bigger target, and the "double-standard hypocrite" story plays a lot better to the 'sphere.

With regard to the Driscoll quotes from Tim's blog, I will just say this: what Driscoll said went beyond mere profanity to utter vulgarity. Perhaps the real issue here is a lack of maturity with regard to taming the tongue. In any case, call me a prude, but I just can't see how having a pastor who sounds like he could have just stepped out of a South Park episode is a good thing.

Rev. Scott Welch said...

Phil,

Thank you for taking the courage to post this. I am having a hard time finding people who aren't skirting around this issue.

jared said...

I wonder if the Super Blogger took the time to read the comments on Frank's blog, where even some of us regulars took issue with the excretory verbiage.

I did.

Of course, you're a much bigger target, and the "double-standard hypocrite" story plays a lot better to the 'sphere.

If I'd wanted to target Phil and play a story to 'sphere, I would have a) put my comments in a post on my blog rather than a comment on someone else's, and/or b) named Phil as the blogger I was referring to. But I did neither, as it wasn't my intention to "target" Phil, but to share a personal disappointment I thought relevant to the host blogger's post. I named neither Frank nor Phil because who was involved was not as relevant, in my opinion, as what happened.
And I still stand by my comment.

But in all seriousness, I do think this post of Phil's is very good (minus the jabs at me and mine of course ;-), and I have linked to it favorably in an actual post at Thinklings.

ct said...
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ct said...
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Kim said...

Lisa:

You said: "It used to scare me a bit to address you in your blog."

I used to be scared to comment (and I won't on the deeper issues; after all, what I possibly have to add? But I'm not so nervous about it anymore. Phil's a very gracious person - and I'm not just saying that to get brownie points.

silas jones said...

One comment to perhaps add to the noise, and I hope this is fresh and hasn't already been mentioned (and thus becomes annoying).

I object to saying that we should "respect the boundaries civilized society places on language", simply because we are living in a society whose foundation lies in Christianity - not in some outside system of morals. The reason people object to cussing in society is because of its Christian roots, not because there is some secular moral that deems it inappropriate (aside from not wanting to meet up with abrasive people when they use language like that.)

To say that civilized society placed these bounds on us is ridiculous - civilized society is where these words originated and were used perfectly well in context, and there are people who have used them wrongly by using them so often and in such a manner that they have lost any original meaning they had - which is a shame, and it's a shame that we reject the cultural history of "cuss" words because of their modern use. That goes contrary to any sort of wisdom - we do not reject things that were perceived as good and now are not - rether, we reject things that were perceived as good and are not actually good.

Words are a subjective ground, and we can easily change our consideration of them, which completely defuses anything that might be problematic about them.

donsands said...

silas jones,

"Words are a subjective ground"

Could you expound on what you mean by this?
I thought words were an objective ground.

Jeff Voegtlin said...

Do you all think any of these principles could be applied to the language of music? Or should we only think in terms of word languages? Can any medium of musical language be used so long as the message being related is acceptable? Or should we be concerned that the message of the music we use is inconsistent with the message of the text.

I agree with the ideas here that the choice of our words can send a different message than what we are trying to convey. Do you all think that could apply to other modes of communication such as music, art, etc.?

ct said...
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ct said...
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wordsmith said...

fwiw, I wasn't making "holey shirts" the basis for categorizing someone as "unregenerate" - rather, I recall reading that "by their fruits ye shall know them," so if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck....Of course the Lord alone knows the heart, but the Lord also said "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." Frankly, I saw no basis for assuming that the fellow was regenerate.

As for ct's other comments - nice to see the ad hominems trotted out to prop up such feeble argumentation. Truly, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

The issue is not the "feminization" of the church (for which we have Finney to thank, btw) - rather, it is the purity of the church. We are called to be holy even as He is holy, and by no stretch of the imagination can anyone say that using coarse, vulgar, and/or offensive language is part of being holy. Why should the Bride of Christ be talking like a streetwalker?

Jeff Voegtlin said...

Who's ct talking to? If you want to call that talking.

Michelle said...

"The reason people object to cussing in society is because of its Christian roots, not because there is some secular moral that deems it inappropriate (aside from not wanting to meet up with abrasive people when they use language like that.)"

This sounds good, but doesn't appear to bear out when we consider taboo words in other cultures without a Christian history. Moreoever, even in our own culture, as has already been noted, synonyms of perfectly acceptable words are considered inappropriate in polite, God-honoring discourse. There's not a whole lot of explanation for how one word becomes taboo while the other remains or becomes acceptable. It just happens. Isaiah 36:12 in KJV contains language coarse even in its day, but the offensiveness is considerably greater today than it was in Elizabethan English. I don't think it's because we are a more moral society. If you're interested, see

Weeds inthe Garden of Words by Kate Burridge

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

A History of the English Language by Baugh and Cable

You also cannot go wrong with a good prescriptivist dictionary like the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). It has all the bad words in it, complete with an evaluation of how they are received in American society. Very telling (we're more conservative than you might think).

For a Christian perspective, you might find Gene Veith's Reading Between the Lines to be of interest as well.

I do think that when a pagan reacts to coarse or vulgar language (as you see in the AHD), it reveals an innate sense of morality and spiritual awareness. Although an unsaved person will not be able to articulate that the f-word is profane because it treats as common something God has called holy, he still is aware that there is something unwholesome about how the word is usually used.

What is interesting to me is the observation that the emerging church appears to reject the objective standard of appropriateness for language. This is not significantly different than what you hear many linguists offering when they conclude "Since language changes, we should place little or no restrictions on language use." For awhile I've been thinking on this postmodern position and its implication for a believer.

While I do not deny that language does indeed change, and I acknowledge that what is acceptable today may not be acceptable in the coming generation, I do not believe it necessarily follows that we should not insist on precision, grace, and an awareness of how our communication furthers or distracts from our role as ambassadors of Christ.

Michelle

Phil Johnson said...

Michelle: good book recommendations. Especially Bryson's The Mother Tongue, which is one of my all-time favorite books and certainly my number-one favorite book on language. (And I collect books on language.) Bryson does as good a job as anyone I know of trying to explain why Saxon words are deemed lowbrow and vulgar while their Latin synonymns are not.

In the end, however, (as you correctly say) there sometimes seems to be no reason whatsoever why one word is deemed offensive and shocking and an exact synonymn is OK.

But Moms always seem to know the difference intuitively. I've never gotten in any trouble limiting my vocabulary to words my Mom approves of. That has proved a simple and prudent rule of thumb.

The Clinging Vine said...

But Moms always seem to know the difference intuitively. I've never gotten in any trouble limiting my vocabulary to words my Mom approves of. That has proved a simple and prudent rule of thumb.

Words to live by, Phil. Words to live by. ;^)

I second the thanks for the book recommendations, Michelle, and your observation regarding postmodernism possibly providing the impetus for today's imprecision of language (eg. "impact" used as a verb) is intriguing.

Anne

Michelle said...

Phil,

I just read the Challies post and subsequent comments last night.

Do you have the same problem with Driscol and others using coarse language (not profane) from the pulpit as you would have with the same language in a counseling session with someone living a coarse and profane lifestyle?

I guess I do see the connection between the Bible using strong language when speaking of the God's abhorrence for sin and its destructiveness, and a pastor using it to counteract society's tendency to sugarcoat "social illnesses."

While I am uncomfortable using vulgar language merely as shock value in the pulpit (because it's a powerful weapon to be using indiscriminately among your congregation or audience), I don't have the same problem with the specific example that Challies gives that everyone else did. To some degree, it seems consistent with the biblical use of strong language. (although I agree with others that the actual substance of his response was weak.)
I didn't see any satisfactory response to the use of coarse language in Scripture, but I could have missed it.

Michelle

Carla said...

I had another conversation about this topic last night, and I guess I'm a little more than frustrated, and a lot more thin skinned on this topic than I realized.

It seems to be the opinion of many that you must first know (have a working understanding of language origins, cultural/societal influences, etc.) why language is what it is, before you will be taken seriously in your viewpoint that cussing/swearing/vulgar/obscene/profane speech is just wrong for a Christian.

I suppose it would certainly help your argument if you did have an education in these things, but it would appear that for those of us that do not, the "Mom Factor" is just pushed aside as if we don't know what we're talking about.

That part is very frustrating. If we know the grass is green but can't explain why it's green, does that mean we have an ineffective argument when we strongly express that the grass is green? To many, yes!

The more I consider this subject, the more it appears to me that Christians who cuss & swear are just copping out. All the excuses and reasons in the world for speaking just like the world just don't wash with me. (Not that I'm anyone's judge, they just don't ring true to me). They sound like excuses for using filthy language because they just want to use it. Then when called on it, they come up with all sorts of philosophical viewpoints to justify using the very language that Scripture says we're to avoid.

It's been argued all weekend, in various formats (blogs, chats, email, forums) that Jesus and Paul used vulgar, offensive language to make their points. I find that a most bizarre claim. Where is it in Scripture?? I can't find it.

I apologize in advance for the lengthy comment on this, but I must say I greatly appreciate the brothers and sisters that have spoken up about this over the last 48 hours (in various places) and exhorted us all to aim higher than the demeaning, awful language of the world.

Folks can very effectively make a point, without ever once using a derogatory, demeaning, slang word or phrase.

SDG... Carla

chamblee54 said...

“It's been argued all weekend, in various formats (blogs, chats, email, forums) that Jesus and Paul used vulgar, offensive language to make their points. I find that a most bizarre claim. Where is it in Scripture?? I can't find it.”

Good grief. Even if you accept the bible as the inerrant word of god , it is not a complete transcript of everything jesus ever said. Maybe the Council of Nicea decided to delete expletives from the “red letter words”.
One more opinion and I will leave you alone (for now). When you use bad language, you are giving people an excuse to ignore your message. They can cheerfully complain about the cusswords you said, and ignore the point you were trying to make.

Jabbok said...

It's a common phrase but I've not seen where anyone has used it yet.

I first heard the phrase in my very first college class. I was attending a Baptist college, I was in my first semester and my first class was Introduction to the New Testament. The professor walked into the room and the first thing out of his mouth was:

"Profanity is the vain attempt of a shallow mind to express itself forcefully."

I don't remember what prompted him to say that but it has always stuck with me.

donsands said...

"it is not a complete transcript of everything Jesus ever said"

So your assuming the Lord spoke vulgar words, because ...?


I do believe the Lord Jesus said many offensive things. He said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. He said to the Jewish leaders that their father wasn't God, but the devil.
And many other things He said that were an offense to those whom hated the Christ and the truth.
Even the Apostles said to the Lord, that He was offending the Pharisees. Jesus' reply was that all those whom the Father has not planted will be plucked up by the roots.
Did the Lord use offensive, vulgar, and ungodly words? No way. Carla is right on.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Phil,

"I abhor myself and repent in sackcloth and ashes."

Thank you.

4given said...

Carla wrote: "Folks can very effectively make a point, without ever once using a derogatory, demeaning, slang word or phrase."

Yep. And you just did that... and so did Mr. Johnson, and a whole host of other people that are anti-filthy-mouth for the sake of our holy Lord. NOT for the sake of being holier than thou.

Bill said...

chamblee54 said When you use bad language, you are giving people an excuse to ignore your message. They can cheerfully complain about the cusswords you said, and ignore the point you were trying to make.

Exactly. And that's why the potty-mouth crowd should avoid it, if they want people to listen to them, even though that's NOT the chief reason to avoid it!

jabbok quoted:
"Profanity is the vain attempt of a shallow mind to express itself forcefully."


Yup, that's the point I tried to make over at Challies-land.

What I find astonishing is the extent to which the potty-mouth crowd wants to defend this behavior. The fruits of the spirit are reflected through our communication, and language is a primary display of how the Spirit is acting (or not) in a person.

That said, this affects me personally. I have a fairly hot temper and am prone to say words that I shouldn't. For me, such language is a case of "causing a brother to stumble". This is a sin that I struggle with - one that is rooted in my pre-Christian lifestyle. Like most sins, it is one that I am aware of and trying to repent of. It's one of the more stubborn ones for me.

Foul language is wrong and it's indefensible.

----
bill

Jeremy Felden said...

Gummby said:
With regard to the Driscoll quotes from Tim's blog, I will just say this: what Driscoll said went beyond mere profanity to utter vulgarity.

I think you got that one the wrong way round. I would much rather hear lowbrow synonyms for excrement than the name of our Lord profaned.

chamblee54 said...

"Profanity offers a measure of relief denied even to prayer" Mark Twain

Michelle said...

Carla,

I realize you have no way of knowing my discomfort with vulgarity (that is, words referring to excrement or intercourse). Please understand I am not advocating the wholesale use of filthy language. Neither do I believe that one must have a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of language and its history in order to discern appropriate speech. At the same time, studying this issue in the Bible has challenged some of my assumptions regarding vulgarity and profanity.

Here are some examples you can research. I found it helpful to look at the notes in the ESV and the NET Bible. When I look at the KJV that I usually read, the meaning is there, even if the language is occasionally obscure at times.

Isaiah 36:12 (Rabshakeh)
Isaiah 64:6 (filthy rags)
I Samuel 26:22 (this "offensive" phrase occurs a number of times if you care to search for it)
Ezekiel 16, in particular vss. 25,26
Ezekiel 23, in particular vss. 3, 20

A helpful question to ask is, What is God's purpose in using what most people would call vulgarity? Does the Bible use vulgarity flippantly or profanely, or do we rightly revolt at its use? These passages, particularly the ones in Ezekiel, are sobering. If we could see our own sinfulness with this level of disgust, how might our lives change?

Most people's use of vulgarity doesn't even come close to mirroring these circumstance in the Bible. The excerpt from Driscol's book appears as close as I've seen to the way the Bible uses vulgarity.

I hope this is helpful for you in understanding where I am coming from. Again, I'm not defending the flippant use of vulgar words. I'm simply questioning, based on what I see in the Bible, whether there are not legitimate uses for strong language such as this.

Michelle

p.s. Net Bible: http://www.bible.org/netbible/index.htm

Bible Gateway.com has the ESV and other versions: http://www.biblegateway.com

Rev. Scott Welch said...

My wife had a very helpful insight, especially to how Driscoll handled the young man who called in the middle the night. It is very edifying to compare that method with how Nathan the prophet handled David. Really stark constrast I think.

centuri0n said...

OK -- I have read the comments in this thread (and of course Phil's initial charitable words on this subject) with some interest, and I have some things I need to get off my chest:

(1) As I said when I was caught red-handed using the 8-letter name of the product of the hinderparts of the bovine male, there's no way around the fact that this word is, for better or worse, cussin'. You can't avoid it. And if I had to give advice to anyone who thought they ought to employ it personally, I'd advise against it.

The real question, of course, is "why?" Should we be asking: is there a flow chart we can post that has 7 reliable outcomes and only one of them results in the morally-acceptable use of the word which I will here anagram as "BUST HILL"?

The answer to that question is not "no, there is no such chart", but "No, that's not the way to make this moral decision."

(2) That leads me to my next point, which is that we are missing the point by a good bit when we try to invent or perceive Rube Goldberg moral reasoning machines for actual moral reasoning. Do you know that the reason we ought not to use words like the anagram for "STILL HUB" is not that the words themselves are somehow evil but that the heart behind them is corrupt?

The cuss word code-named: "BILL SUTH" reveals sinful anger in one's heart. And in the few imaginable situations in which it does not do such a thing, why take the chance that it will be mistaken for such a thing?

(3) And that's where point (3) comes from: using the word here anagrammed "TUB SHILL" -- or any of its cousins -- to establish street cred is itself a significant pile of "STILL HUB". Trying to be all things to all people does not include being exactly like those people in speech and hobbies so as to trick them into listening to you the 5% of the time you crack open a Bible in their presence and slip the 200-proof Gospel of Jesus Christ in between beers. Or whatever.

Listen: I grew up using that word -- and far more colorful explitives -- as if they were just like other words, and as if using them is just like using words like "incredulous", "inexplicable", and "rubbish". However, the truth is that only people who cannot verbally find the hinder-side of the bovine male with Roget's and Webster's Thesauri and two research assistants use those words that carelessly. And unless you want to be one of those careless people, you shouldn't use those words, either.

And that includes Pastors who think that they are more real or authentic because they can implement "THILL BUS" without either a bull or a shovel. And it includes me, too.

Larry said...

Now that the original conversation over at Challies has been closed, I wonder if anyone will take Tim and David to task for encouraging the use of profanity in the final post.

It did make me laugh to see that at the end of the discussion. It must have been some kind of freudian slip. Ironic ... but hilarious.

Will David get the same treatment that Driscoll did?

4given said...

Centuri0n... you are classic. unique. Sometimes, you think so deep, my head spins. Sometimes you can be a bit weird, but then creatively hilarious (your comment in this thred for example) ... no wonder people jump at your defense when people jump down your throat... and to all those ridiculous people that decided to jump into un-linking you or do the "I'm outta here" threat (and yet, keep coming back)... or even those who jumped into de-linking Challies (though I think he made a huge mistake in posting those vulgar illustrations) ... get over it.
Forgive me for going on (the curse of a long-winded woman). But it amazes me that this is even a dispute among Christians. Aaaaah!!! (screaming into pillow again).

ThirstyDavid said...

It did make me laugh to see that at the end of the discussion. It must have been some kind of freudian slip. Ironic ... but hilarious.

No, Larry, that was no slip. That was my somewhat dubious sense of humor peeking out from under its rock.

Carla said...

Um... Frank? Brother dear? Oh pal 'o mine??

You do realize clicking on Tub Shill from your post today at your blog, sends readers directly to my picture here at the first comment?

Yeah yeah I know, you were directing readers to the comment thread, not my picture. I hope?!

I have to go now and photoshop a big paper sack over my head, just in case this happens again.
_________

Michelle,

based on your response it's clear that you might have thought I was talking about you specifically, and I just wanted to assure you that I was not. I was ranting, more or less, in regards to the dismissive approach some folks seem to take with us less educated (on this topic) folks. I had just ended my participation in a conversation like this, when I posted that here.

Okay... about that paper sack...

Daniel said...

What a refreshing post!

It is good to go after the big rocks - but the little pebbles in our shoes can stop our progress just as surely as the boulder that blocks our path.

Great post Phil.

4given said...

Okay... GREAT!!! I am now getting e-mails from people who made the un-linking, outta here comments. If you think I actually specifically remembered who you are, please know that up until you e-mailed me, I didn't. Remember not to take things personally... unless the Lord is convicting you of sin. And please do not waste my time with your e-mails. I would much rather discuss sound doctrine than go on and on and on and on and on and on about defending why I wrote what I wrote. I have probably disappointed you... actually you all wrote that I did. Wow. I failed you. Again, the only thing I am sorry for is failing to give God glory or failing to honor Him in my feeble attempts to articulate truth. If I have failed in that way, please forgive me. I mean it. And please stop clogging up my e-mail about this any further. (WARNING...I forward one of them on to Mr. Turk.... not that he cares to waste his time on it either.)

Steve Sensenig said...

Lisa, if you do not want to "waste your time" discussing these things, then your drive-by comments are completely inappropriate.

If you don't want to defend calling brothers and sisters "ridiculous" and telling them to "get over" something that you don't think is that serious, then don't make the comments in the first place.

And it is highly inappropriate for you to make those kinds of comments and then tell people not to take it personally. Somehow, you're now making it my problem that I asked you in private to clarify comments you made. Whether or not you remembered who it was personally is not even the issue. It was your unedifying comments that are the issue, Lisa.

I'm sorry to say that publicly, but since you have asked not to be emailed, it needs to be said here.

steve

4given said...

Thou I still hold firm to the let's move on and get over it thing(Centuri0n did apologize.. not sure what that was from Challies)... I should have kept it to myself. My downfall... I write out loud what I was thinking.
Lesson learned.
Let's move on.
Alot of this has to do still with the questions still ringing in my ears like, WHY is this is actually an issue in the professing Christian world????? WHY would anyone seek to make excuses for it??????
I abhor vulgarity and cursing in the name of transparency thinking it actually adds something to the message of the Gospel. ICK!!!!
But stop emotionally jumping into the de-linking, outta here threats and know that these are brothers in Christ that NEED OUR PRAYERS and seek to forgive them as Christ forgave us .. sometimes it takes time for them to see the errors of their ways. Especially people that have proven more often then not to edify more than crush. We are still flesh. We will fail. It is only through Christ that we have any ounce of light in us. And though I PRAY that Driscoll REPENTS FOR REAL this time... I will make no excuses for the man's vulgar illustrations and apparent reputation for being the angry cursing preacher, I must and still hold out hope, if his faith is genuine, that HE WILL REPENT and we will see immense changes for the glory of God.... PLEASE LORD!
Sorry I failed you Steve and all those other people that e-mailed me. But please... move on.

Larry said...

No, Larry, that was no slip. That was my somewhat dubious sense of humor peeking out from under its rock.

David,

I am working on a post talking about how wrong it is to encourage people to cuss amongst themselves. But until I get it finished, I will keep on laughing. That was priceless.

centuri0n said...

Dog pile on Sensenig.

Garet Pahl said...

I actually wrote a three part post on this very topic last fall. Feel free to check it out and evicerate it in the meta- here or there.

http://mongrelhorde.blogspot.com/2005/11/christianity-and-culture-dirty-words.html

~Mark said...

What a wonderful post! Too bad I'm so late to the party, but to add 2 cents to the total, I think that the ears of the listener should always be a major consideration in our speech.

As described, there are even collections of yllables in some languages that are terribly offensive to the native speakers, and if we are to communicate effectively with them, we must learn that and avoid senseless offense.

It's such a disappointment to me when I hear a pastor or priest casually throw about vulgar language.

~Mark said...

(Not that it isn't a problem when every other Christian curses and/or fails to consider the ears of the listener, too!)

joythruChrist said...

I have to echo the praise for these comments from you Phil. I appreciate all who are willing to stand up for the Word.

I must admit that it hurts when people say that you are unloving because you speak of something the Word clearly teaches...

I posted my own comments on my blog. I'm kind of new at the whole blogging thing, so if anyone goes there, please be gentle...

http://tobysthoughts-jtc.blogspot.com/

David Cho said...

I am very confused.

Various "Discernment" sites are replete with colorful nouns such as "the enemies of the cross", "vipers," and "apostates."

When receipients of such namecalling take issue, but they are often told to consider the points at hand, not be distracted by colorful names and the debasing of discourse.

So why can't you do the same with Driscoll's book?

In one thread, several people defended Silva by saying "the enemies of the cross," and "vipers" are "biblically based," and therefore Silva is okay.

Profanity - bad. "Biblically based" namecalling - good and righteous. Is that it? If so, that is so contrived that I am at a loss as to where to begin.

How about "liberal"? That is not in the Bible, but it gets thrown around by the discernment side as if it puts you just a notch below Satan on the evil scale if you are one.

At least Driscoll's use of profanity is out of frustration, and as far as I know, he does not use it to call people out. Can't say the same about what I have seen from the "Discernment" camp. "Biblically based" names are deployed to name names.

Been following the ECM-Discernment debate as a fence sitter. Inconsistencies from both sides are nothing short of astounding.

Carla said...

David,

why beat around the bush here? Why not just come clean and admit you're referring to Emergent No and specifically this post right here?

It's all public information, so I'm not sure why you didn't just name the blog you've got issues with.

In keeping with Phil's topic of "bad language" I realize you didn't like Ken Silva quoting the apostle Paul about some among us being enemies of the cross, but that is a Biblical truth that we need to deal with.

I hope this serves to clear up your confusion at least a little bit.

Bob M said...

Phil, I want to link two of your statements.

You said that some in the Emerging Church use vulgarity regularly, and then later said,
"When we have an admittedly subjective commandment like this, that's not a warrant to push the envelope and see how close to impropriety we can come, especially for the sheer shock value of being heard."

Some of their vulgarity, I think is just that, an attempt to shock and push the envelope just to be heard. Some might say it is an attempt to be cool with the younger listeners. Just my thoughts.

David Cho said...

You are correct, Carla and I did not want to take the battle to here out of respect for the site administrators.

Ken Silva's posting was just one of many examples. F-bombs are music to my ears when compared with cutting and vitriolic invectives I have seen on Slice as well as ENo.

Perhaps you may want to post an entry to clarify. We seem to be on two different plants on this and I am not even in the ECM, but I know my denial probably doesn't do much given your refusal to take Driscoll's at face value.

donsands said...

davidcho,

"vitriolic invectives"

Seems a bit over the top to say this.
May be undue judgement on a Pastor, me thinks.
Any of us can surely speak strongly about the things of God. We can even be arrogant at times. Hopefully we will repent by the grace of our Lord, if we do step over that line of boldness into pride.
But arrogance can surely be passive as well, and boldness can be mistaken to be arrogance.
(Eph. 5:8,11-12) We are children of light.

David Cho said...

Your point is well taken, donsands

I brought that up in the context of the topic at hand here, as you probably know. There seem to be a lot of bile and bitter cutting both ways, but one side only sees the log in the other side's eye and has a field day with it. The latest debate on Driscoll's language is a perfect example.

Phil Johnson said...

David Cho and others:

This post was not about "Driscoll's language." I deliberately didn't target him or make any reference to him at all. Nothing I had to say here has anything to do with the argument you are trying to make. Can we stay on topic?

I realize ideas and people in the blogosphere have a way of getting jumbled together, but it's worth trying to keep things straight.

Whether some of the commenters at Challies have been unkind or ungracious to Driscoll is an interesting question, and there are several places around the 'sphere where it is currently under discussion. (And for the record, while it seems to me that many of Driscoll's critics have raised legitimate complaints, I also think some of the critics' critics have made a valid point about some of the more extreme reactions to Driscoll. See Philippians 1:15-18. See also what Frank said.)

But Driscoll is not really germane to this particular post, and an argument against the tone of Driscoll's critics at Challies is certainly no argument against anything I have said here. Can we keep the debate about Driscoll on the sites where Driscoll is already being discussed?

See rule 3.

PS: I haven't read Driscoll's book yet. I intend to, but I probably won't have time to do so until August or thereafter. In the meantime, I've been careful to be even-handed with what I do know about him. Search and see.

If the argument is that Driscoll's bad language doesn't make him guilty of all the evils of every Emergent heretic, I agree, of course. Someone who sees the reasonableness of that point ought to avoid imputing all the evils of the very worst of Mark Driscoll's critics to those of us who have merely expressed disapproval of bad language in general, without any reference to Mark Driscoll.

donsands said...

"The Bible isn't all that confusing in what it says about this issue".

I have to agree with this statement by Phil.
As I read through Ephesians 4:20-5:21, it came quite clear that when I was in the world, the darkness, I used different words then I do now; and that's by His grace that I have new vocabulary that edifies. This is how this passage speaks to me. I'm sure others may interpret differently, but this is how it hit me.
I could surely still use the same old words, but it goes against my grain now.
It's a blessing not to have four letter words constantly coming out of my mouth. It's from the Lord changing my heart.

Sorry about getting off track.

David Cho said...

Your point is well taken, Phil.

isaiah543 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phil Johnson said...

Isa543: See my previous comment. You're off topic. Please take it somewhere where the issue that has you torqued is actually the subject under discussion. "Pastors who cuss" is not the subject matter of this post.

edsonline said...

Christianyouthforum.com has a good post on this.

http://www.christianyouthforum.com/forum/index.php?topic=1963.msg22163#msg22163