Understanding Bad Words

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 Here are the notes for a talk to the NSA student body . . .

“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31-32).

When it comes to cussing most Christians are either surreptitious Platonists, thinking that the librarian of Heaven keeps an official register of “bad words,” and that it is a sin to say any one of them, ever, or they are libertines who scoff at such reification of bad words, concluding falsely that there is no such thing as evil speaking. But there is evil speaking, a lot of it, and more than there ought to be in your midst. So let’s talk about all that.

God is the Speaker of the Word, the Logos Himself. God is, in the first instance, a teller of stories. He has spoken Himself in His Word, and He has spoken outside Himself in this universe. There is therefore not anything which He does not speak. And so consequently, we need to understand bad words in their context.

A number of years I wrote a short fictional piece for Credenda in which the lead character fell down and swore, saying, “Jesus Christ!” A little bit later in the story he came to the point of conversion, in which he said “Lord Jesus Christ,” and passed from death to life. Now I was no more swearing when I had this character swear in the story than I would be stealing if I had a character steal something. But this does not mean that authors cannot steal or swear, or excite lust, through their characters. It means that whether or not this is happening is a matter of context and intent, and the effectiveness of the narrative. In this context, what story are you telling? In the broader context, what story are you in?

And yet, in response to this little story I got into a discussion with someone who wrote the magazine, objecting to my violation of the Third Commandment, lived out through my character. I wrote it, the character said it, and I was therefore responsible for the “bad word.” You see the kind of Platonism I was referring to? The bad word was said, end of discussion.

But here is the problem, and let me set this up by quoting from the Larger Catechism, and the Parable of the Publican in the Temple.


Q. 113. What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury; all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful; murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplying of God’s decrees and providences; misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious or unprofitable questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines; abusing it, the creatures, or anything contained under the name of God, to charms, or sinful lusts and practices; the maligning, scorning, reviling, or any wise opposing of God’s truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy, or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by unconformable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking, or backsliding from it.

The problem is that Jesus has a character in one of His fictional stories do just that.

“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).

So what’s the deal here? The Pharisee is explicitly violating the Third Commandment in a story that Jesus told, and Jesus is obviously not breaking God’s law. Now what this shows is that our ethical evaluation of the use of the word itself depends on the context of that use. This includes immediate linguistic context as well as larger context, up to and including the context of the speaker’s heart, not to mention the speaker’s wisdom and narratival ability.

That said, let’s break down inappropriate speech (in English) to four basic categories. These are vulgarity, obscenity, cursing, or swearing. The problem for the Platonists is that there are godly examples of all four, found within the pages of Scripture. The problem for the libertines is that the Bible prohibits speaking in all four categories. The upshot is that we need to become far more disciplined in how we speak. We will be held accountable for every idle word, Jesus says (Matt. 12:36). James tells us that the tongue is like the rudder of a ship, small but enormously influential (Jas. 3:4-5). If you get a bit and bridle on your tongue, you can tame anything.

Now, let me illustrate. The Scriptures prohibit vulgarity: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4).

The Scriptures use vulgarity: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags [a used menstrual cloth] and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Is. 64:6).

The Scriptures prohibit obscenity: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4)

The Scriptures use obscenity: “For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses” (Ez. 23:20)

The Scriptures prohibit cursing: “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:14).

The Scriptures use cursing: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8)

The Scriptures prohibit swearing: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12)

The Scripture uses swearing. “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness (1 Thess. 2:5). “Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name” (Dt. 6:13).

Now the point of this talk is obviously not that that Bible is contradictory, and therefore not a reliable guide for your life and conduct. That’s not the point. The point is that this whole topic is obviously complicated, and requires more Christian thought and discipleship from you than can be attained by sitting slack-jawed in front of R-rated movies that your stupid roommate rented, that you might learn from the God-haters what is appropriate to say and not say. “But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:13). What? Are you the first generation in history that does not need to learn how to practice what it means to tame and discipline your tongue?

One other point before the application. There is an additional category that we might call “shoot cussing,” which traffics in hecks and darns and goshes, and which calls the driver in front of you a “wall-eyed son of a whatnot.” Again, note the presence of that damned Platonism again . . . did that on purpose, it really is damned . . . where it is assumed that all a word has to do in order to be clean is be off that list. But you can hit your thumb with a hammer and run around the house screaming doorknob, and be as deep in sin as it gets. And you can use the word Hell in a way that should offend no one, and not just in sermons about the last judgment either. Say someone says that something is blacker than the Earl of Hell’s riding boots. That a sin? Or just colorful?

History and cultural flow has to be taken into account as well. When I was a boy, use of the word sucks would have been sufficient to get you a week of detention in a secular government school, and when you got home after detention, both your mother and grandmother would both have slapped you. These days there are all sorts of gradations and degrees, and arbitrary lines, and nobody knows exactly why we react to anything anymore. We say things like “the f-word,” and wait for a moment while everyone spells it out silently for themselves. It has four letters, we helpfully add. But we should be glad nonetheless for some signs of cultural reticence, and the asterisk-filled spaces after the initial letter f*** are an indication of at least some sort of rear-guard action. It doesn’t seem make sense, but it really does. You also have to remember that words have a denotation and a connotation both. The denotation of the “f-word” and the actual word itself are the same. But the connotations are quite different—the oblique reference telegraphs that the speaker recognizes that there might be a problem with saying it. He recognizes limits, standards, boundaries.

And this is what you must do. Run an inventory on your vocabulary. Make a list of words that you use that fall into this general category. Having made the list, see what happens when you ask the following questions about them.

Is your use of such words a matter of self-conscious Christian discipleship? If not, then stop saying them. Who taught you this word? Who are you imitating in using it yourself? How confident are you that there are no strings attached to the word? How confident are you that you learned nothing else along with the word? Is your use of these words paired up with an ungodly attitude? Is it connected to Ezekiel’s prophetic use or to some hard-R sex comedy? Jesus says that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). Is your speech a fresh water spring or a sewage pipe? When you speak, are you respectful of the presence of women? Does that kind of thing matter to you at all? Are you aware of the difference between not speaking like a gentleman all alone, which is bad enough, and when you are with others not speaking like a gentleman in such a way as to insult a lady? When you speak, is it for the edification of the hearer, or is it to get a laugh for your own glory? Do you speak for them or for you? And are you like a poor stand-up comedian who tells dirty jokes because nervous laughter is better than no laughter? Do you use the existence of verbal Platonists as an excuse to be a libertine?As we finish, consider the explicit teaching of the apostle Paul on the subject. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29).

When Paul says this, he is assuming that we will do the hard work of identifying what corrupt communication is. He knew that every language is different, and we could say every last word in our lexicon of filthy talk to the apostle and he, not knowing English, wouldn’t have anything to say about any of them. But he would nonetheless expect English-speaking Christians to think like grown-ups. He would expect them to teach their children not to say certain things, and the fact that these prohibited words cannot be found itemized in Scripture should not trouble us at all. It is not legalism to understand the principle and apply it in new territory. And so there are your marching orders on this topic—no corrupt communication.

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