Clash of the Titans LII: Profanity

September 28, 2007, 12:00 pm; posted by
Filed under Chloe, Connie, Debate  | 19 Comments

NOTE: This Clash contains certain words that might be offensive to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised.

In this corner, against profanity, is Connie!

And in this corner, supporting it, is Chloe!

I have to extol the virtues of not using profanity. I bet you think I’ll pull out Scripture like Col. 3:8 (“…put off anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy language”). I bet you already voted for Chloe’s “swearing isn’t appropriate, but there are rare situations, extreme duress, etc.,” because no one can see you vote anyway… But I have a slightly different spin on this. I didn’t write it for everybody (actually, I wrote it for Job) — I wrote it for us, Christians. Let me tell you a story.

It’s Autumn 1999, and I’m a brand-new substitute teacher called in for the day, trying to wade through lesson plans, homework, assignments and unreadable notes from the ‘real’ teacher — not to mention a bad case of senioritis in one class. The day and period were nearly over and one group of guys were up front talking crude, making the rest of us uncomfortable, so I shut them down. Not to be dissuaded, they continued to discuss their favorite subjects in a disgusting way. Since I’d been interacting with them, I decided to weigh in on the conversation instead of verbally smacking them with my big ol’ Mrs. Maxon Ruler.

Boy: “I told him, you don’t have the b*lls!” (They weren’t talkin’ sports.)

Me: “Cheeeez (imagine the Dog Whisperer noise), stop! That’s not the word you need. What are you trying to say? He’s not BRAVE enough, COURAGEOUS enough, or STRONG enough, maybe? So say what you mean! You have a great brain, use it!” They acted like they’d just been taught something they’d never heard before.

Our language is a beautiful tool. What can beat the feeling of finding the perfect word when we’re trying to describe something? It’s extraordinary, really. The right tool can make all the difference — I was just thinking about that this morning while I was stirring creamer into my coffee with a pencil.

We need the right tools and we need to follow Paul’s instructions and put off the early signals of frustration (anger) that lead to other thoughts (wrath). If we don’t, soon we’ll be wondering where that word popped out from. We are called to be different from this world, and I submit WE ARE DIFFERENT. Look around, go check out those bios. Have you ever seen a more different group of people? When we follow Christ’s directives, that difference draws others, even foul-mouthed teenaged boys, and that makes a difference in the Kingdom.

Profanity in everyday conversations is not appropriate. However, there are times when swearing is necessary. For instance, when writing about difficult subjects, choosing against using profanity will occasionally cause the reader to distrust the author, especially when the reader is not the typical audience.

When writing about poverty, drugs, family abuse and incest, etc., I can’t write, “Sometimes you feel like no one’s there for you,” because it goes much deeper than that for the audience. They would tune me out unless I told it like it was: “You’ve decided no one gives a shit, so you have to take care of yourself.”

Similarly, when talking to someone from those types of situations, I cannot use common descriptions of feeling: “I know losing your baby brother in that drive-by made you upset and angry.” Rather, if I intend to get through to him and show him I understand him, I have to speak his language.

One pastor in LA discovered this while working in a deeply impoverished and drug-infested area. He abandoned Christianese, and now his kids connect with him, and no longer think of him as that rich, white Christian guy who thinks he can fix everything. To them, that kind of person is completely ineffective and doesn’t understand or offer the salvation they need.

In one-on-one conversations, it may also be necessary to speak the other person’s language. I have a dear friend who has gone through horrible things in her life, but if I were to say that to her, she would shut me out. To her, it’s not “horrible things,” but “shit.” Instead of being “angry,” she is “pissed off.” People aren’t jerks…you get the idea.

She doesn’t want an educated, well-spoken Christian to attempt to guide her through a healing path. That person doesn’t understand what she’s gone through, can’t connect with her, and surely will judge her. She wants a real person who’s been there and who can give her some guidance.

Granted, the situations in which profanity is necessary are very rare, but they do exist. Missing them could mean driving away someone you could potentially help, or worse, alienating someone from hearing the good news.



19 Comments to “Clash of the Titans LII: Profanity”

  1. Connie on September 28th, 2007 12:12 pm

    I thought it was very interesting that Chloe and I have the same end goal in our clashes. Neither one of us had read the other’s before writing our own (except Steve gave me her last line), and yet from two different perspectives we both ended up at the same place. All I can say is that I can’t do it Chloe’s way, because when I watch a movie with those words in it, they come in and make themselves to home in my brain. And I have to go all Romans 12:2 on them for the next few days. “Out the way broom…”

  2. Connie on September 28th, 2007 12:22 pm

    Romans 12:2 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    And “out the way broom” is in inside joke referring to my experience with watching the movie Crash. Excellent film. Horribly profane. Afterwards for a couple of days (in my head) I heard myself cussing -even at my broom. True story. I put the garbage in there, I had to let the Word renew my mind and remove it. Then it’s my responsibility to stay away from garbage.

  3. David on September 28th, 2007 12:32 pm

    There are certain behaviors within our culture that are viewed as “bad” like drinking, smoking and profanity (to name a few). None are sins, per se, but any Christian who uses them in an attempt to make it easier for unsaved people to relate to them, wins only derision in my experience. It’s not because these people know doctrine, it’s because they know crude behavior, that they discount our testimony. We had such a preacher in the jail where I used to preach and he may have thought that his profanity was endearing the inmates to him but we heard what they said about him when he wasn’t around. And it wasn’t respect that he was winning.

  4. on September 28th, 2007 1:58 pm

    I, being a writer myself, sympathesize with Chloe’s argument. That to connect you have to embrace the subject — even if that means using the profane.

    Sometimes I wonder if we put too much at stake, as Christians, when we think and debate about swearing. Not that it shouldn’t be a big deal (Peter cursing in his denials) or should be taken lightly or used flippantly — like at a broom or stubbing your toe. For myself, it’s a way to be expressive in a different, simplier form. If something is hard, like watching my grandmother die of cancer, it certainly can be damn hard.

    Swearing, though we hear it used flippantly in our culture, has import. Carries weight (see Peter’s denial in this context). And we can use it for that end. Situations and circumstances and conversations and writings RARELY call for it — I submit this– but when they do, I say, by all means.

    Sure it’s a seemingly double standard, but ah, what the…

  5. Andrew on September 28th, 2007 3:21 pm

    I think that an important point needs to be made. Both of you addressed the issue of vulgarity, not of profanity. Profanity is “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Vulgarity is those words that we as a culture have decided are not to be uttered in “polite company”

  6. Steve on September 28th, 2007 4:44 pm

    Very true. We talked about the profanity/obscenity/vulgarity distinctions in preparing this Clash, and (as I recall) came to the conclusion that ‘profanity’ is popularly understood these days to include any ‘swearing,’ even though it traditionally meant only blasphemous curses. Princeton’s online dictionary calls it “vulgar or irreverent speech or action.”

    Regardless, I, not the authors, am to blame for any linguistic confusion.

  7. Marcus on September 29th, 2007 7:49 pm

    I think that the heart of this controversy touches on the topic of my recent post on Armchair Omnology (which is serendipitous because I’d started drafting it before seeing this Clash).

    I think that the motivation of the language is crucial.

    As a wannabe sociolinguist, I believe that certain words can have connotations in one setting that they lack in another. The concept that a given signifier represents varies so much from group to group that we run into things like the “N word” being permissible within some groups, but not within others. (On that score, the debate often boils down to etymology, but I do not buy it. If we excised all words of dubious origin, our lexicon would be much shorter and even the days of the week would need new signifiers. But I digress.)

    For blasphemy there is no excuse. Regardless of cultural background, there are some things which transcend… and abusing the name of the divine tops the list. But for the rest of the “foul language” business, it’s context that matters.

    Are we saying four-letter words around those for whom they hold none of the original meaning? If the word is emptied of original intent, and held by the group as an empty expression, then I see no reason to use it. When someone says “Oh crap!” they’re likely not referring to bodily functions. If it does not hurt your personal conscience, holds no meaning in the group, and you are not speaking as a symbol of authority (e.g., the prison minister), then I see no reason to change your words. Blasphemy is the exception here because it SHOULD hurt your conscience. If, however, you are in mixed company, you should shift your language to the “highest common denominator” of sensitivity. To do otherwise would be to cause your neighbor to stumble.

  8. Marcus on September 29th, 2007 7:55 pm


    “If the word is emptied of original intent, and held by the group as an empty expression, then I see no reason to [NOT] use it. “

  9. David on September 29th, 2007 9:09 pm

    Some words use there etymological underpinnings over time and people don’t even know they have a vulgar connection. I’ve used “brown noser”, “dork” and “hosed” all at different times only to find that they offended some people. I had never connected them with any crude meaning. My son-in-law referred to a difficult person as a “prick” the other day and when my wife expressed shock at the rough language he said that he thought the intent of the word was that the person was a thorn in your side…I’m just rambling here so feel free to break in anytime somebody…

  10. David on September 29th, 2007 9:15 pm

    …So anyway though, with Bible space at a premium and Paul spending the better part of three chapters in 1 Corinthians exhorting people to live according to the other persons conscience, I think that becomes the biggest consideration for believers. The Bible says let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt…not salty seasoned with grace. How ever that would work out.

  11. David on September 29th, 2007 9:17 pm

    …uh that third post back should say “lose their etymological underpinnings” not “use”.

  12. Tom on October 1st, 2007 11:17 am

    I can’t disagree enough with the assertion that in order to connect with people steeped in filthy language, actions, or ideas you have to speak, act, or think accordingly. I think it’s unbelievably arrogant to assume that someone who uses strong language will be unable to hear the truth of your words if they aren’t couched in vulgar terms. Others can take up their latter-day white-man’s burden and carefully “approach the infidel” on his level, but compromising an aspect of your witness so the people you’re dealing with are more comfortable and not picked-on smacks of a mindset uncomfortably close to compromising.

  13. Steve on October 1st, 2007 12:48 pm

    I want to agree with Tom, but I can’t grasp his reasoning. I don’t think it’s arrogant at all, let alone “unbelievably” so, to argue that people will best understand the language and phrases they most frequently use. On the contrary, it seems… obvious. Even duh-worthy.

    Your comment, for instance, would be almost totally incomprehensible to a significant percentage of Americans.

    This is not to say that the lowest common denominator should rule our speech, but in the particular situation described — namely, writing about difficult subjects to an audience that will not understand or grasp the power of sanitized language — the use of the common, vulgar vernacular may achieve the desired purpose in a way nothing else can.

    In general, though, I would hesitate to recommend it, for fear that the exception swallows the rule, and no distinction remains between those who don’t know better, and those who are called to.

  14. Connie on October 2nd, 2007 10:10 am

    Steve, I can’t swallow that. And the only reason you wrote it is because the only thing larger than your brain is your heart. Tom made perfect sense. He’s not talking about “phrases” he’s talking about vulgarity sandwiching the phrases.

    We’re commanded to be salt and light. We’re supposed to be DIFFERENT. As Dave Larkin used to say, “I’ve never seen a clean handkerchief fall into a mud puddle and turn the puddle white.”

    I believe you are trying to balance yourself on a fence made of straight pins. You’re pretty skinny – but that’s pushing it.

  15. Steve on October 2nd, 2007 10:31 am

    You didn’t understand what I meant. That’s only appropriate, given my argument.

    It’s not debatable that vulgarity is BETTER UNDERSTOOD by those who frequently use it, compared to words they don’t use. Thus, in the “particular situation described,” an expression of emotion or similarly charged situation, it might be useful because it will be understood. That’s what I said. It doesn’t mean vulgar words are in any way ‘better,’ and there’s nothing arrogant about the position. It’s simply realistic. Tom was bloviating.

    My last paragraph explains how I agree with you regarding the danger and the need for difference.

    The restraint of this response is perhaps further proof of my vast heart, wide as the ocean and thrice as salty.

  16. David M. on October 2nd, 2007 11:14 am

    Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. Psalms 19:14 (KJV)

    All my words are judged by the Lord! Hence my vocabulary in every situation is gauged by this verse and this verse only. The audience bears no factory on my choice of vocabulary when it comes to the use of profanity. I have found myself in several situations with few “base fellows of a lesser sort” and this verse still applied and by the grace of God I was delivered without the use of base vocabulary.

    Even when I hit my thumb with the occasional hammer this verse preempts my choice of expression. (It has taken a few years to retrain my mind but “boy that was stupid, always works”.) When talking or preaching to non-Christians I do change my terminology so they can understand and I rely on the Holy Spirit to convey His desire to heal in those situations where I am ministering to broken and damaged people.

    I believe that Hollywood has changed our perception of acceptable vocabulary in these days. This misconception has traveled around the globe so that now the world thinks all Americans talk this way. We all don’t!

  17. Connie on October 2nd, 2007 11:48 am

    But when my Pastor husband says he changes his terminology, he doesn’t mean to include swearing though. He drops the Christianese perhaps…

    I did find Steve’s Tom response hard to understand -a point he was making on purpose I see now. I still think we cannot be too careful with our compromises and I also think he’s still too skinny. :)

  18. Steve on October 2nd, 2007 12:16 pm

    I love our appropriate ads. “Swear in Chinese: $10.”

  19. Clash of the Titans LVIII: Library Internet Censorship : Bweinh! on November 4th, 2007 3:27 pm

    […] 56-year-old eyes cannot be trusted reading the velvety prose of my erstwhile opponent’s last clash, written back when she still extolled the virtues of free […]

Leave a comment!