On Profanity, "Substitute Words," and Derek Webb

So it’s been a while since I had a serious entry that prompted discussion; in the first one (on healing), I had 18 comments, so let’s see if we can do it again....

The hot topic today is profanity or (to use the more common term) cussing. Wikipedia defines profanity as “a word choice or usage which its audience considers to be offensive. The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or speaking God's name in vain. They are sometimes made mild, resulting in less recognizable forms, such as the minced oaths. However, the meaning has been extended to include scatological, sexist, derogatory, racist, or sexual terms. The list includes words that are merely vulgar as well as those thought obscene.” It also notes that “72 percent of American men and 58 percent of American women swear in public.”

Obviously profanity’s quite popular in our country. But I’m of course concerned with the Christian position. I have personally heard two polar opposite views on it, both from older men whom I hold in my highest respect. My mentor Shiloh has said that he sees no problem with cussing, holding that no word is inherently “worse” than any other word, and that sometimes cussing can help relate better with non-believers—speaking a language they’ll understand, so to speak. My pastor Ron said in a sermon once that he saw an online forum where people were debating this issue—whether or not it’s proper for Christians to use profanity—and he couldn’t believe that it was even under discussion, believing himself that it is patently clear from the Bible that once one becomes a Christian, there are plainly things you can no longer do, places you can no longer go, and words you can no longer say.

I’ve also heard my dad speak about this issue (another older man whom I hold in my highest respect). He has said this: “Cursing is the attempt of a feeble mind to sound forceful.” In other words, cussing is what you do when you’re not smart enough or don’t have a large enough vocabulary to make your statement sound forceful. He also says, in relation to the use of swearing in Christian literature (by characters who are not Christians, for the sake of sounding realistic), that swearing indicates something about the character of the person who is doing the swearing. (Although I believe that this statement originally comes from R.C. Sproul).

The verse I’ve heard quoted most often in defense of the second position is Ephesians 4:29 (NIV): “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The ESV (my personal favorite translation) says “corrupting talk,” as do the King James and New King James, while the NASB also renders the word “unwholesome.” The Amplified Bible says this: “Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth....”

Personally, I would tend to lean more towards my pastor’s (and my dad’s) position. When I hear someone cuss it doesn’t offend or bother me, except when someone uses God’s name in vain (which, I think we can all agree, is absolutely out of the question for Christians). However, I never cuss myself. I use so-called “substitute words” like “crap,” “dang,” “freakin’,” and of course my all-time favorite, “bullschnapps.” I’ve often heard my friends tell me that substitute words are just as bad as actual curse words, because what is being spoken is a reflection of the attitude of your heart (“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Matthew 12:34 NIV). When I had my last conversation about cussing with Shiloh, I mentioned this point to him, at which point he promptly stopped using substitute words and began using actual cuss words. I know I’ll get lots of disagreements on this, but I actually think that using actual cuss words and using substitute words are very different. The reason can be found in the Wikipedia definition of profanity: “a word choice or usage which its audience considers to be offensive.” The phrase I use when describing this is “social stigma.” My use of the word “freaking” wouldn’t occasion a second thought (or even a first one) for most people, while the work “f---ing” undoubtedly would. Even though many people become used to profanity when they hear it all the time, and one might argue that (for example) to a group of construction workers on a site cuss words are not offensive, it is still generally accepted by these people that the words are socially offensive—they’re still understood as profanity, and these same people might reprimand their children for using those words. The words still possess a certain social stigma, and (as I mentioned earlier) can give you some idea (if not always a precise one) about the character of the person using the profanity. And of course social stigma is a concept that certainly changes over time. A generation or two ago, the words “crap” and “suck” carried a social stigma, if not as strong as words we would consider profanity today. Had I lived in those times and held the same position, I would not have used those words. But today those words no longer carry the same stigma and are no longer considered generally culturally or socially offensive, although there may be people (such as my mother) who may disagree to some extent.

So, as with my entry on healing, I would love to get all y’all’s opinions on this. By way of wrapping up this entry, I’d like to take a tangent into an interesting example which really has nothing to do with what I’ve been referring to (the use of profanity in normal conversation, whether frequent or occasionally for emphasis). There are two cases in Derek Webb’s albums where he’s used profanity, in both cases very intentionally and for (in his mind) good reason. On his first album “She Must And Shall Go Free,” in the song “Saint And Sinner,” the lyrics to the bridge originally went like this:

“I used to be a damned mess but now I look just fine
‘Cause you dressed me up and we drank the finest wine....”

On his latest album “Mockingbird,” in the song “A King And A Kingdom,” the lyrics to the ending bridge go like this:

“Nothing unifies like a common enemy
And we’ve got one, sure as hell....”

I’ve heard and read quite a bit about the first example. Derek explained that his use of the word “damned” (referring of course to his state prior to being saved) was not only justified, but biblical. He said this in an interview with Jason Ewert of CMusicWeb.com: “...I really could justify it, 'cause that area of that song is taken from the beginning of Galatians were Paul uses the word anathema, which is the Greek word for ‘eternally damned by God.’ It's some of the strongest language used in the New Testament, so of course I probably picked a hard area to go into because it's really strong language, but it's really necessary when you're in that subject matter” (from http://www.derekwebb.net/songs/smasgf/track08.php). A study of the word “anathema” reveals that in Hebrew usage, it means something that is formally set apart as sacred, and is familiar to NIV readers as the word which is explained by the footnote “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.” In the New Testament, the word “anathema” is the word used by Paul in Galatians 1:9: “As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (NIV). The NIV renders the word “eternally condemned;” the ESV, NASB, KJV and NKJV all translate it “accursed.” The word is also used in Romans 9:3: “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (NIV; the other four translations again say “accursed”).

It is interesting that even before the album “She Must And Shall Go Free” was released, two major Christian retailers refused to carry it if it contained the word “damned.” Derek said that “it just didn't make sense to me to be known right off the get go for the guy who fought to have ‘damned’ on his record,” so he took the word out and the song on the CD says simply “I used to be a mess but now I look just fine....” However, he still uses the word in all of his live performances of the song.

On the other hand, I had heard nothing about the phrase “sure as hell” on “Mockingbird,” despite having read many interviews on and reviews of it. Apparently no Christian retailers had qualms with this. That doesn’t make much sense to me; the meaning of the word “damned” in its context seems to be quite apparent, while the phrase “sure as hell” seems much more like casual swearing (even being in the form of a common profane phrase), although I assume that it has a similar meaning to the first. I could go off onto a sub-tangential rant about Christian music, but I’ll content myself with a quizzical stare loaded with meaning.

::gives Christian retailers and Christian music industry in general a quizzical stare loaded with meaning::

So give me your opinions on profanity in general (well, specifically how it relates to Christians), and possibly on this whole Derek Webb deal as well. And if you want more information about him, ask me that, and I’ll give you more than you ever imagined or bargained for. And also check out my new music website at www.geocities.com/ajharbisonmusic, where you can find all my lyrics, which contain no swearing. Not even substitutes.


Narisilme said...

Damnant quod non intellegunt.

Darth_Harbison said...

When I hear (or read) a cuss word, I instictively cringe. Not that it really offends me ('cause it usually doesn't), that's just a natural reaction. They actually get much the same response (physically) as the g-word. Usually I'm not as vocal about this reaction, but it exists nonetheless.

And although I could be wrong (having no evidence for this point), I do believe that the highly esteemed Mr. Lewis had no problem with profanity. Just to throw that out there. In Mere Christianity, he actually does cuss, when describing what the Christian's response to a polytheist should be: "Don't talk d---ed nonsense." He was accused of frivolous swearing, and said pretty much the same thing as the esteemed Mr. Webb (that the nonsense was actually damned under God).

And in closing, I would like to note something that probably nobody here knows . . . I have actually cussed in my lifetime. I was saying "Vicky Beeching," and I mixed up the vowel sounds, and . . . yeah. Sorry. Had to add a little humor there.

Nathan said...

i would agree with your friend, russ was it? the non pastor/non dad one. Personally i dont thnk the word hell is used enough by the modern church. But if "hell" itself is a morally corrupt word, why are we supposed to warn individuals about their impending damnation?
Like wise in christian literature what does it matter if its relaying somethng about the character. The word is still used. Same with quotations. If you can say "derek originally wrote damned" Then what makes you saying that morally better or worse than when he actually said it. What is the difference? you said the word he said the word. Context could be put forth as the difference. But then if it is the context that makes a word wrong that same context would have to make any substitute word wrong.
Which would seem to more likely describe Ephesians 4:29. Its unwholesome, or corrupting talk. Any talk regardless of which word is used, which causes the corruption of, instead of being helpful for the building up of the body.

maTT said...

I'm not sure where I stand on this so far. What I do think is that if I dropped the f-bomb or something like it in a culture other than our own, it wouldn't mean anything, right? (I mean, I could be wrong) So, then, is it the actual word that's the problem, or is it the cultural context and how it affects the people in said culture? I think it's easy to get hung up on the rules themselves than the reason behind having them. Sidenote: I find it extremely funny when british people swear. It makes me giggle.

maTT said...

I meant that it's easy to get hung up on rules rather than relationship, which is what I find Christ to be more concerned with in scripture.

Rae said...

well youve heard my side of things. I am not strict on the replacement words... obviously because i used them all the freakin time! however, i DO feel strongly about really cussing. I dont believe in becoming like someone just to create a false relation.

"Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them."
Basically, all you can do is speak truth. if they dont want to hear then acting like them wont change it.

as far as Christians cussing for the heck of it, I would agree that it is due to the lack of a better congecture and displays ignorance. OR (in my case at least) curssing comes from anger, when you become weak and give in to anger cussing seems to be something that comes naturally.

I am border line concerning what is soctially acceptable or offensive. obviously the "f-bomb" is much more common than it was even 10 years ago... but does it make it any less crude? I guess i would look to the old testiment where entire cities were destroyed because they were 100% corrupt. God didnt say "well, they are ALL doing it... so i guess its acceptable" no... he freakin killed them! not that he is going to smite los angeles, but should we do it anyhow?

David said...

This is probably neither here nor there, but a thought on the subject of the social and cultural stigma that lends offensive significance to swear words: what if I swear in, say, German? or Japanese? or drop the f-bomb in Mongolia? Would that be any different than substitution (assuming, of course, that nobody around me knew German, Japanese, or English)?

( . . .and tangentially, can you swear if you're only talking to animals?)

Another pointless point: What about ass? That's had something of the oppososite trajectory of words such as crap or suck in that it's seemingly become more offensive (at least in the U.S.) in the last half-century-- morphing from a beast of burden to a scatalogical (and thereby more offensive)term. Can one still use ass in good consience if one only means "un burro"?
. . and I guess the same thing could also be possibly asked of "faggot" , but I'm not gonna go there. . .


Idhrendur said...

Tangential issue, but "crap" and "suck" were still really bad much more recently than a generation ago. Probably the late 80's is when parents started to relax on those two, and they were acceptable by the mid-90's. And "shut up" went right along with those two.

Cormack McKinney said...

I know many, many people who "never cuss", yet flith flows from thier mouths frequently. Even amongst Christians. It distresses me very much. They are proud of the fact that they never use bad words, yet I will often hear those people talk about others negatively and offensively, saying very hurtful and deteriorating things about certain people that they don't like or don't know, and doing so frequently.

While I don't think any word is always wrong or bad, it does upset me very much to hear slander coming from the mouths of others.
"The tongue has the power of life and death" (-Proverbs).

So basically, I don't think it is wrong to cuss, unless it is directed to someone, or even just about someone. It's not the word itself that's evil, but the context in which it is used.
And in my opinion, even using the word around others who may think it is offensive is the wrong context. So though I don't think it's wrong, and I have cussed before, I make it a basic practice not to do so simply because I do not want to offend anyone and I do not want to get into the habbit, lest one of the words ever slips out of my mouth accidentally. It's not something I would do, but not something I would rebuke others for (pending its context).

For those who disagree about "bad" words, I can back my position up using an example from the Bible, where Paul in one of his letters uses a "cuss" word (the word in that culture and at that time was considered offensive and disgusting), which many Bibles today translate as the word "rubbish".