Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is swearing a sin?

I can’t resist anymore, I’ve got to link to this rant. Being the ecumenist I am, I love reading a good livid seethe. And this time a colourfully languaged Alastair (of the superb adversaria – one of my favbourite blogs) was on top form giving a conservative Wright-is-an-evil-heretic-heading-for-Hades type critic a probably deserved bitch-slapping all the way back to planet ‘false accusation’. But be sure to read it and decide for yourselves if Alastair was fair.

I generally cannot take criticisms of Wright seriously if the given accuser doesn’t know his theological arse from his elbow, nor if the language gets too exaggerated (i.e. cf. here). I once heard a critique of Wright that prefixed the tirade with the claim that Rowan Williams is a druid, ergo Wright must be theologically unsound! Not only is such obvious fanfare bollocks irritating to read, it is singularly unhelpful.

But Alastair used a rude word! Namely, he employed the word ‘bullshit’. Of course, I was not expecting this language from such an angelic theologian. Alastair goes to the trouble of linking to another post involving the use of the word, and he discusses maters in more depth in the comments. But first a few profound thoughts about the word: it is like the already dubious ‘shit’, but the ‘bull’ prefix functions like ‘very shit’. ‘Bullshit’, ergo, would mean something like ‘very shit shit’. Shocking!

His language reminds me of the argument proposed by Brain Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s in the fascinating Colossians Remixed. Commenting on Col 3:8-9 (‘abusive language’). They argue that Paul was not calling believers to a modern ‘bourgeois passivity and middle-class politeness’ (cf. pp. 164-68). While the use of ‘fuck’ as a punctuation mark can also be understood as the sort of ‘abusive language’ Paul targets, the matter, they argue, is wider and not always relevant to the occasional use of an expletive.
‘If we want to find abusive language and identify the discourses of violence of our time, we are terribly short-sighted if we don’t look beyond the obscenities of the street or the schoolyard. It is in the double-speak of corporate executives, the spin of politicians, the come-on of the advertisers, the cultural lies of the pharmaceutical companies and the biotech firms, and the false humanistic optimism of the cybernetic revolution that we meet abusive language in this culture’ (p. 166).
They go further. Against such lies as named above, they argue that ‘sometimes we need to employ strong language [as they argue Paul does in the first chapters of Colossians] in the face of such lies’, citing with approval the poet Bud Osborn’s words:
‘say shout for life
shout with our last breath
shout fuck this north American culture of death’ (p. 167).
So, is swearing a sin? W and K would argue that it depends. Furthermore, they insist that the church tolerates offensive language far worse than a simple expletive.



At 2/01/2007 2:56 AM, Anonymous John P. said...

I have long been a supporter of the appropriate use of inappropriate language within the Church...

as far as Bullshit goes, have you seen the small book by Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit?

It is an excellent consideration on why we should all be very familiar (and conscious of) that word.

At 2/01/2007 3:45 AM, Anonymous J.Jones said...

You should hear Jim West cuss when he stubs his toe. The air turns blue!

At 2/01/2007 4:19 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

J Jones has some sort of odd fixation on me- stalker like. He neither knows me nor has met me and yet he posts comments - or rather attempts to post comments each and every day on the blog. Stalkers, like cussers, have their own special place in the lowest pits of the abyss.

At 2/01/2007 4:26 AM, Anonymous T.B. Vick said...

I had a seminary professor who liked to say "bullshit" in response to certain criticisms, situations, etc. However, he was so selective when he used the term that it almost always fit the occasion. Seems to me that Alastair answered a fool according to his folly.

At 2/01/2007 5:34 AM, Anonymous dan said...

Ah, yes, swearing.

I once taught a few seminars on "tough questions" -- questions and topics that had been submitted to me -- for the staff at a very conservative (and wealthy) Evangelical Christian camp. One part of my seminar was entitled "Why God doesn't give a Fuck about Swearing." Of course, there really are times when God does give a fuck about swearing (you know, the whole looking out for the weaker member thing, and the situation you mentioned in your citation of Walsh and Keesmaat), but sometimes swearing is, in fact, the most appropriate thing to say in certain situations. And other times, it's totally harmless.

Oh, and also, maybe we should be spending more time on other ethical issues (that was part of the point I was making in my title). When the identity-markers of the Christian community become things like not-swearing, not-smoking, not-drinking, instead of being things like solidarity with the poor, radical sharing with other Christians, and nonviolent love of enemies, well, then we have a major problem.

Grace and peace, bitches.

At 2/01/2007 7:06 AM, Anonymous One of Freedom said...

Must be an Anglican thing. Currently it is an Anglican priest who holds the record for the most times saying 'shit' in a sermon that I've heard.

But then again, I have heard worse. I'm not that fond of swearing but I'd be a liar to say that I never did. I think it is a poor choice but would you burn for it? I hope to hell not!

At 2/01/2007 10:40 AM, Anonymous Volker said...

@ Dan

The title of your paper "Why God doesn't give a Fuck about Swearing" sounds very interesting! Would it be possible to receive a copy at Thanks.

At 2/01/2007 11:33 AM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Being an Anabaptist, I always thought that when Jesus commanded us not to swear, he meant don't swear oaths! So, I pledge allegiance to no flag at all, won't place my hand on any Bible to placed under oath, etc.

Cursing is rude and may be sinful in the sense of saying, "Raca!, You Fool!," but it is small potatoes compared to the sins the church usually tolerates.

When I was in college (eons ago), during the Ethiopian famine, Tony Campolo came to our campus chapel to preach. He noticed that we had been collecting money for famine relief, but hadn't raked much in. He rattled off a statistic about how many children were dying each day of hunger. Then he said, "And you don't give a damn! Further, more of you care that I just said "damn" from the pulpit than about the dying children. That's sin. The alter is open for any who want to repent."
It was the most effective sermon I've ever heard.

I have noticed that different folks curse in different ways. I tend to be scatalogical: Bullshit, horseshit, etc., it's all about the feces. (I've even been known to utter that very strange phrase, "holy shit!"--which is quite a weird concept when you think about it.)
Others are theological, using God's name in vain (although there are more serious ways to do that, too, like claim to be a Christian and then start a war!) and repeatedly making references to one's neighbor's personal eschatological end--or even consigning them there.
Others like short words for sex acts. I confess that I try very hard to avoid the term, "fuck," but not because it is a "cuss word." It sounds violent (e.g., "He really fucked me, etc.")and I object to associating sex and violence. Yes, in Shakespeare's day it was just the normal English word for the sex act, but we are no longer in that day and the way it gets used is almost like a synonymn for rape. Just what are we saying, if we scream, "Fuck you!" So, I leave that one alone.

But enough of this shit.

At 2/01/2007 1:14 PM, Anonymous Catriona said...

Good question. Not language I like to use myself, but Amen to comments like those of Tony Campolo?

Maybe it depends how you dress it up? I have a surname that translates as either 'dung hill' or 'bloody town' and a first name that translates 'pure' -so are you swearing every time you address me?!!!

Think we sometimes worry about the wrong things and my folk have got used to the fact that I say 'blooming' and 'flipping' which by their standards are fairly strong!!

At 2/01/2007 9:16 PM, Anonymous Thuloid said...

Properly deployed profanity is a mighty weapon. Luther had it mastered.

Oh, and if we're trying to keep track, in my experience Catholic priests tend to swear a good deal more than most other clergy. I find it somewhat endearing.

At 2/02/2007 12:00 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

Love the Tony Campolo quote.

Hey Dan, perhaps you could post your paper on your blog?

At 2/02/2007 3:01 AM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

"Sweaing is a sin":

I don't know whether to say "Amen" or "Hell no".

At 2/02/2007 9:23 AM, Anonymous Arni said...

"If you need a system to worship Christ, worship your fucking system!" -Stanley Hauerwas

At 2/02/2007 9:15 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for the laughs, everyone! (and the occasional prfound thought!)

Hi JP, I have heard of Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit. Not read it, though. Alastair linked to a post looking at that.

Dan wrote: "When the identity-markers of the Christian community become things like not-swearing, not-smoking, not-drinking, instead of being things like solidarity with the poor, radical sharing with other Christians, and nonviolent love of enemies, well, then we have a major problem."

Amen and amen!

At 3/16/2007 7:59 PM, Anonymous Tim Lien said...

Excellent post. I think there is a great confusion among Evangelicalism AND non-believers as to what is properly swearing, cursing, profanity and uncouth words.
I've inluded a link to a blog which I wrote last year that dis-"cussed" much of this:
Check it out, and thanks for the post, Tim

At 11/24/2008 3:46 PM, Anonymous Blogging by Tina said...

"When the identity-markers of the Christian community become things like not-swearing, not-smoking, not-drinking, instead of being things like solidarity with the poor, radical sharing with other Christians, and nonviolent love of enemies, well, then we have a major problem."

Right on! And I think we have had a major problem for some time!!!

At 3/31/2009 7:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:.....rid yourselves of...(v8) filthy language from your lips.

Like a sharp dagger piercing the hearts of the wicked...

.... grow in holiness, be sanctified, die to live.


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