Friday, June 01, 2007,12:08 PM
Watch Your Mouth? Offensive Language and Christianity
Andrew Jones has an interesting post up about offensive language. He writes about recent offense that has been taken by the usage of certain words and then delves into the history of what offends. He proposes that in premodern times people were offended by words that were "excommunicatory in nature - offensive words were religious terms that threatened punishment and damnation." In modern times it was "words that cause most offense affront our personal and private sensibilities. These offensive words are normally associated with private body parts, bodily functions of a toilet nature, and sexual relations." In our postmodern times "it is exclusionary language that causes most offence. Marginalizing people due to their race, gender, disability or status is about the most offensive thing you can say." He then mentions the bible passages that refer to offensive language including "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." Eph 4:29.

Call me a stereotypical postmodern, but I understand the pre- and postmodern views on offensive language, but just can't justify the modern. Biblically if the point is not to use the Lord's name in vain (which referred to making flippant curses or oaths) or not to tear anyone down, the modern sensibility just doesn't fit. In fact the modern approach does just the opposite - instead of building people up, modern bans of "offensive language" exist to exclude and ridicule. Most of the language that is offensive under the modern sensibilities (bodily and sexual references) is called vulgar. While we have come to perceive of "vulgar" as anything bad, dirty, and lower, it was originally just a term of derision used for the lower classes. So anything associated with the poor, uneducated masses (including their language) was considered vulgar and inappropriate for civilized folk.

So usage of terms that implied that one didn't subscribe to classism, racism and the like became taboo. Proper people don't use the germanic/anglo language of the poor (shit, fuck) they use the latinate language of the rich and powerful (excrement, fornicate). Over time the taboo took on mythic dimensions. Certain words came to hold almost magical powers. Say a certain word (incant this spell) and you have sinned (cursed yourself to hell). I doubt that most Christians actually stop to think about what sort of theology they are promoting when they insist that just saying "fuck" is a sin.

The fact that for most Christians it's okay to use language of hate and derision (making fun of homosexuals, women, and other religions), but its sinful to say certain "vulgar" words displays a seriously messed up theology in my opinion. We are told to build others up with our language and encouraging language of hate while forbidding the language of the poor achieves the exact opposite. So label me as just being postmodern, but I see the more constructive (and biblical) option to be to avoid language that excludes, tears down, and ridicules. So I really don't care if someone drops the "f-bomb" but I won't abide "you throw like a girl."

So it has nothing to do with wanting to be hip and cool or selling out to the culture if I choose to use a word that for a certain period of English history was considered taboo. It has more to do with actually considering my theology of sin, understanding the call to love my neighbor, and living accordingly. But that just pushes the walls of the box a little too far for most people...

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posted by Julie at 12:08 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 6/01/2007 06:05:00 PM, Blogger revolution

    by my count, the culture decides what is offensive. and last time i checked, the bar was set pretty low. so where does this artificial standard of what is and is not offensive come from? John Macarthur? The Southern Baptist Convention?

  • At 6/01/2007 09:39:00 PM, Blogger Andrew

    Spot on. I remember when I first realized that "swear" words had no inherent evil attached to them. I was a teen and on a short safari with a friend and a bedowen (sp?) in the Negev desert. The bedowen who was leading us was thin on English and I was trying to tell him we needed to stop so I could go to the bathroom. I was not getting through, so my friend piped in with the universal - Shit. This was understood and we stopped. For the first time I realized shit is just a word.

    I totally agree with your take on what we say to build up or tear down. I remember a young boy running up to a pastor to tell on another boy who was teasing him about his weight. The Pastor told him to remember that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Hmmmm... I wonder how the Pastor would have reacted if the offending boy had been calling him a shiteater rather than teasing him about his weight.

    I wish that stick and stones phrase would die. I have fuzzy memories of the physical fights I got into as a young boy, but I remember in Hi-Def clarity the times I was mercilessly teased.

  • At 6/01/2007 10:20:00 PM, Anonymous chill24

    funny - i grew up in a house where "fart" was a bad word. i feel weird writing it now - although i let my kids say it. (my son wanted to know if he could say "hell" - i told him it depends on the context - since they go to a christian school i figured we shouldn't push it). other language deemed as "cuss" words no longer shock or offend me. i do cringe when i hear someone say "oh my G.." or "for Ch.... sake!" that's offensive to me.

    as i mature as a person and as a child of God my perception of mere words changes. i don't go around using foul language - but i also realize they are "words".
    and mighty powerful they can be!!

  • At 6/02/2007 12:49:00 AM, Blogger paul

    In true postmodern context your language is unique to you and therefore you can only interpret ith through you - you can say what you want and its not yout fault if saying it offends someone elses interpretation grid.

    I wonder if it not becomes so much language that offends us but language that offends others - regardless of whether it's fuck or you throw like a girl - if people find either of those offensive then why use them?

    I may have the right to say fuck or that you throw like a girl but i'd rather not use that right if it causes you offense...

  • At 6/02/2007 09:04:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Andrew - you remind me of something I heard from a friend in grad school - that in certain parts of Africa the latinate words are considered more offensive than the traditionally vulgar words. This had to do with the fact that the colonial oppressors used the latin phrases and so the natives took to using the "vulgar" terms as a way of casting off the chains of oppression.

    revolution, paul, and chill - this is very much a culturally constructed thing. Certain words do offend certain people in our culture (I just wish they would take a minute to think through why they are offended). So in certain contexts in is inappropriate to use certain words just as it is inappropriate to fart loudly in other circumstances. It is more about cultural sensibilities than sin.

    Paul - so do you think its okay to use language that ridicules and tears down a certain group if none of them are present (or they have no ability to voice opposition.)? So you can insult women, gays, blacks, handicapped as long as no one is offended? Or is the idea that all people should be offended by such talk and so therefore it should never be uttered?

  • At 6/09/2007 05:23:00 AM, Blogger Andii

    There's a huge dimension in this that's about Christian 'respectability' and I suspect that comes down to class. Check out and and probably more importantly

  • At 6/09/2007 01:34:00 PM, Blogger The Christian Heretic

    You and Andrew beat me too it. I've been thinking of a blog entry along these lines, but yours said it so well (I might still write one anyway). :)

  • At 6/09/2007 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    Drew - I'd love to read your perspective on this whole issue.

    Andii - yes "respectability" and "class" are all part of it. The culture defines what they deem respectable and then looks down on those who operate outside of that definition. Cultures can have their mores - my issue is when people start assuming that breaking cultural rules is sin or when those mores are just excuses to oppress/ridicule the poor.


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