November 30, 2005

Profanity, Language, and Christians

Tim Challies started something. In an innocent movie review, Tim remarked about the amount of profanity:

Before I continue allow me to provide a bit of a warning. I was quite surprised at the volume of swearing in this film. Usually I would not be surprised to find bad language in a war movie, but was surprised at this one primarily because the people who recommended it to me made no mention of it. Thankfully, because of the subject matter, it was not a film we decided to watch with the children present.
Joe Carter brought the discussion to my attention the next day with his "Christian Critique of Swearing." Joe does a great job of assembling all the relevent posts, and firmly holds a middle ground between extreme legalism and extreme license.
I started thinking about the subject of profanity, and what exactly makes a word profane. What makes certain words unacceptable? It certainly isn't always the meaning of the word -- in fact, most of the time there are perfectly acceptable words that mean the same thing as the profane words we decry.

Profanity in English is almost entirely Anglo-Saxon derived words. They became unacceptable in polite society around 1066, when the Normans beat the Anglo-Saxons in England and established their own rule. And so good Anglo-Saxon words were replaced by the Norman equivalents. 'Manure,' for example. If you wanted to appear cultured, educated, and acceptable, you used the Norman words. Anglo-Saxon quickly became a "gutter language" that only the lower classes spoke.

This was especially true in churches. The word "profane" comes from a Middle English word that means in front of or outside the temple. Profane language was language that you didn't use inside the church -- Church language was Latin, not Anglo-Saxon. So suddenly, the Anglo-Saxon words were no longer acceptable in polite society OR in church.

The Norman government wanted to make sure that their rule was firmly established, and so they took efforts to make sure that their own language became dominant. How better than to create the impression that there was something evil about the Anglo-Saxon words?

There's nothing inherently evil in a word -- it's all in how the words are perceived, and how they are used. So what does this mean for Christians?

Ephesians 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

What defines what filthiness or foolish talk or crude joking are? The culture we are living in. No matter how commonplace profanity is, it's always pretty clear what words are profane, and what words aren't. Christians need to always be aware of how their speech is going to be understood by those around them. The message of the Gospel is going to offend many -- our language should not offend them. One indictment of Christians that I've actually heard rather recently is that "Oh, he says he's a Christian, but listen to him talk. Swears like a sailor. Wonder if he talks that way in church on Sunday," or something similar. We can, and should, make our points clear without resorting to profanity.

Joe's article then addresses "the question of whether we should avoid all areas of the secular world where such profane language is used." I think he makes a good point -- while we hold ourselves to a standard, we shouldn't expect those unbelievers around us to abide by that standard. People are going to swear around us (though I have been known to ask people to refrain from doing it in front of my daughter). We can't avoid all situations where we might hear profanity, unless we stay home with the windows closed and the TV off. We need to prepare ourselves for the fact that we aren't always going to like the language that people use around us, but that doesn't mean that we have to use it ourselves.

{An interesting article about this subject is available here.}

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 04:07 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 Thank you very much for your insight on this topic. I just completed reading Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" and was a little bewildered by his esteem of a pastor who frequently cursed in his messages. I'm sure that this pastor assumed that using such language was allowing him to connect with his audience and therefore potentially justifiable. However, there is no room for debate when it comes to the clarity of Ephesians 5:4. I believe very deeply in building authentic relationships with non-believers in order to connect with them, but I don't believe we are called to mimic them in word or deed in order to do so.

Posted by: Leslie at December 02, 2005 04:49 PM (WZphx)

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