Tuesday, September 09, 2003

A Christian's Guide to Cussing

Following a recent speaking engagement I was approached by a young man sporting a floppy Gilligan-like hat. The hat pressed down against dark curly hair that matched his dark soul patch, and dark framed glasses. A little on the swarthy side, he was dressed in that way people who want to be alternative but aren’t really committed to the endeavor do.
“Thanks for that,” he said in reference to my sermon, “You really cut through all the bullshit.”
I had just spoken on Christianity being a dangerous faith, a reckless faith, to invoke an adventurous Albertan indie band of the 90’s. Gilligan and I were both standing a few feet from the monstrous stage I had just spoken upon. Triple screens tower above us in this massive sanctuary that seats 1000+ congregants on a Sunday morning. While it’s evening, not morning, this isn’t the sort of church I expect to hear the more popular form of the phrase “hooey manure” in, morning noon or night.
Being no stranger to colorful language, I don’t react. It’s a trait I developed working with young offenders. Edgy students will often swear to get a reaction from the leader, be they teacher, pastor or coach. Since I could swear circles around most of the recalcitrant youth I’ve worked with, their attempts at shocking me fail abysmally. (Immediately I hear the morality cops crying out, “See! He’s jaded so much that he’s not often shocked!”)
“Thanks,” is all I say. Truth of the matter is, I can’t tell whether the insertion of ‘bullshit’ so boldly into the first moments of our conversation was trying to get a reaction or honest speech pattern.
We exchange some small talk, which inevitably gets around to “What church do you attend back home?” I tell him I attend the Gathering in Edmonton.
His body language registers recognition. I’m getting ready to tell him there are lots of Gatherings, and he likely hasn’t heard of ours when he asks “Do you know….?” It turns out that I do. Apparently he has heard of our Gathering.
“I’ve got a problem with your church’s website,” he says.
I invite him to air his concerns, and he informs me that “some guy” has written “an article” about Evanescence where he uses coarse language throughout. I know exactly what article he’s talking about. I also know the guy he’s talking about. It’s me. I let him finish his rant before stepping from behind the curtain. He’s taken aback, but persists in his line of accusation.
“Do you want to explain to me why you think that’s all right?”
I’m trying hard to frame our conversation properly. After all, he’s the one who started it by thanking me for cutting through all the bullshit. Not hogwash, not horse hockey, not fiddlesticks, not the ever so annoying bull-crap. He said bullshit, in clear and well enunciated elocution. I want desperately to point that out, but I’m assuming he’s a moderate user of colloquialisms. It’s likely my use of the great f-bomb in the original text of the Evanescence article (The Gathering printed the uncensored version, I edited the version here at Gotthammer.) that has Gilligan up in arms.
“I’m not sure I need to explain it,” I reply. “I said pretty much what I felt and still feel about the issue in the original article.” In reviewing the article later on, I am reminded that the reason I used such strong language was for irony’s sake. The whole point had been to highlight what I saw as an overreaction on the part of the Christian community toward bad language. I used some choice words to underscore this idea.
In our conversation, though the old For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is never invoked, Gilligan uses a few more four lettered dainties. He’s an s-word Christian it seems, to quote an old article from The Door which categorized the levels of swearing various groups of Christians in North America deem acceptable. One of the members of the aforementioned Reckless Faith used to call me his “F-word Christian” friend, with no small degree of affection. According to the article, F-word Christians “are the angry young men and women of Christendom. They could give a S*** about impressing anyone with how Liberal and open-minded they are. They are all upset over hypocrisy in the Church, rich Christians in fancy cars with attitudes about migrant workers, and global warming…plus nuclear energy, inner-city poverty, western economic imperialism, and the insistence some Darn Christians have on prayer in schools, flag burning, and the evolution thing…not to mention abortion, homosexuality, AIDS, measles, bloody-minded legalism, and a bunch of other stuff.” While not entirely accurate in my case, I fit the bill for the most part, especially the part about using the "F-word".
Confession time? Hardly. Anyone who knows me well knows I have an inclination to swear like a trucker, a sailor, a soldier, like Eminem. I often tell people they’ll know I feel safe around them if I start slipping up with my speech. I do my best to censor myself in most arenas of life. The article obviously wasn’t one of them. I was going out of my way to say what I said.
The whole issue has become more pronounced in my mind over the past two months, hand in hand with my decision to become a freelance writer and speaker as a career. Christian speakers who swear like truckers are generally not in high demand, despite the promulgation of the story of Tony Campolo saying “thousands of children will die of starvation today and most of you don’t give a damn. And more of you are upset that I just said ‘damn’ than you are that those thousands will die.” Some versions of the story present him as an s-word Christian instead of a d-word one, but I wouldn’t put it past the man. He obviously had intent when he used whichever word it was.
Camp after camp I inform the students who attend the campfires and chapels of my online presence, telling them it’s not “got as in ‘got milk?’” but rather the German for “God’s hammer”: Gotthammer. Both a reference to my camp speaker alter ego, “Thor” and a verse from Jeremiah 23:29 where God’s word is described as a “hammer that shatters rocks” the site began as a way for me to showcase my media work, back in the days when I still hoped to get a job in the field. My recent shift back into ministry and freelance creativity shifted the site’s focus as well. The never-completed “Resume” page became the “Bookings” page featuring my fee schedule, upcoming itinerary, and mp3’s of my speaking.
One of the changes I intentionally did not make was to take down my old journals, or edit them for content despite an inner voice that said “you’re gonna get in trouble for this.” I haven’t so much gotten into trouble as been slightly misunderstood. People who hear me speak sometimes get the idea that I’m sinless, or at the least, an edgy version of sinless. Newsflash everyone; I could give Paul a run for his money on being “chief among sinners.” The details are none of your business, but trust me on that one. It’s not something I’m proud of; it’s a reality I live with.
In addition to having a jaded past, I have a tainted present; I imbibe, though I do not do so in excess. I like to smoke cigars and pipes, and do so from time to time. I enjoy movies of many kinds; among my favorites are some hyper-violent films; I own both Desperado and 3,000 miles to Graceland. And I still color my language with the seven words you can’t say on television, despite several attempts to remove it from my speech wholesale.
When I was a teenager one of my teachers gave me this challenge; using coarse language was the way of the lazy man. A smart man will find more appropriate words to use in his speech. Being in agreement with the premise, I built up my vocabulary. I know what it means to be obsequious, ostentatious and how to use my olfactory sense. I am given to being loquacious but not lascivious. Nevertheless, sometimes a spade is just a spade and bullshit isn’t horse hockey no matter how much we’d like it to be.
Very recently I picked up a book at the Edmonton Public Library’s book sale at the Edmonton Fringe Festival called “The Christians ‘Cuss’ Book”. It starts out with these promising opening lines:
“This is a very personal book. I’m not writing it for you; I’m writing it for me...Because I cuss!” I thought that for twenty-five cents I couldn’t go wrong, but when I got to the part where the author stated that “because some people do use ‘shucks’ in reference to the s-word, perhaps it should not be used at all,” I knew that even at that bargain basement price, I could go wrong.
I know all about Colossians 3:8, for those who are getting ready to email me the reference. “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (NIV) I once wrote a song based on this verse. It was all about not swearing. At the time, I equated my Christianity with not swearing. Despite this belief I still said hurtful things about others. I still made undisciplined remarks. Had I a fuller knowledge of scripture at the time I’d have worked more on curbing slander and gossip, which are mentioned with greater regularity in the Bible than what Western Evangelicalism refers to as “vulgar language.” I’ve heard some of the rudest gay jokes from men who would never deign to say any of the seven deadly vulgarisms. Some of the most abusive hate literature on the Internet and in print is penned by Christians whose speech is profanity-free.
As I understand the Greek used in Colossians 3:8, it is more about abusive speech than it is about swearing. I can say from experience that abusive speech needs no coarse language to be abusive. I’m still getting over hurtful statements made years ago that didn’t have a trace of slang. The majority of verses in the Bible regarding speech refer to thoughtless or idle talk. Words we don’t consider before we utter them.
Many of the translations of the Colossians verse refer to speech that is insulting or hurtful in intention. It was taboo to call female students ‘bitches’ at Bible School, but it was common practice to demean them in dormitory discussions about the place of women in the home and ministry. No one would dream of calling their pastor an ‘asshole’ but I have watched a few careers go up in smoke from the fires of gossip and slander.
Go to another country, you’ll often find the words that are taboo here are fair game elsewhere. I can recall standing in the lineup for lunch in my first year of Bible School with one of the more Godly students there that year. With one of our professors directly behind him, Thomas informed my friend Chris that he was “just fucking with him.” In the area of South Africa Thomas hailed from, the word was innocuous. Years later, an Australian classmate at Seminary would declare a “bullshit-free-zone” without hesitation. It was a means of explaining what he wanted, not posturing or trying to shock.
Or consider this story; an Australian visiting Canada sees the store “Roots.” This word has a very different and more vulgar meaning in popular Aussie speech. He buys a number of “Roots” logo clothing and goes home to offend all his friends with his preppy outdoorsy wear. When I think of “pants” I think of clothing. The word means the same thing as ‘nonsense’ does in the modern slang of England.
Please don’t mistake me. I’m not advocating for some movement of Christian cussing. I’m not going to go on at length about how my coarse language makes me a better evangelist to people on the edge of society, because I have no evidence to support such a statement, and I’m pretty sure David Wilkerson didn’t need any of that approach with Nikki Cruz. I’m advocating that we go after the true problem, not the red herrings the church is so fond of. It’s easier to stop saying shit than it is to stop talking in a way that makes people feel like it. It’s easier to point the finger at someone for saying “goddamn” than it is to notice how the church uses God’s name in vain, calling itself Christian while God has no part of their proceedings.
To illustrate the point, I’ll recount an experience Jenica and I had while part of a small group some years ago. The group met to watch a film and then discuss the spiritual content, if any, of the picture. After our discussion one night, we decided to surf the Internet for Christian movie review sites. At the time, most of the sites devoted to reviewing films for Christians were merely content policing. Reviews amounted to a numeration of questionable content; how many violent acts, how many nude scenes, references to sex, and even the number of vulgarisms as well as the number of profanities. Profanity is language referring to God, and vulgarisms are the seven you can’t say on television.
Our group decided to experiment with this, to see how difficult it would be to watch a film and keep track of profanity and vulgar language. Our test film was Primal Fear with Richard Gere. Twenty minutes into the film, none of us had any idea what the movie was about, although we did have a healthy number of chicken scratches on our tally sheets. We dropped the experiment, rewound the movie and set about to watching it.
We’re often so concerned about the trees we’re missing the forest. My mother-in-law once attended a session with Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis. Gresham does ministry in Australia these days, and wasn’t as sensitive to the peculiarities of Canadian evangelicals. He dropped a few choice words. With the exception of my mother-in-law, none of the other attendees I spoke with knew what Gresham had talked about. They were too wrapped up in the words he had used.
Words are powerful things.
I have been challenged by my recent experiences and the writing of this journal entry to watch my speech closer, to inspect whether or not I have a rein on my tongue, or if it controls me. To this end, I am not “trying to stop swearing.” I’m trying to stop talking trash about others, trying to be more positive in my speaking. I’ll work on being more of an encourager; I’ll do my best to be a truth-teller. And in doing so, if I step in shit I may call it horse hockey, but only if it involves an assemblage of equestrians contesting each other with timber implements upon glaciated water.


  1. Mike, I love you. Bwahahahaha. /Ryan

  2. fernseed and elephant, another red herring caught in the net of clear and open thought