The Holiness of the F-word

Last week I was asked again to speak in the Crackers chapel on campus. To review, in the Crackers chapel you are to argue both sides of a controversial topic. You start by arguing for one side and then, halfway through, you switch and argue the other side. And the chapel ends on that open-ended note.

For this chapel I was asked to argue the question "Can Christians cuss?"

The "No, Christians shouldn't cuss" was pretty easy to do. I cited texts like Ephesians 4.29 and Ephesians 5.4.

Apparently, the church at Ephesus was a bunch of potty mouths...

The "Yes, Christians can cuss" was a bit more complex. Basically, it all boils down to context. I couldn't and wouldn't argue that Christians have a blank check to cuss, dropping the f-word anywhere and everywhere we want. So I had to describe certain situations where it would okay to use profanity.

The point I ended with had to do with our commitment to truth and how that might relate to a particular aspect of profanity. Specifically, profanity is intimately associated with our emotions. For example, if you hear the words "making love" it's likely, if you are under a brainscan, that only your frontal cortex would process this phrase. But if you heard the f-word it's likely that your Limbic system--where emotions are processed--would also light up. This is the psychological, almost visceral jolt--the Limbic system firing--you feel when someone drops the f-bomb.

This is one reason we don't like to be inundated by profanity. Profanity crosses a neuropsychological boundary, acting at a distance to jolt our emotions. So it feels like a violation.

And yet, it's this aspect of profanity, its ability to evoke some of the deepest emotions within us, that makes it an important player in our commitment to truthfulness.

Sometimes the truth is messy, harsh, profane and vulgar. Consequently, if we sanitize our speech and art we are handicapped in being honest witnesses. For example, a Rated PG movie about the Holocaust isn't going to be truthful. To tell the truth we're going to need to go to some pretty dark places.

I made a similar argument about profanity. Sometimes, I said, profanity is the only way to express the truth. Usually because the truth involves expressing deep, rarely expressed emotions. Emotions of pain, violation, outrage, despair, or rage. On these occasions speech is going to look a bit messy. I'm reminded of an argument Steven Pinker made along these lines:

[W]riters must sometimes let [their characters] swear in order to render human passion compellingly. In the film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story, a sweet Polish peasant girl has hidden a Jewish man in a hayloft during the Nazi occupation and becomes his doting wife when the war is over. When she confronts him over an affair he has been having, he loses control and slaps her in the face. Fighting back tears of rage, she looks him in the eye and says slowly, "I saved your life. I took the last bite of food out of my mouth and gave it to you in the hayloft. I carried out your shit!" No other word could convey the depth of her fury at his ingratitude.
In a similar way I'd argue that there are times when we, ourselves, are in situations like this. And like Pinker, I'd argue that no other words can capture the depth, breadth, and height of our emotions. At least not truthfully.

And so I ended the chapel on a paradoxical note. The f-word, I said, is holy. If used casually and flippantly we will cheapen the word, render it profane. Words like the f-word should be used rarely, and only when speaking to the deepest aspects of human experience.

Use the f-word, sure, but only on holy ground.

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13 thoughts on “The Holiness of the F-word”

  1. I really like this Richard. I am, I must confess, a cussing Christian (although in Oz we never use the word "cuss"). I have never done any second order reflection on why I allow myself to swear at choice moments but you seem to have hit the nail on the head for me. There are times when no other form of language will communicate the depth of meaning and emotion necessary. Thank you for helping me understand myself better (once again).

  2. Recalls to mind when my then 5 yos Joey told me his 7 yo brother Tim "used the F-word".   Upon further investigation,  Tim had called Joey "stupid" which is on my list of "Forbidden Words".  To Joey, "F-Words".

    The forbidden words included stupid, dumb, idiot, shut-up, duh, brat.   Disrespectful words.  I was just discussing with some friends the way that some men refer to women by coarse body part names.  Yep hits the emotions.  Objectifies, dehumanizes.

  3. Yes, I feel the same way, as an occasionally cussing Christian.  As someone who loves words, I do believe in finding the RIGHT word for every situation, and sometimes the right word, the truest word, is a cuss word.  (Although sometimes, to be honest, my husband and casually cuss in our conversations with each other, I think as a way to blow off steam.  For people in the ministry, cussing around someone else is almost a sign of intimacy.  Make of that what you will.)  Richard definitely takes my own thoughts on the matter a few steps further here, and I like his psychological angle.  (Also, just for the sake of that chapel talk, I have heard that the biblical authors cussed in some of their passages of Scripture?  I've heard that several times, and could reference a verse or two, but I'm not sure that it is actually true.)

  4. The Crackers chapel speech and debate format -- a favorite of mine.  :-)  In my better moments, these are the types of balanced arguments that play out in my thoughts, and carry over into interactions with others.

    Words...  They are more than just letters and sounds.   Their meaning and power are shaped by cultural values and taboos.  Blessing and cursing...  The power of words to either heal or wound.  The f-word certainly has powerful connotations of violence and violation.  Is it being used to express outrage at an injustice, or to verbally intimidate a person?  If the hearer(s) perceive the f-word as a violation, regardless of any lack of intent on the part of the speaker, then does the speaker have a greater responsibility to respect and honor the feelings of the offended?  Or, is the seriousness of the injustice more important to convey, by any means -- f-bomb included?

    I'm no paragon of virtue when it comes to pure speech, and I don't take offense at coarse language.  Ha!  Far from it.

    But...  When I hear/read janky talk, my reaction depends on how it is being used.  Directed at an unjust "thing" -- I'm cool, generally.  I get it.  On the other hand, I feel differently if a person is being cursed.  Different in that I'm disturbed and don't feel good about words used that way.  Of course, having an expanded, more sophisticated, "PC" vocabulary often just enables a person to curse another in ways that are not only socially acceptable, but applauded and encouraged.

    My 11yo son recently attended his 9yo best friend's birthday party.  Several of the boys had their iPods and loaded up their favorite tunes:  L'il Wayne and Eminem.  The uncut/uncensored lyrics to which the young partygoers were singing along.  I was a little shocked, and asked my son whether he had joined in.  The problem with overuse of cussing is not only diluting the meaning of powerful words and discernment of *when* it's appropriate to use them, but also the habit-forming potential.  It's too easy to rely on words like the f-bomb instead of seeking to understand and communicate with more nuanced specificity.  I would like my 11yo to develop a substantial vocabulary.  :-)  The same is true of my advice to 15yo on Facebook chat and texting:  Practice speaking in complete sentences!  She does well, and is even quite good at making a point in very few well-chosen words!  (She didn't get that from me.)

    Speaking of words, one that I ran across in some reading recently that made me smile:  "Snarly."  That is my word of the week.  :-)  ~Peace~

  5. This issue of truth and the emotions was the last point I made in the chapel. Before that point I also talked about norms and how, in some social contexts, cuss words aren't offensive in the least. Profanity can, in fact, be fun and playful. So in those contexts cussing wouldn't be a problem. The key is discernment, knowing where that social boundary is located.

    But the fact that we cuss around best friends and spouses does go back and highlight the point of the post. With those we are closest to we can be more emotionally honest. Venting about the day might involve cuss words to communicate the full range of our emotions to an intimate.

  6. The F word is my favorite word.  I love the way it sounds. I'm not sure if it's the f-ish sounds at the beginning of the pronunciation or the k-ish sounds at the end of the pronunciation.  I don't get to use it nearly as often as I would like.  And that's a shame.  It has such zest.  Now I know I'm not the only one who likes the word.  Kindred brother!  Now, I'm empowered!

  7. Susan, as a high school English teacher, I offer you a cyber pat on the back for encouraging your teenage daughter to speak and write in complete sentences.

    Richard, your point that profanity is "sometimes . . . the only way to express the truth.
    Usually because the truth involves expressing deep, rarely expressed
    emotions. Emotions of pain, violation, outrage, despair, or rage" strikes me deeply. In certain company, I sometimes use profanity in a humorous way. But in those instances, I consider what words I'll use. In moments of despair or pain, profanity can burst out without any premeditation. Around the time I discovered your blog some years ago, a friend of mine from college was diagnosed with terminal cancer just a few months after learning he'd be a father. Following his wife's blog posts regarding her anguish and his declining health was devastating. After reading one particularly raw post, I broke down crying, telling my wife (and really lamenting and lashing out to God at the same time) in f-word laden sobs how hopeless and unfair it all was. I didn't "choose" that language; it poured out of me.

  8. You must see this poem from Over the Rhine, about how God's "even blessed a dirty word":

  9. You might want to add class distinctions to your discussion, especially at a place like ACU. Many, many Christians simply don't understand that different communities use different words in different ways.
    It is usually in the lower classes, among the poor and often among blacks, that "cussing" is used not even to shock, but in a sort of habitual way--"that *$&#^* guy puts mustard on his *#^$(#* french fries, isn't that *#$*@^$* hilarious?"While I don't want to be training white middle class students to talk this way, I am afraid that the church trains them to dehumanize and villify people who do talk this way--to think that@Susan N. this person, talking about mustard on French Fries, is really more profane, less self-controlled, less Christlike in his speech patterns than (for example) a good middle-class white who is slyly putting down a friend.

  10. I'm glad somebody mentioned cultural differences. I do a lot of work with inner-city kids and there have been a few times when I've been in a discipline interaction and an angry kid decides to start using profanity with me but obviously doesn't know what the words mean or even what parts of speech they are. It's hard to blame the kid for cussing when profanity is the only model for anger they have ever been exposed to and they don't really know what they are communicating.

  11. Thanks for posting this Dr. Beck. About a year ago I realized that the bible never says don't cuss. It says don't curse, and there's a distinction. I still never had the desire to use profanity, but was more open to others using it. A few weeks ago, I read "A Child Called It". The book really messed with me. It didn't make me sad as much as it made me pissed off at the brokenness of world. Several times I really wanted to go out behind the dorm to rip up the book (and possibly my clothes), beat on the ground, and shout the F-word repeatedly. I didn't. The book was borrowed and the ACU community probably wouldn't respect the biblical nature of a crazed man, dressed in shredded rags and shouting profanely about how broken the world is. Such prophetic* actions wouldn't be appropriate behavior in public.

    *I use the word prophetic because these actions model Israel's prophets. In no way do I believe I have received a personal call from God to do any of the things I described.

  12. An Orthodox Christian Bishop once told me (a construction worker), "If you swear as a Christian you must swear eloquently." Indeed profanity has its own eloquence used in the right contexts. 

  13. I'm reminded of Tony Campolo making a stern point by using profanity from the pulpit. It goes something like this: When speaking to a crowd of "haves" about "have-not" poverty issues, he said something like, "There's thousands of people who will go to be hungry tonight and you don't give a damn about. And to prove my point you're more concerned that I just said "damn" than about the starving people." Holy use of a cuss word? I think so.

    Plus, didn't Paul lead by example on this one? I believe the Greek word he used was "skoubola."

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