Shit Christians Won’t Say

Profanity is an odd thing when you think about it. The word “shit” has a power to it that “defecate” does not have. Why?

Part of it is history and class. Shit started as a low-class crude saxon word, defecate a refined high-class latin word. But somehow those connotations of class and sophistication had morphed into something more basic. How and why are things that I don’t understand.

I don’t think R. Eric Tippin, columinst at Relevent Magazine understands either, but he feels the need to opine on whether or not using such verboten words is really a big deal. The problem is that he doesn’t provide any way of understanding what profanity is.

Tippin calls profanity “unholy speech.” Perhaps there are invisible markers around the text that I can’t see, unwashed heathen that I am, but I don’t know what makes one word pure and another impure.

Tippin acknowledges that “profane-ness” shifts with time and place, so at least he acknowledges that this lexical impurity is a cultural construction. But he just moves on from there, as if profanity were so obviously impure that it needs no explanation.

There is no deeper level here. Convention is morality. How language is perceived by the community is the soul of the matter. I suspect this is where you inevitably end up when you consider your entire life to be a witness to Jesus.

At this point, it becomes impossible not to quote Tony Campolo:

“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

As an interesting side-point, there’s our neighbor E. Stephen Beurnett at Christ and Popculture, considering whether or not Christian fiction should be “grittier.” He points out that many Evangelicals already feel that their popular fiction is sufficiently gritty:

First, many readers think tamed-down, swear-word-free crime fiction is the “unsafe” stuff. They love reading about a severely decomposed body floating in a cabin’s Jacuzzi (an actual scene from Brandilyn Collins’s Violet Dawn). To them, that’s thrilling. It’s gritty. It’s edgy.

Yeah, that’s the America I know. You can show a shooting spree on a prime time show, but you can’t use one of the seven words. I can’t really blame Evangelicals for being part of the culture.

Burnett goes on to simply ask, why? Why introduce profanity into the literature? To which I guess I’m responding, why not? Is this aversion to profanity anything more than a tribal marker for the Evangelical sub-culture? If not, and given the fact that the sub-culture seems to be splintering, shouldn’t some authors within Christian publishing be allowed to try expanding their vocabulary?

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  • Norm Donnan

    Is it true that your not allowed to say “toilet” on telivision ? I was told this is why they say,”he’s in the JOHN”,or the LOO ect

    • Sparky43PA

      From the start of TV to sometime (probably in the 60s or 70s) you couldn’t show a toilet on TV. “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” had the couples sleeping in separate beds. I’ve never heard of the “toilet” restriction, but you couldn’t say “pregnant” on early TV.

  • mikespeir

    I still won’t use that kind of language myself. I don’t see the need for it. However, I do put it into the mouths of my characters sometimes, because that’s how people talk.

    Not sure if it will add to the discussion, but here’s a question. If you were being interviewed by the local news, would you be careful to avoid words like “shit”? Why or why not?

    • lovesalot

      I would avoid it, because I would not wish to reveal myself as being so lacking in imagination.

      • Artor

        Yeah, that George Carlin had no imagination at all. It’s a shame he didn’t have anything to say but cursing.

    • Michael

      I would avoid it, because if it was being recorded, they would legally have to cut it out, and if it was live, I would look like an asshole and the network would get harassed over it (yes, that really does happen).

      Obviously the choice of words depends on the audience. If your audience will be offended and think less of you, you would be a fool to swear (unless that’s what you’re going for), while if they don’t care, you would be a fool to care yourself.

    • Sabio Lantz

      Good question, Mike. Get’s to the heart of the issue.
      Or imagine telling a 6 year-old about your day, would you tell the kid, “I had a fucked up day with all the shit I had to take from people.” If anyone says “yes”, I’d wager they did not have children or their children are not ones I’d want my kids to hang with.
      Oh, don’t get me wrong, I swear more than I’d like, but there is good reason it is taboo.

  • Michael Mock

    Have you been bugging my house? I had this same conversation with my seven-year-old just last week. “Arbitrary and conventional” is not a good basis for making judgements, but we seem to be stuck with it.

  • Jeff

    If the early Saxon language had been just the tiniest bit different, “kitten” would be an unspeakable word. But it wasn’t, so it’s not.

    And I have no qualms about swears. I have my own list of words and phrases that I don’t like, so I don’t use them (and wince slightly when people around me use them). And culture aside, if a person objects to one word or another, the burden is on them to communicate that preference to others. I’m not a damn mind-reader; since all these swears are arbitrarily determined anyway, I have no way of intuiting what’s good or bad for any given listener.

    And “profane” language really is literally “unholy.” The root word, fane, comes from the Latin word for temple. Profane things are thus those things which are outside, or not belonging to, the temple. So as a general rule, profanity is the type of swear that has a religious element to it.

  • Turtle

    I won’t pretend to know the psychology of it, but I think we’re kind of hard-wired to need swear words of some kind. Even the most pure-mouthed Christians will exclaim something out of the ordinary when they stub a toe, even if it’s ‘dangit!’ or ‘gosh darnit ow ow ow!’

  • Sabio Lantz

    Is this aversion to profanity anything more than a tribal marker for the Evangelical sub-culture?

    Having lived in many cultures (most of which weren’t Christian), and watched swearing be treated in similar ways as here, I can answer the question: certainly not. Swearing has many functions, of course, some of which are viewed universally as taboo, disrespectful, rebellious and public show of anger. That we’d take care to train ourselves and our children to take care in its use, is wise.

    As to your next question, why do you care what Christians do with swearing? I must be missing something here.

    • Makoto

      Swearing is certainly an interesting topic to me – I was raised Christian, and told not to ‘curse’ (which included all swear words, not just using god’s name in vain), mostly as part of the religious instruction. Even though I’m not a believer anymore, I still don’t swear. Partly I’m sure that was training from a young age not to, and partly that I simply don’t feel the need to. I feel that I can communicate fairly effectively without such words.

      On the flip side, when I hear someone swearing up a storm, the swears also seem to lose their impact. It’s like there’s a middle ground where the occasional swear use has power in language, but at either end of the extreme it’s either unused or pointless additions, and neither has meaning.

      Anyway, as for your question, I find it interesting being a former Christian how much Christians swear when they say it’s a no-no, as well as just seeing how language interacts with many cultures. I’m currently in the US, in the bible belt, so Christians are the most common folks around me for such study. As a guess, the author is in a similar situation.

      • Sabio Lantz

        I agree, Makoto.
        I will have to do a post on swearing now.
        Having learned several languages in vastly different cultures and experimented with swearing in those cultures almost as naively as I did in my own. And then reading on the topic of linguistics and swearing and … over the years, I have come to enough insights to at least generate one post.
        In the end — I teach my kids not to swear.
        I too am a former Christian and now an unabashed atheist but not the anti-religion type.

  • kessy_athena

    Oh, baby hippos!!

    On using profanity, I’d say that the important thing to remember is that the purpose of language is communication, so using words that carry a lot of baggage that you’re not trying to convey is generally not helpful.

    On caring about profanity, I’d say that words are containers: they only carry what we put in them. By getting all bent out of shape over certain words, you are giving those words a lot of power over you, and by extension you’re also giving that power to anyone who uses those words. I don’t understand why you’d want to do that.

    • Sabio Lantz

      I worry that a post-modern mentality could sneak it saying, “It is all relative, morality is arbitrary, we can just stop following traditions.”

      • kessy_athena

        There’s a difference between morality and things like traditions, taboos, and cultural norms. The former is based on objective standards of treating other people humanely and the sorts of behaviors that are either very harmful or very helpful to maintaining a civil society. The later is almost entirely arbitrary. Now being arbitrary doesn’t mean it’s automatically useless and can be discarded. After all, it’s entirely arbitrary whether people drive on the left or the right side of the road, but it is kind of important that you pick one or the other. What it does mean is that if those things change, it’s not the End of Civilization as We Know It.

        It’s normal to have expletives, and it’s normal for those expletives to come in a variety of strengths. If people overuse harsh expletives, those words will simply lose their potency. It’s normal for language to shift over time. A hundred years ago, “damn” and “crap” were fairly strong words. Today they barely qualify as profanity at all. On the other hand, a hundred years ago, “nigger” was a pretty ordinary every day sort of word, while today it’s probably about the most taboo word in American English.

        • Sabio Lantz

          Not much I disagree with there. I don’t let my kids swear. Do you?

          • kessy_athena

            I don’t have kids, but a few years ago I was visiting my Mom and her neighbor’s kids had come over to play. The younger one, who was maybe 3 or 4 at the time, was in a bit of a swearing phase. He said something in front of me, and I asked him, “You know it upsets your mom when you use words like that, don’t you?” “Yeah.” “Well, do you want to make your mom upset?” “……No…..” “Then why did you say it?” “……………………….”

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    Well, Fuck me…………………

  • Lothars Sohn

    Hello Vorjack,

    I’ve already been rebuked by Evangelicals in France in Germany for having used slang.

    “Yeah, that’s the America I know. You can show a shooting spree on a prime time show, but you can’t use one of the seven words. I can’t really blame Evangelicals for being part of the culture”

    America seems also to be a country where a growing part of the population focuses on the noble task of destroying all religions while ignoring crying social injustices like healthcare and the war on drugs.

    Regards from Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • RickRayFSM

    Luv Bill Maher’s tv show! He has no problem with the swear words! Plus, I have no problem listening to them. Maybe us atheists are just more “liberal” than your religious hypocrites. LOL

  • Grotoff

    Do they mention how Paul “swears” in Philippians? It’s almost like strong language is just another kind of speech.