On Vulgar Language

On Vulgar Language February 19, 2007

I have been taken to task elsewhere on the web for a few posts on my site that included obscene and vulgar words. It’s been argued that my posts violate biblical standards for speech and writing. That’s the issue I want to address in this post.

One of the most relevant passages of the NT is Ephesians 5:1-12. In the ESV, verses 3-5 read, “But ?sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness ?must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, ?which are out of place, but instead ?let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that ?everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (?that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

To determine what kinds of speech Paul is prohibiting here, we need to take these words in the context of the whole Bible. My assumption is that Paul cannot be classifying as “filthiness or foolish talk” things that he himself or another biblical writer says. From this, we can draw some conclusions about what Paul does not mean:


1) Paul says that “sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness” ought not be “named” among the saints. Is he saying, as Markus Barth argues, that words have a talismanic quality, such that speaking about a particular act encourages or even causes it to happen? I’d need to be convinced that Paul thought words had that kind of magical effect, and it’s clear enough from the passage itself that Paul doesn’t mean that these sins cannot be mentioned. Paul says it’s shameful to speak of things the wicked do in secret; but of course he’s spoken of them himself, by naming them. Paul mentions them as he forbids them to be named; he speaks of the things that he later says (v. 11) are shameful to speak of. Paul wrote that PORNEIA should not be named among the saints; he didn’t write that P*****A should not be mentioned.

There is a parallel between what Paul says here and what is said in OT passages like Exodus 23:13 and Joshua 23:7, both of which prohibit the “naming” of the gods of surrounding nations. The idea is not merely writing or saying the name, since the names of false gods are written in the OT itself, which was supposed to be read to Israel. The idea is that they are not to invoke the names of those gods, not to call upon them for protection, not to use the names as “imperatives” that must be obeyed.

It’s also interesting that, inevitably, attention gets fixed on sexual and scatological words, and Paul’s command that “covetousness” not be named is ignored. I could go on and on about greed, the materialism of modern culture, the luxurious lifestyles of the rich and famous, the dishonesty of modern corporate culture and advertizing, and no one would bat an eye. No one enters “covetousness” into my site’s search engine to see how often I named something that Paul forbids us to name. That’s as it should be. Paul names covetousness, in a letter presumably designed to be read in church, and he would want us to name it in order to warn Christians from committing it.

We can go a step further on this when we consider Paul’s instructions about sexual morality in the context of contemporary sexual morality, as expressed in sexual language. “I had no PORNEIA with that woman,” President Clinton might have said. Does that stop us in our tracks? Don’t we have to ask what the man means by PORNEIA? Could someone escape church discipline by denying he had sexual intercourse, when in fact he had engaged in any number of sexual acts that stopped short of “intercourse”? If we can’t talk about it, and in detail, how can we exercise discipline? And if we need to talk about it to exercise discipline, we need to prepare ourselves for discipline by talking about it ahead of time.

What does Paul mean when he says such things ought not be named? He means, I think, what he means in 1 Corinthians 5:1: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, ?for a man has his father’s wife.” Sexual immorality, uncleanness, covetousness ought not to be reported as something done among the saints.

2) Paul is not prohibiting the naming of ungodly sexual acts such as fornication, adultery, incest, sodomy, bestiality, and so on, because they are named in the Scriptures. He is also not prohibiting all uses of sexually explicit desriptions, for these too are found in the Bible. Ezekiel 16 and 23 are intense descriptions of Israel’s unfaithfulness, sexual images such as “They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore k?in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms? handled” (23:3), and describing the private parts of the Gentile lovers as being “like those of donkeys” and their “issue was like that of horses” (23:20).

3) Paul is not prohibiting references to bodily functions, which are found in the law (Leviticus 15; Deuteronomy 23:13-15).

4) Paul is not prohibiting the quotation of words that would be sinful if uttered as our own. This too is found in the Bible. If I were to utter the words of the Rab-Shakeh of Assyria who speaks to the people on the wall of Jerusalem as my own words, I would certainly be a blasphemer. But the writer of 2 Kings quotes this blasphemy: “Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (2 Kings 18:35). Hezekiah rightly tears his clothes at the words. If I were to say as my own words, “There is no God,” I would identify myself as a fool; but Psalm 14:1 quotes just this, and there is no sin.

5) Here things get more controversial: I don’t think Paul prohibits the use of vulgar terms, because Paul at least once uses what arguably is a vulgar term for human excrement (Gr. SKUBALON). Rendered as “rubbish” or “trash” in various translations, and that is consistent with classical Greek usage that applies the word to the refuse or leftovers from a meal that are tossed away. SKUBALON is also possibly related to the Greek word SKOR, which is rendered as “dung,” and that is also a possible meaning for SKUBALON itself. The TDNT article on this word suggests that Paul uses it to comunicate the idea of “resolute turning aside from something worthless and abhorrent, with which one would have nothing more to do. The choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation” (TDNT 7.448). Paul uses a vulgarity, according to TDNT, to describe what his heritage and achievements in Judaism meant to him after he met Christ. It seems to me perfectly suitable to translate SKUBALA with a word just as vulgar as the Greek word itself: “I consider it all s***,” Paul says.

(I admit that my knowledge of the ancient Greek usage is limited, and the word may be less vulgar than TDNT suggests. Even if it is only “rubbish,” it remains a pretty sharp term for Paul to use with regard to his Jewish heritage.)

I’ve also argued for a similar translation of the Rab-Shakeh’s threat to Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18:27 (where “dung” doesn’t seem to fit the rhetorical situation), and think the KJV got the tone of 1 Samuel 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; and 2 Kings 9:8 by translating the phrase as “him who pisseth against the wall.”

6) Finally, Paul is not excluding the use of a particular set of words, as if he were establishing a first-century FCC or giving a list of dirty words like a Pharisee George Carlin. The issue is not the particular words or subj
ects talked about, but the way they are talked about. One can say “You fool,” Jesus tells us, in a way that merits hell; but Jesus Himself calls people “fools” (Matthew 23:19). A man who calls a pig a pig is using language in a straightforward way. Calling a man a pig is another thing entirely; it may be accurate, as when Peter describes apostates in 2 Peter 2, or it may be just as insulting and vulgar as any expletive. Some words in some cultures are inherently vulgar; but it’s not just the words themselves, but the contexts in which they are spoken, that makes them vulgar or not.

Before suggesting some of the things that Paul’s exhortation does prohibit, let me make a few comments about the posts under consideration and my interests in these things.

1) For those who haven’t noticed, vulgar sexual words have become mainstreamed in contemporary American. The f-word appears regularly in films, high-art novels, cable television, and many other places, and it’s only one of several sexual crudities that have followed the path from the Whore House to the White House. That’s a massive change in language, which signals a massive social and cultural shift. Having an interest in how our culture is going, I have an interest in this linguistic trend.

2) In my post on DH Lawrence, I examined one important English writer’s use of the f-word, and the ideology behind it. Lawrence’s usage was not accidental, but consciously ideological. He wanted to mainstream the word as a way of undermining Victorian prudery and to emphasize the physicality of sex. He wanted the word to be used for loving sexual intercourse. My argument was that the word cannot be detached so neatly from its historical connotations and context. The word is vulgar and offensive still, as the reaction to my postings demonstrates.

3) With the rise of the classical Christian school movement, I have been particularly interested in disabusing parents and teachers of the notion that the Greeks were clean-cut Ivy League types. They weren’t. Crudity and sexual humor are rife in Greek and Latin literature. I think it’s better to admit that openly than to pretend it’s not there, or to piously refrain from talking about it. Whiting out the naughty bits of Greek literature does not give students a clear and honest picture of the paganism that the church confronted, overthrew, and transformed.

4) There is even a good bit of bawdy in the literary tradition of the Christian West – witness Chaucer, Boccoccio, and some parts of Shakespeare. Chaucer was openly Christian, yet had a much different sensibility about these things that modern evangelicals do. Have we improved over Chaucer? Perhaps, but I think there’s something right and proper about the open acknowledgment of our bodiliness that we find in Augustine and the medievals, up to the 16th century.

There’s more to say on all these points, but I’ve gone too long already. Let me close with some conclusions about what Paul is forbidding in Ephesians 5.

1) Paul is saying that the lives of saints should not be characterized by sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness.

2) Paul says that our talk should also be free of EUTRAPELIA (“crude joking”) but rather full of EUCHARISTIA (the pun in v. 4). As noted above, Paul himself appears to use vulgarities in some circumstances; when he encounters crap, he calls it “crap.” And the Bible shows no sign of the embarrassment about bodily functions that we often have. But those uses of language have times and places. Paul says our talk as saints should not be characterized by vulgar words, sexual innuendo and jokes, scatological humor. Many people today cannot utter a sentence without using an obscene word, and that kind of speech has no place among Christians. Especially since Freud, some try to make everything into a veiled sexual reference, and that kind of pervasive double-meaning is also excluded.

3) Taking Ephesians 5:1-12 as a unit, we can get a fuller picture of what Paul prohibits and permits. Verse 11 suggests that it’s possible to “partake” of the deeds of darkness (some of which are mentioned in vv. 3-4) without, apparently, actually committing such deeds. Verse 12 indicates that this “partaking” occurs by speaking of shameful deeds. As we’ve seen above, however, Paul himself identifies these shameful deeds, precisely to denounce them. As he says, we are not to partake of the deeds of darkness but to “expose” them (v. 11) in order to bring what is in darkness to light (v. 13). Exposure of this sort requires speech about the deeds of darkness, speech that imitates Paul’s own exposing speech. Paul cannot, without self-contradiction, forbid talking about sexual immorality, filthy speech, or covetousness. What he prohibits is speech that partakes of the evil deeds, as opposed to speech that reveals, exposes, and judges evil deeds.

4) Of course, nearly anything can be justified in terms of “research” and “expose.” There is always a danger that what is presented as “exposure of evil” actually arises from a sinful fascination with forbidden acts. So, Paul is also forbidding constant talk about sex, which can tend to encourage what is putatively being condemned. A pastor whose every sermon ends with an application about sex probably needs some help himself; a pastor who never speaks of sexual sins and sexual purity is failing in his calling.

5) There are, I have argued, times when strong language is appropriate. There are occasions when only vulgarities can express our revulsion at evil or injustice; certain impersonal, selfish, violent sex acts can only be described with terms as vulgar as the acts are perverse. At the same time, Paul does not give us room to pepper everyday conversation with vulgarities, or to use vulgar speech, as some Christians do today, as a badge of hipness or authenticity. Normalizing vulgar speech weakens its power, and robs us of the strong language we draw on when the occasion demands.

In short, what is not excluded is a Christian discussion and evaluation of EUTRAPELIA in an effort to expose the ideology behind it, so that the church will be instead filled with EUCHARISTIA.


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