Watch Your ____ Mouth, and Other Things Jesus Might Have Actually Said

Watch Your ____ Mouth, and Other Things Jesus Might Have Actually Said August 7, 2018

Well, discussion on last week’s post on the Rocky Mountain Church job listing didn’t go as expected.

You might recall that I wrote about the Colorado church that was looking to hire a “pastor” to plagiarize and impersonate other celebrity pastors every Sunday.

Ridiculous, right? Yes, of course. But a strange thing happened in the comments. Instead of people discussing the ridiculousness of the Rocky Mountain situation, and other more common trends the megachurch movement has inspired, a number of good folks (and I do think most of them were well-meaning) decided to take issue with the fact I used the word “freaking.”

One such person wrote that they were more disturbed about my use of that euphemism than a church hiring a preacher to rip-off other bad preachers.

Another fairly frequent commentor who calls himself “Digger”  graciously informed me that it was just a “slightly less filthy way to say ‘f**ing.'” (I think he miscounted his asterisks, but whatever…)

It’s not really a surprise that there are good folks who object to even mild euphemisms for the “really, really bad words.”

A little bit about me. I grew up in the Houston area. My parents decided to homeschool me beginning in 3rd grade. This was a budding trend in the right-wing, conservative, moral majority era. They’d say things like, “You’d better get your kids out of those government schools before they go to hell!” I remember talk from the pulpit about how public schools would do nothing but train your kids to be godless heathens who believed in evolution and could place a condom on a banana.

Now, 30 years later, homeschooling has become a bit more mainstream. The religious right has faded from memory. The Moral Majority and most of its major players are, quite literally, dead. But back then it was different. We were trained by homeschooling advocates to have a plan for when the truant officer came to your door. We were supposed to be vigilant if we left home during school hours. There was a lot of fear mongering.

As you can imagine, these right-wing, fundamentalists that made up most of the homeschooling community believed in rules, and lots of them. Behavioral standards for everything, even little things. This caused real disagreements, though, when you compared rules with your friends and found out your parents were gypping you out of some great movies or, if you were a girl, your favorite skirt or pair of shorts.

Then again, some of those families made their sons wear long pants everyday, so you’d better be careful which rules you protested, lest you end up in white Reeboks and pleated khakis every time you left the house. Or you might not be allowed to go see Men in Black, but at least you didn’t have to wear a denim jumper to your piano lesson. Again, girls only, of course.

We would go to camps and retreats where there would be lake swimming, or if we were lucky, a chlorinated pool. If there were three hours of free time, girls would get the first hour, the boys the last, and the middle would be “mixed swimming.” The mixed hour was always the most fun, but boys always had to wear a t-shirt, and girls always had to wear either a t-shirt or shorts over their bathing suits. Inexplicably, it was never consistent, and never both. We eventually figured out it was probably decided by whichever mom was in charge on the basis of which part of the female anatomy was favored by her own husband. Because, naturally, that would be the half from which the young men needed the most protection. Remember, to the old homeschooling community, it was always the girl’s fault when young men had impure thoughts.

(Fun personal anecdote: I remember playing some modified form of water polo one time during the mixed hour, and as I boosted myself out of the pool to retrieve an errant throw my trunks slid all the way off my backside, so pretty much everyone got to see some of the good stuff. But at least I had my t-shirt on, so my nipples were completely covered.)

Language was one of the biggies, and it was always one of the areas I liked to push the limits at home or in my homeschool co-op or homeschool choir.

(Yes, friends, those are real things.)

I found out pretty early that “Oh my gosh” was completely off-limits almost everywhere homeschoolers gathered, and for obvious eisegetical reasons. Sometimes golly or gee were okay, but not always. You’d have to test the waters to see what would happen. Again, it would depend on whose mom was in charge.

I could generally say “darn,” but “dang” was too much. “Shoot” was usually okay as long as it was really, really clear to everyone which vowel sound came in the middle. Like, you better say it with a long “oo” sound that would impress even the heartiest of upper midwesterners.

“Freaking” was never okay in any variation.

“Crap” was one I began to use regularly unless my parents were in earshot. To say it felt like freedom. It still does occasionally, all these years later.

The reasons for such language restrictions were two-fold.

One, if you never heard it and nobody ever said it, it wouldn’t ever slip out at an inopportune time. Those for whom such words just slipped out were “worldly” (homeschoolers, gnostics at heart, had their own definition of that word), filthy-minded, and probably going to hell. Not because they used the words, mind you. They only used cuss words because they were already going there.

Two, it supposedly hurt your witness. If you never swore, people would probably get to know you, hear that you never, ever used such filthy words, realize you were “different” (It HAD to be the language and not the denim jumpers and 8-year-old hand-me-down Keds that made people notice your differentness…) and decide to ask Jesus into their hearts, too.

I know. It makes no sense, especially because none of us had ever met someone who didn’t go to church three times a week.

Oh, and I guess there was one more reason. It was because the Bible clearly said not to cuss, with one of a few dozen verses used as proof. Some of the most common ones were:

“But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” – Colossians 3:8 (Another aside – if your proof text begins with a conjunction, you need a new proof text.)

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” – James 1:26

“The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” – Luke 6:45

But there’s a problem here. These tiny excerpts have nothing to do with vocabulary and everything to do with use. The issue is never about the so-called profanities. I don’t think Jesus the Christ or the Apostle Paul would have much to say about the words themselves. In fact, at least in the cast of the latter, we can be pretty he would have joined in.

My longtime blogosphere friend Kurt Willems, now my Patheos colleague, has this to say:

“One test, then, is: Does using this word tear someone down or build up? If it doesn’t tear them down (because it is part of a language they understand) then we ought not live in a legalism that the Scriptures don’t impose. Saint Paul certainly didn’t.

In Philippians 3.8 Paul says that he considers all things as ‘rubbish’ or ‘garbage’ or ‘dung’ or ‘loss’ compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus. This word (skubalon) is only used once in the New Testament. And yes my friends, that word is a first century cuss word.”

In other words, context is everything.

They’re just words, friends. Just words. What we do with them is the important thing.

As I’ve grown distant from the homeschooling community, I’ve felt increased freedom to push back. I do so because conservative Christianity continues to abide in that legalism, those arbitrary behavioral constructs we create to make ourselves feel holy. And boy, do I have some stories to tell.

I know a homeschooling mom that would spank her infant – and by spank, I mean full slaps on the hands and arm – when the baby would crawl off of its blanket.

I know a family that disowned their son when he married a woman of another race.

I know a teenager who was sternly disciplined in his homeschool choir because once, when he wasn’t watching where he was going, he accidentally made fleeting, backhanded contact with his female friend’s breast. A big scandal ensued. Her family tried to warn others about him for years.

I know a church that removed a young woman from a leadership position because she went on a family vacation to Florida and dared to post a picture of herself in a two-piece swimsuit.

I know a dad who whipped his teenage son with a belt whenever he suspected the son had masturbated during the day.

And I know many, many stories of consequences inflicted upon young people when they’ve dared use a word that conservative Christian culture has deemed inappropriate.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the teetotaler who would order a drink whenever he heard someone say that consuming alcohol was wrong, sinful, or a bad witness. As someone who feels strongly that the glaring holes in Christian culture should be exposed, I’ve tried to model my life on the principle behind that story.

So when those commentors called me on my use of the word “freaking,” I responded with the teetotaler story, and then proceeded to launch into a paragraph in which I used an assortment of choice words. It was my way of ordering a Maker’s Mark old fashioned and forcing the issue.

And why would I do this?

Because they’re just words, friends.

When Jesus and Paul spoke about guarding your tongue, they were much more concerned about the context in which words were used. Are they used abusively? Licentiously? Pruriently? Slanderously? Are they gossiping? Insulting? Tearing down? Spreading lies?

I don’t litter my personal speech with spare words because elegant, refined prose is infinitely more effective in most cases. But then again, this is not academic writing here on Patheos. And just like I don’t talk to my best friend the same way I would write a liturgical prayer, if I’m writing a post that’s supposed to be as ridiculous as the Rocky Mountain Church story, maybe I’ll throw in a few substitutes for the really good words. And that’s okay.

There is plenty of precedent for it. Just read some of the stuff St. Paul wrote, for instance. Read the words of Ezekiel where he talks about the false “shit” gods. It’s all in there. Heck, look at the works of the reformers. Strong subjects beg for strong language. It’s only in our sanitized, moralistic Christian culture that we’ve forgotten this.

Some might be offended by some of the words I used in my comment. Again, context is everything. I wouldn’t use them in front of my young children, or anyone else unable to contextualize them properly. I wouldn’t knowingly use words in front of someone for whom it would violate their own conscience, just as I wouldn’t invite the Jewish family next door over for a pork chop dinner. But to say it makes one vile, corrupt, a hypocrite, or unwholesome is foolishness. Plainly speaking, it’s horsesh**.

They’re words. Only words.

Thankfully, many others in the Christian community have begun to see that it’s not about the words themselves, but what we do with them. So when our friend Digger, who called himself Frank Jones but whose real name is Pastor Jeff, decided to email a screenshot of my “vile” comment to my pastors, I don’t have to be concerned about fallout. My wonderful pastoral staff know me well enough to see through his allegations that I’m a “complete fraud,” a “foul-mouthed hypocrite, ” that I have a “filthy soul,” and that my “vile rant” must only be the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to my “vulgarity.” According to Pastor Jeff, he’s going to “teach me humility the hard way,” my “chickens are coming home to roost,” and that since he works in IT (That’s a lie – he doesn’t.) he could ruin me by publishing what I said on my church’s social media.

As the choice words I used must be interpreted through context, so must Jeff’s malice, taunts, and slander.

Tread carefully, friends. When you try and trap others in a legalism that Holy Scripture and Jesus himself will not own, it may come around to bite you in the a**. In imposing your arbitrary standards on others, you might look down to find yourself with your toe over the real gospel line. And if you’re not a dam*** fool, you’ll realize you’ve been betrayed by the overflow of your heart, yet again.

So go forth from this place. Use words not to harm or booby trap, but to build up, to edify, and to teach. Let your language demonstrate all the elegance, eloquence, and erudition you can muster. And use whichever words, and I mean whichever words, you find necessary.

Because friends, in the words of Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.”

Amen.

Photo:
Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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