Today's post is written by our guest, Michael Blaylock. Language, like many other fundamental elements of Christian fiction, has been governed by rules since people were able to write books. The rule has usually been: Don't use curse words or foul language in your Christian fiction. Or else.
Or else what? Like many of the other topics we've been exploring surrounding specific content in Christian fiction, language has many angles and caveats that we can come at it from. The Pharisees will say that there's only one angle: Don't do it.
But can language help add realism and character to our stories? Can it be used in clever ways to bring about emotion to the page that could not otherwise be shown? Can it be used to convey powerful ideas that basic vocabulary cannot?
Today, we're going to take a look at language in general, and why Christians are told not to cuss or use any type of 'questionable' language in everyday life. Next week we'll explore specific words and theorize why they are considered bad. And the week after that we'll wrap up this look at language with some thoughts on how language can be used in Christian fiction in particular.
As with all things, we do believe there are some who struggle with certain elements of content more than others, so we'll try to be as respectful as possible. We'll warn you ahead of time though, that this post and the ones that follow next week do have cursing and foul words in them if only for the purpose of exploring why they are bad and whether or not Christians should actually be using them or not.
Without further ado, here's our guest author, Michael Blaylock, with some words on words.
- David Alderman
What Makes Cuss Words So Gosh Darn Bad?
Want to freak out a Christian? Cuss. Just once. Not even at them, just in passing. I promise you they’ll jump a little. Seriously, do it one time for fun. Then giggle. Then repent, ya Godless jerkface.
Did you see that? I can call you a jerkface and not get in trouble even though jerkface is an insult and %&#*!$ is an insult, too. So clearly the mere premise of insulting another person does not a cuss word make.
So what does?
Is It the Bible?
The Bible says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up…” (Ephesians 4:29). Thus, Christians freak when someone cusses, but we’re back to square one. What makes words unwholesome?
Let’s ask Jesus, I mean the Bible says he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). Let’s see, the guy called Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34), sons of Hell (Matt 23:15), and “evil” (too many places to count). We wouldn’t normally call that “edifying,” would we?
Maybe it’s because Jesus spoke truth and truth alone. But then again, were the Pharisees literal vipers? Did Hell actually spawn them? Was Herod literally a “fox” (Luke 12:32)? No. So metaphors and exaggerations are merely fundamentals of communication and not necessarily evil. And no specific words are mentioned as evil other than using the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7).
Well, that was unhelpful.
Is it the words themselves?
Why can I say “poop,” but not s***? Why is “illegitimate child” okay, but “b******” is not? Why can I say, “your wife’s body hasn’t been the same since birthing your children, yet you still keep your marital vows,” but not, “You mother f***er”?
Let’s examine one word: ass. Forgive me, Christians, but this is a scientific study. You don’t call a gynecologist a lecher, so please allow me the same liberty.
Why is “butt” okay and “ass” is not? Is there some ancient Anglo-Saxon voodoo language happening here? Where do the words “butt” and “ass” come from that make them so different? I know “ass” also means “donkey,” but then if that’s the case, why is “donkey” not a bad word?
Some words have a sexual connotation (I’m tempted to list them out just to make people uncomfortable, but that would make me a donkey-hole), and Christians don’t like to take sex lightly. Okay, I’ll give you those…wait, no I won’t. Why can I be punched in the crotch, but not the d***? Dick is a name for pity sake, who decreed that this name was evil? “You know, you’re a real Melvin!”
Actually, why isn’t Judas a bad word? How did Christians miss that one?
Is it a cultural/context thing?
This is a better reason. You don’t say things that make others uncomfortable and you don’t use racial/gender slurs (unless you’re a donkey-hole). It’s simple kindness to respect others’ wishes.
…but that still brings me back to my original question. HOW did those words get to be so vile to those cultures? I can’t even figure my own culture out!
We all know the n-word is derogatory, but how did that happen? Who first coined that word? Who’s the first person who said, “That word offends me!” I mean, “Yankee Doodle” was meant to be a derogatory song against Americans, but Americans made it their theme song.
Why are some insults okay and others not?
Is there a man with a list?
For all my speculation research, the most sufficient answer to my question is “Someone decreed that these words are bad.” But who? The Bible was nearly mum, kings and emperors change regularly, and as far as I know, the Library of Congress has no list of forbidden words.
Mommy and Daddy said so? Okay, honor thy father and all that, but I’m a grown man now, no longer under their rules. So…whose rules am I under now? Who’s still telling me not to cuss?
It sounds like there’s just some magic guru in the mountains somewhere with a Luke Skywalker beard and a list of no-nos. But where didhe get the authority to tell me what to do? Who is this mysterious person of power?
Or are we such tight wads that we’ve forgotten the letter of the law brings death, but the spirit of the law brings life? (2 Cor 3:6)
I wonder that sometimes.
Okay, maybe that’s a harsh generalization. Many Christians want to obey Christ, so they err on the side of caution as not to sin. You know, like…um…oh, shoot, what’s his name? That Bible hero who was real cautious and pleased the Lord? Um…uh, shoot…
Legalism kills, and banning anything “because I said so” only brings about questions of your authority. Every rule has a reason, and if you don’t know it, why do you obey it?
And as for “safety,” if Jesus was concerned about safety or propriety, there would be no red letters.
My Totally Authentic Conclusion
No words should be used that automatically devalue a race or gender. No words should be used on the basis of shock value alone (Jesus aimed to expose hypocrisy, not just call people names for the fun of it). And those who cuss constantly for effect and cleverness only show their own limited vocabulary. As Maggie Smith said on Downton Abbey, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”
However, to say any one word is evil “just because” is absolute silliness. Grandma didn’t like it? Don’t say it to her. Pastor doesn’t like it? Mind his feelings if you can. Don’t want your kids to say it? Guard your tongue. That’s not hypocrisy; that’s context.
All words require maturity to use. They’re tools and weapons, capable of great destruction and great healing. Jesus used harsh words and gentle ones, each when he needed to. Every word should be used with caution, socially acceptable or not. “It” can be destructive when talking about your child, and “thanks” can be cruel when said in the wrong tone.
There are very few absolute rules in this world, especially in the arts, and language is an art. God set few boundaries, and the rest is up to us to navigate with his guidance.
I know, I know, Christians like rules, but God wants us to grow up and have the wisdom needed to adapt to any situation.