Two things caught my attention recently – neither in a “positive” way; and both incidents were “morally related.” Back around Mother’s Day, Kraft aired a “Swear Like a Mother” commercial for their “Mac & Cheese.” The commercial was replete with “bleeps” as Melissa Mohr, author of the book, “A Brief History of Swearing,” chastised mothers who don’t swear around or at their children, and basically urged moms to use this terrifically effective disciplinary/control tool. The second incident occurred in early June. New York State’s junior Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, cursed: she dropped some harsh profanity in a public speech (not the first time she did that). She did this, one would suppose, to show how tough (and hip) she is. Other politicians – from both parties, of course – have used explicit profanity in both public and private settings. In point of fact, it was not that long ago that language that is commonly used now by candidates for public office would have “automatically disqualified” them from winning, or even running for, office. I suspect that Ms. Gillibrand’s profanity was calculated to attract press coverage, increase her popularity, and garner votes: a bit of a change in public acceptance and attitude. We’ve come a long way, baby!
The Heart of the Issue
I wonder if Ms. Mohr’s, or Ms. Gillibrand’s, choice of words issued from a pure heart? After all, what we speak – our words – don’t come “out of nowhere.” Proverbs 18:4 says that “the words of a man’s mouth are deep waters.” That is, each of us, by our words, reveals what is in our heart. Jesus’ teaching on this is rather direct: “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). Two older commentators paraphrased what Jesus said in this manner:
o “Words are the index of the heart.” (JFB Commentary);
o “What is in the well is in the bucket; what is in the heart is on the tongue.” (Trapp)
The trouble with the tongue, you see, is that our words are a window to what is in our heart. That is true with respect to the two “ladies” just mentioned; and it is true with respect to you and me…
“Profanity” and “Billingsgate”
In its etymology, the word “profane” means “in front of the temple” (that is, “outside of/away from the temple”). In other words, it indicates “unholy or irreligious expression; language one wouldn’t use around God.” Of course, not only words but thoughts or actions may be “profane;” but “profanity” is generally used to refer to coarse speech.
“Billingsgate” first referred to a place – a fish market in London, in fact. The women who sold fish at Billingsgate became notorious for their creative use of crude speech – as one has put it, they became known for “their feats of vulgar language.” Thus, by the middle of the 1600s, “billingsgate” came into the English language as a noun used to refer to extremely crude and offensive language.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of expression – or freedom of speech – is one of America’s First Amendment rights: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” In the 1950s – and with greater frequency in the liberating 1960s – “freedom of expression” was used especially by entertainers and by student political activists to “push the envelope” with respect to crude, vulgar and sexually-charged language. Profanity was brought out of the bowery and into the mainstream. At first, of course, it was “mild profanity” that we heard from our entertainers and other public figures; but once we trespassed onto previously posted ground, “profanity” quickly degenerated into “billingsgate” so that by now, presidential candidates, a sitting Senator, and others can use coarse, sexual language in a public speech…and actually become more popular for having done that!
The Desensitization of America – and of the Church
The result the entertainment industry’s “mainstreaming” profanity has been, predictably, the “popularization” of the same. We not only hear “swearing” in movies, in popular music, and on radio talk-shows, but you will commonly hear parents apparently taking Ms. Mohr’s advice talking to their children “profanely” – even very young children – in Walmart or at the supermarket (and I am sure – in the home). And you may hear children talking back to their parents using the same words. Turnabout is fair play, after all… Check with the teachers whom you know to see if they hear it (or use it!) in school… Our society has become desensitized to “bowery language.” In fact, using rough language is part of the “new intellectualism,” and not using (what used to be called) profanity is considered puerile prudishness! Consider this quote from a “progressive” new, new evangelical: “Arguments (for using cuss words) exhibit both a robust view of the English language and respect for the intelligence of the listeners. If we are to be concerned about our ‘witness,’ then not drafting semi-literate, scruple-ridden cases against ‘bad’ words is a very good place to start.” Professing Christians who use profanity are “robust” in their use of language and “respecting the intelligence” of those around them(!); those who do not swear are “semi-literate” and “scruple ridden.” And, besides that, they are a poor witness. That is a “180” from what used to be: cursing was the puerile expression of those who could not find a more intelligent way to express themselves; and using it spoiled one’s Christian witness…
Unfortunately, as the culture around us has become more toxic and profane, the professing church has absorbed that toxicity. The church is not in Sodom and Gomorrah; Sodom and Gomorrah are in the church: we are falling in line with the world. We may be using salty language, but we are no longer salt in the world. The new “new evangelicals” have boarded the cultural train (not only with reference to swearing, but on many other issues). Please understand – swearing is not even a current debate in the new “evangelical Christianity:” it is actually considered by the younger set to be “a done deal” – an accepted, liberating fact; and a good evangelistic tool: “You see, we are just like you!” Consider this brief excerpt from a 2009 article: “In June, the Southern Baptist Convention devoted numerous hours and resolutions to opposing the disturbing new trend of cursing preachers.” And a few sentences later in the same article: “Considering how widespread and essentially non-controversial Christian swearing has become in the past decade, even in the Bible Belt;” and, “It’s also remarkable that a number of Christian publications seem to think they can keep up with the times by discussing swearing at this late hour.” (The article, by the way, was in favor of “Christian swearing.”) At the time of that article, leaders in the emerging church movement and after that, the “new evangelical movement” (that is, the more recent “new evangelical” movement!) had been regularly been using “cuss words” in their sermons. To cite one example, one of the leading “pastors” of the new, new evangelical movement, after being asked not to use cuss words in his sermon in a church where he was preaching as a guest, opened his “sermon” with the same intelligent and relevant expression that Ms. Gillibrand used earlier last month: “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” And this fellow was considered to be very theologically conservative… (To be fair, the swearer later apologized to the host pastor.) Our attitude is often, “If no one in the society around us minds [swearing (or sexual relations outside of marriage, or homosexuality, or whatever)], then why not join in? We don’t want to be seen as puritanical or ‘holier than thou.’ And we want to be relevant.” Thus we derive our ethical standards and take our lead from the world and not from our Father in Heaven. The question becomes, “What pleases them?”, not, “What pleases God?” “What will those around us accept?” and not, “What is acceptable to God?” One new, new evangelical actually wants “Christian cussing” to flourish: “The point here is to talk about Christians and cussing in a broad way, not simply from the ‘pulpit.’ I hope to hear more about the use of cursing in the ‘everyday.’”
Here is a paragraph from our newsletter several years ago. The topic was “entertainment” – The content of the entertainment, in tandem with the lives of the entertainers, will determine the direction of (its) influence. Unfortunately, the debauchery of the entertainment industry is documented in its archives and is still broadcast from its stages: it fills the airwaves, is flaunted on the big screen, and lights up our living rooms with its darkness. Moreover, I fear – if such is possible – it is only getting worse. And here is the most frightening thought: the profanity, immorality and violence portrayed by and in the entertainers of our times enters invited into our homes. The gateways to our hearts and minds – our ear and eye-gates – are flung open from the inside, and purity, righteousness and truth are taken spoil by an insidious enemy that most of us long to have as our guest! The result is that we are not merely desensitized to immorality, profanity and the like; our hearts are conformed to those things in our thinking and ways.
Several verses gnaw at me as I consider this topic. Jesus words already quoted step to the front of the line:
o “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). Other verses also trouble me with reference to the thinking of the new, new evangelicals (as I have dubbed them):
o Matthew 6:22,23 – “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. 23But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
o Ephesians 4:29 – “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (The new, new evangelicals will say that this verse condones cussing. “According to the need of the moment,” they say, “relativizes cussing and invites contextualization;” that is, it practically commands Christians to cuss.)
o Ephesians 5:3-6 – “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; 4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
o Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
Dear Christ follower, don’t see how close you can get to the edge of sin without falling in; rather, see how close you can get to God. Don’t see how much of what the world does you can do – and still call yourself a Christian; live out these few years in light of eternity, pleasing the Lord and becoming conformed to HIS image!