Tag Archives: Profanity

The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

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Profanity, Obscenity, and Swearing

No Swearing

I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. Ezekiel 36:21 (NIV)

As I have led our local community theatre for the past decade, the subject of language has been an ever present topic of conversation. In fact, the subject of language on stage has always been a topic in productions. Playwrights often lace their characters’ lines with language that producers know will offend large portions of a local audience. If you eliminated all of the potential plays and musicals which contain language or content someone in your audience might find unsuitable, you’ll eliminate about 99% of classic works. Shakespeare himself is full of off-color language and bawdy humor, but most audiences today don’t catch it.

It is technically illegal to change a playwrights copyrighted lines without permission, but local productions regularly choose to tone down a play’s language for their patrons. Still, you can’t please all the people all of the time. Even after choosing to tone down a script’s language I still have to regularly write letters of apology to audience members with hyper sensitive ears. It goes with the territory.

Because of my experiences with language and the stage, I have studied the nature of “dirty” language over the years and found some fascinating lessons to be learned. Most people do not understand the difference between profanity and obscenity, but there is a key difference which adds a layer of meaning to our message from Ezekiel in today’s chapter.

Profanity can be thought of as taking something meaningful, and emptying it of its meaning for a more base use. The most common example would be the name of Jesus. Followers of Jesus believe there is spiritual power associated with the name, so when others use it as angry exclamation it profanes the name, emptying it of its spiritual meaning to be used as a common expletive.

Obscenity, on the other hand, can be thought of as dirty language. Think of George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television (Well, you couldn’t say them on television back when he did the routine in the days of my childhood). Bodily functions, fluids, excretions and sexual references used for exclamation, descriptive embellishment or other effect.

The concept of swearing is actually a version of profanity. In the middle ages, people lived together crammed in one room and both the excretory and sexual body functions were not done as privately as they are today. Obscenities were not a social taboo because everyday social reality was itself a dirty existence. In those days, however, to take an oath (to swear) was thought of as having significant spiritual power. If you wanted to really let fly with profanity in those days, you’d make an oath and swear “by his (e.g. Jesus’) blood” or “by his (e.g. Jesus’) wounds.”

Shakespeare used contractions that were considered swearing (an oath), but not really. “Zwounds” or “Zounds” was a contraction of the profane oath “By his wounds.” In the same way we contract and alter words to soften the social blow (i.e. “Fucking” becomes “Fricking,” “God damn” becomes “Gosh darn,” “Jesus” is contracted down to “Jeez” or transformed to “Jeez Louise,” “Jesus Christ” is transformed into the doppleganger “Jesus H. Christ” which we all know is a completely different person ;-).

In today’s chapter, God takes exception with his people’s profaning His name. The word picture is of  them emptying a precious and priceless word of its meaning, pouring it out on the ground and dirtying it up.

Today, I’m thinking about my own words and the choices I make in every day conversation. I am admittedly guilty of letting colorful words fly from time to time. Today I am reminded that I need to be careful with the words I wield.

The Sour Feeling in My Gut

source: stickyii via Flickr
source: stickyii via Flickr

So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Revelation 10:9-10 (NIV)

As artists, Wendy and I love stories that are honest and well told, even when the honesty includes characters acting and speaking in ways we would find unacceptable for ourselves. Some people are offended when they hear a single profane word uttered in any context, but it typically doesn’t bother us when a truly profane character in a movie swears on the screen. Profane people say a lot of profane things. We usually roll with it without thinking much of it.

Having said this, there have been many times over the years that Wendy and I have felt spiritually soured when watching television, a movie, or when reading a book. For a couple of years we avidly watched a television program that was, and I’m sure still is, brilliantly written and well acted. It was network television, so there wasn’t anything in the weekly program which we found particularly objectionable. However, one night Wendy mentioned to me that she felt a “sourness” in her spirit watching the show. Coincidentally, I had been feeling the same gross feeling over the course of the previous few weeks, but without being sure why, I hadn’t said anything. To this day, I can’t tell you any one thing that was wrong or objectionable about the show, but in our gut we both felt spiritually gross watching it. So, we stopped.

I love the word picture of God asking John to eat the scroll in today’s chapter. The connection between God’s word and food is a recurring theme throughout God’s Message. For example, Jesus said when tempted to satiate his physical hunger that “man was not made for bread alone, but for every word that comes out of God’s mouth.”

A couple of related takeaways this morning:

There is a difference between reading and digesting. It’s one thing to have a small taste of greens, but popping a pea or two is not going to do you much good. You have to consume the green vegetable in larger portions if you want any health benefit. I have found the same to be true with reading God’s Message. For maximum spiritual health benefit, you can’t just have an occasional taste. It should be fully consumed and digested over time.

Transformation doesn’t take place without significant change, and change is often motivated by discomfort. When you get used to eating a healthier, more balanced diet you soon find that unhealthy things have a discomforting affect on your body and its functions. I don’t like the way I feel after eating all of those sweets or fats, and it motivates me to avoid doing it again. Once I changed my spiritual diet to include regular consumption of God’s Message, I found that I started feeling soured towards spiritually unhealthy things. I still can’t tell you what it was about the television program Wendy and I stopped watching, but the sourness in our spirits told us we needed to cut that program out of our entertainment diet. Call it what you want. I just know that when I something is spiritually off, the sour feeling in my soul motivates me to get things back in line.

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Turning God into a Good Luck Charm

English: The Ark of the Covenant, by James Jac...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, itwill save us from our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)

In todays chapter, the people of Israel were desperate for a victory. As a fan of both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Cubs, I can totally relate. Rather than seeking out God the way God had prescribed, the Israelites took the Ark of the Covenant (remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?) from the Tent of Meeting (a kind of moveable temple that the Israelites built and used while making the trek out of captivity in Egypt) where God said it should be and stay. They carried the Ark with them into battle as if it was some kind of secret weapon. Of course, that’s not how God purposed the Ark. They took something God had designed for one reason, and tried to use it for their own self-centered intentions.

The results were not positive.

We as humans have an ages old habit of turning God’s metaphors into mascots; We turn images into icons and idols that we wear, bear, rub, and relish. In doing so, we so easy to reduce the omnisicent, omnipotent, omnipresent Creator into a good luck charm. This is the very definition of profanity: to empty something of its meaning.

Today, I’m searching my own heart, life, and thoughts for ways that I subtly turn God into my personal talisman. I don’t need superstition. I need a savior.

Holy Sh*t

holyshitYes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ. Philippians 3:8 (NLT)

One of the books on my summer reading list is a fascinating treatise entitled Holy Sh*t, A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. I am intrigued by the subject matter on a number of levels. At least part of my motivation when I picked up the book sprang out of my role as President of our local community theatre. Most popular plays and musicals contain at least some swear words. Our organization regularly engages in conversation weighing the options of presenting a script as written (knowing that we will offend some of our audience members) or changing the script to eliminate some or all of the offensive words (knowing that in doing so we are breaking the law and our contractual obligations to the playwright and publisher). When people hear certain words they get offended. Then, they write letters. It’s my job to respond.

What most modern Americans do not realize is that the Bible is full of language that most people would consider harsh or obscene. After studying it for over thirty years, I’ve always understood this. In her book, Mohr does a great job of laying it out in a literary, social and historical context. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The authors sometimes used words, phrases and euphemisms which, literally translated, would offend most religious people today. The verse above (Philippians 3:8) from today’s chapter is a great example. Paul was trying to make a strong point. All of the things that he once thought worth-while (e.g. being extremely religious, keeping all of the Jewish laws and customs, zealously persecuting anyone who didn’t agree with his religious view, and etc.) he now considers worth-less. But, Paul didn’t write it that way in his letter.

When Paul wrote that all of his former religiosity was “worthless” he used the Greek word that is transliterated in English: skubalon. It is the only place in the New Testament this Greek word is used. Literally translated in today’s language it means “shit.” When translators write this verse in English they choose to use a more acceptable English word such as “rubbish” or “worthless” so as not to offend. But make no mistake about it, Paul considered all of the religious trappings of his life prior to meeting Jesus as nothing more than a pile of shit.  And, he wasn’t afraid to say so.

Today, I’m thinking about words, phrases and euphemisms. They are little metaphors. A sound we make or symbols we write which represent something else without using “like” or “as.” One of the little known, rarely taught aspects of God’s Message is that it often uses words and word pictures that are offensive to those with fragile social sensibilities. Truth offends, and Paul clearly understood that sometimes Truth must be spoken in words that communicate its harsh realities.