Monday, November 09, 2009

Tongues of Fire

Caution! Achtung! Warning! There's a sticky subject ahead. Not that we shouldn't admit that we have elephants in the room, but we do often have a difficult time doing so. Still, it must be said that we are called to redeem, to be Christ wherever we go. In recent years, it has come into vogue in our world of the Kingdom to be glad for our freedom to curse. Or, since I think that how Scripture (and indeed any authoritative text of the ancient world) defines cursing is a far cry from our so-called four letter words, I will heretofore refer to it as 'cussing.' That sounds much earthier than, "You shall walk on your belly, and dust shall be your food." 1 Truth be told, one word obviously is derivative of the other, but we shall let slang refer to slang, and the high speech of the Lord and his servants of old will not come into this discussion.

I've chosen to write about this, in part, because it has both perplexed and irritated me for some time now. But truly, no matter my thoughts on the subject, the Scriptures, a few mature authorities, and sheer common sense have a good deal to say to us all. To begin with, the issue is that cussing is not the language of redemption. Let's allow some air into that before we continue. Am I saying that the oft-mentioned situation of hitting your thumb with a hammer is not a prelude to any vulgarity that may cross your mind? Of course not. Most of us are going to cuss sooner or later, and I don't think we should dwell very much on the specifics of things you don't want to hear from a 5-year-old's mouth.

Men will have to give an account of every idle word spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. 2

What concerns me most is the revelry in freedom from a law which has been fulfilled. The Sheep have been loosed from their green-swathed pen to follow the Shepherd through the Dark Countries if they will. But on the way, we enjoy rolling in the mud and filth now and again, just to prove to our fellows that our Sovereign won't give vent to his anger over such trivialities. In the back of all our minds is the possibility that he might rebuke us, but we don't dwell on it. But that same Sovereign has made it our task to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. 3 Let us make way for the possibility that, in some small part, the use of uncouth language in any form may bring about that redemption of the language simply according to the purpose of its use and the person who uses it. If Jonathan Edwards rolled out of the pages of history and said, "I hope [insert frustration here] burns in Hell," I think I'd pay attention. But if Chris Rock says it, it gets filed away in our memory banks under "Mildly Humorous" and we long to laugh about it at the office coffee pot. It's true, we don't like high speech. We prefer Hemingway's pointedness to Fenimore Cooper's florid descriptions.

But when musicians kick off the sales of records with the idea that it's controversial to say "shit" and artists paint nude studies with emphasis on genitals, then we've crossed the line from redeeming words and pictures to selling shock. And honestly, unfortunately, it's no longer shocking. Except, of course, to the legalism crowd who has thrown out the baby of untamed great art with the bathwater of borderless voyeurism - and yes, they're found mostly in churches and older generations. The younger and perhaps more urban Christian that finds it hip to cuss has missed the purpose of speech entirely. Even Pagans (that is, those who are not Christians) have discovered this. Consider a letter to the editor from my hometown weekly.

Every time I am reading your publication and come across a term like “really sucked” or “kicked ass” or “it takes balls,” it is like being in an art exhibition and coming across a canvas where someone has merely blown their nose. These sentiments never change and I just long for more eloquent times; Virginia Woolf and Henry James would have gotten any point across without having to subject readers to unnecessary vulgarity. 4

Blown their nose? Yes, I believe that about sums it up. And our personal speech in this Soundbyte Era is little more than a collection of mindless and profane exclamations. Amongst believers, we must be reminded not to "use our freedom as a cover-up for evil." 5 But "let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you will know how to answer everyone." 6 Should we expect Believers and Pagans alike to express anger in their language at times? Most certainly. But amongst those called to redeem culture and "take every thought captive," we should also expect speech to be a little more efficient in its usage, and more beautiful in its scope. 7

And if you made it this far, enjoy one of my favorite slam poetry performances by Taylor Mali.

1. Genesis 3:14.
2. Matthew 12: 36-37.
3. Matthew 5:16.
4. Cynthia Markert. Metropulse. Letters to the Editor. September 23, 2009.
5. I Peter 2:16.
6. Colossians 4:6.
7. II Corinthians 10:5.


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