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A Tasteful Examination of Using Salty Language in Religious Publications

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I have a friend who works in the Christian publishing industry. He was recently telling me how conservative it is, and for emphasis he added, “We can’t even print the B-word.” I rolled through a catalogue of words in my head, trying to guess which B-word he might be referring to. There were so many choices. Was it bitch, bastard, balls? Surely any one of those could be the vulgar culprit.

Perhaps there was some other curse word I hadn’t been exposed to yet; some urban street-slang these publishers were on to, one that would soon be infiltrating our suburban high schools, possibly even making its way into the mouths of our church youth.

I remained silent, not wanting to guess the wrong word or expose my lack of street cred regarding the youthful slang the Christian publishers were so down with. God forbid, I certainly didn’t want to show my age. Not hearing a response, my friend volunteered the answer to this trivia question. “The word is ‘breast’,” he said. “‘Breast.’ Can you imagine that?”

No, I can’t. What I can imagine, though, is the abrupt and final termination of any misguided notions I had for snagging a book deal within the Christian publishing industry. I pictured myself sitting across the desk from a pastorally editor who is suddenly infuriated upon reading the word “ass” in my manuscript. Enraged and offended, he pulls me up by the ear and briskly marches me through the building, shoving me out the door back onto the cold, harsh streets of Grand Rapids.

I never thought of the word ‘breast’ as risqué, really, not when it is used in an appropriate context. I mean we are all adults here, and I bet most readers are either women or married men, which means we either have them or have had them in our sights at one point or another. Why work so hard to pretend the breast is not a functional part of a Christian’s every day lifestyle? Read the Song of Solomon, for goodness sake.

It’s not that I am a foul-mouthed libertarian. I have always been fairly conservative when it comes to language. The Christian publishers’ attitude reminded me of my own conservative upbringing, and the taboo that was expressly reserved for any utterance remotely resembling a curse word. I never heard swearing in my home, growing up. Even the words that were quoted during King James bible stories in church and Sunday School — words like “hell” and “ass” (the animal, not the body part) — were strictly verboten.

However, with age, a more robust group of Christian male-friends, and quite possibly hanging around too much with my own teenage daughters, I have definitely loosened up my tongue a bit. Especially as I started writing, I developed a healthy respect and appreciation for the use of a salty word now and then to round out a story or to drive home a point for emphasis.

Plus, it’s pretty much how we talk – “we,” meaning the friends from work and church who I spend time with, those with whom I fellowship with and share my life, even the most spiritually mature brothers and sisters. We feel quite free to use an off-color reference now and then. Not every day, not usually in a crowd, and certainly not in each conversation, but once in a while, yes.

I know several men, spiritual pillars of their churches, who will occasionally drop the word “shit” into our conversations. And, hey, to me, it usually sounds just fine. Sometimes that is exactly the right word choice, just what the doctor ordered. “Golly, Brad, I think I just got on my pastor’s shit list,” one gentleman confides.

Other times these folks are referring to the actual tactical meaning of the word, especially coming from those who are associated with the agricultural industries, those hard working men and women who till the soil and work with livestock. “I was out in the barn and got shit all over my shoes!” the Godly Christian farmer will say to me, and he doesn’t even know that it was once a forbidden word in my Evangelical fundamentalist household growing up. None of these gentle folk are being vulgar, foul-mouthed, or inappropriate. We are just friends talking to each other about our lives in our own tongue.

So why can’t it be so in my own writing, where I am also sharing my self and spiritual life with my friends, you the reader? How we talk in real life is not at all like the Christian publishing market portrays. I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but sometimes I cannot relate to the sanitized, simplistic, hyped-up, and over-spiritualized language that is often passed for inspirational literature.

Everyone is trying to out-motivate everyone else. I worry that these authors and publishers are more concerned with spiritually one-upping the reader rather than getting down to the mat, revealing the messy truth of life, which is where the bulk of my real, normal life is taking place. It just doesn’t sound real.

Of course there’s still plenty of insight and inspiration to be gained from reading and listening to the pastors, motivational speakers, theologians, and writers who are out on the circuit today. God knows we all can use some wisdom and guidance on our journeys of faith, but lately, for me, I am too often left with an awkward disconnect between their well-meaning spiritual advice and my real world experiences. It’s as if these experts don’t quite get what my life as a “normal” person is like. I mean normal in the sense that giving spiritual advice is not my primary occupation.

I can understand the reluctance of Christians to print or speak words that may compromise or call their piety into question. Maybe they find it hard to know where to draw the line, and thus prefer to err on the side of caution. None of us want to fall under the Apostle James’s admonition of being unable to tame the tongue, “uttering both praise and cursing out of the same mouth” (James 3:9-10). I try to imagine if Jesus ever used a cuss word, especially the teenage carpenter-apprentice Jesus, after accidentally hitting his finger with a hammer. I doubt it, but what about the disciples?

Take Simon Peter, for instance. Well, no question there. Peter definitely cursed. He was the one with the potty-mouth, the one that the other disciples had to keep apologizing for. “Oops, sorry Jesus, about my brother’s trash mouth. He got into this bad habit of cursing when he was working in the Galilean Fish Workers Union a few years back. But he’s a good guy. Peter can you please just tone it down? Goll-lee! Jiminy Crumpets!”

Peter was probably no different from any other fisherman you might be acquainted with – you know, “salt of the earth” and all. He may have toned it down some after becoming a full-fledged apostle, but I can still see him dropping some Aramaic F-bombs when he got worked up; he did have a temper, after all.

What about Paul? Rumor has it that if you look carefully at the original Greek manuscripts you will find he used a saucy word in one of the epistles, and it wasn't by accident. A speaker at one of our Inter-Varsity Fellowship meetings first presented this scandalous idea to me over 20 years ago while I was in college. This gentleman was expounding on Philippians 3:8, “I consider everything a loss compared to the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

After the speaker preached on the magnitude of Paul’s commitment (“so should ours be,” he said), he went on to tell us the word “rubbish” is not quite the literal translation. He continued on this tangent and with a wink and a sideways smirk told us, “You folks might find it interesting that the original Greek word Paul uses here is a slang word. It means something a little more explicit than the word ‘garbage.’ It actually refers to human excrement.”

“Whoa, dude! All right, Paul!” That’s what most of us guys were thinking, but I never heard anything more about that translation again, and avoided saying that particular slang word for human excrement when describing my commitment to Christ, or in any other context, for that matter.

Fast-forward 25 years. A few months ago I stumbled across that same proposition while reading a book called, “The New Christians,” by Tony Jones. Brian makes the exact same point in a little sidebar, that the Greek word Paul uses in Philippians 3:8, “skubalon,” is the equivalent of our vernacular word, “shit.” Most bible translations will use words like “refuse” or “dung” or “garbage,” but the real translation from the Greek is a slang word for human excrement.  

Well, there you have it. Paul used a street-word for its shock value to get his point across, but Paul wasn’t “cursing” just then, was he? He was using a slang word in a certain context to bring a punch to his very strong point. There are certain slang words that are actually appropriate at times, more relevant or, at the very least, functional.

There’s a big difference between using slang and actually cursing. Cursing involves outright vulgarity with an intention of offending and condemning the listener. That is not what I, or my good brothers and sisters, ever intend when speaking. I guess that’s my point, or rather, my question: Just what exactly qualifies as a curse word anymore?

I serve on a Board with one of the pastors from a mega-church in our area. A couple of weeks ago we were about to receive a presentation from someone who wasn’t quite so polished in his use of language. Like Peter, I warned the pastor that the presenter might accidentally drop a couple of off-color words into his presentation, words not typically heard in his weekly sermons. This pastor replied: “So what? I think an off-color word can be refreshing once in a while.” This is actually code for, “I am so eff-ing tired of being censored by the Evangelical language police.”

Can you imagine that? A pastor who welcomes salty language as “refreshing”? Maybe I can someday imagine a world where Christian-oriented material is published using language that really reflects me, my friends, my church, like we are having a real conversation about real life. Not that it would be nasty, irreverent or blasphemous, and certainly not cursing others – just talking. That’s quite a stretch, I know. But, dang-it-all, I can dream, can’t I?

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About Bradley J. Moore