Swearing and Vulgarity
I’ve always loved this funny little tune from Chaucer’s day:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu
Bulloc sterteth, bucke ferteth.
Murie sing, cuccu!
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!
This joyful, ebullient tune, doubtless sung by many an English peasant out sweating in the field, is full of the solid earthy, good humor of a people who were closely bound to the land. For them, one of the images of sheer joy was when the “Bulloc sterteth” and the “bucke ferteth”. That latter clause is now rendered into modern English by very polite translators as “The bull starts, the buck leaps”. This loses rather a lot of the zesty force of the original and more flatulent meaning.
And that, I think, is telling. For the original was written in a Catholic culture that did not automatically equate the organic with the sinful. But we live in the land of post-Protestantism, which is still haunted by the notion that such language is, if not “swearing”, at least “bad”—particularly if we are serious Christians.
Scripture has a number of things to tell us about the use of our tongues. Probably the most basic prohibitions we have are the twin commandments in the Decalogue against taking the name of God in vain and the prohibition against bearing false witness against your neighbor. I call them “twin” commandments because they mirror the commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
The Decalogue constitutes the “floor” of human morality. It’s the lowest you can go and still be obeying God. In short, if you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t kill him, rob him, or lie about him or run off with his wife. If you can’t love God, at least don’t call him as witness to some lie you are telling; don’t take his name in vain in an oath.
That’s what “swearing” actually means: calling God as witness to something false. Of course, there are other ways in which we can take his Holy Name in vain too, such as tossing it around in a way which makes it clear we either don’t think he exists or else by using it in such a manner as to reduce it to an acoustic noise as satisfying to utter as various other short four-letter Anglo-Saxon words having to do with reproduction and excretion. This is, among English-speakers, by far the most common way of swearing. An English speaker who casually spits out the name of Jesus or God when he trips over the cat is not invoking God falsely in an oath but simply reducing the Triune God to a satisfying glottal fricative indistinguishable from “Frack!” The difference is basically between whether the swearer’s contempt for God’s Name is thinking or unthinking.
Sometimes, of course, the two forms of swearing can be combined, as when we blurt that God should damn this or that person. Anybody who gave serious thought to this would, I think, be horrified to realize what they are saying (and relieved at the billions of times such “prayers” have been ignored by God).
Most English speakers don’t generally distinguish between swearing in the biblical sense and mere vulgarity. The average speaker of English learns from his mother not to use “bad words”, then learns from his teenage friends how to use them properly, and calls it all “swearing”. Scripture, however, does not seem to conflate words about various bodily functions with language involving God. Jesus and the apostles regard speech involving the Name of God as utterly sacrosanct. “Hallowed be thy Name” is after all, at the core of the prayer life of Jesus Christ, just as it is at the core of the Decalogue. But about mere vulgarity, the New Testament is much fuzzier. If taking God’s Name in vain is a mortal sin, the New Testament witness tends to suggest that mere coarse language and vulgarity are venial sins and, on occasion, no sin at all. Scripture, of course, counsels against the use of coarse language, but just what that means is, as usual, not terribly well defined.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:1-4).
So it’s not shocking that Paul thinks dirty jokes (i.e., the “levity” proceeding from the immemorial industry of titillating ourselves with fornication, impurity, or covetousness) are to be avoided since they tend to reduce people (especially women) to objects and this is foreign to the mind of Christ. Although he doesn’t spell it out, Paul probably would not be wild about “pull my finger” jokes from Beavis and Butthead. Generally the tenor of this and other New Testament counsels is “Does this really help you grow in love or happiness? If not, why not just avoid it and do something worthwhile instead?"
But Paul, in his exasperation at the Judaizers who are trying to persuade Christians that they cannot be saved apart from keeping the ceremonial law of Moses, is capable of what polite Christians today would regard as vulgarity. For instance, after recounting his own eminent qualifications as a Pharisee of Pharisees, he then tells Philippians who are being swayed by Judaizers
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (Philippians 3:7-9)
The Greek word skubala that is politely translated as “refuse” has a more earthy and excretory meaning to it which seldom gets held up as a model of conversational grace in Christian circles. Likewise, Paul’s grumbling wish that the Judaizers would just go all the way and castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12), is not a message you hear being dilated upon from most pulpits these days.
That’s not say vulgarity is no big deal. We live in a culture awash in vulgarity and adding to the river of sewage in the world is not a big help. Christian homeschoolers do well, as a general rule, not to instruct their kids in what the 60’s tediously called “keepin’ it real”. Keeping it clean is much more to the point in a culture that has a mouth like a toilet. We have a surfeit of raunchy comedians and superfluous sleaze. We do not have a glut of people who can carry on an articulate, thoughtful and funny conversation without recourse to the F word as a sort of placeholder for actual thought.
On the other hand, a scrupulosity that regards “Sumer is icumen in” as morally equivalent to blasphemy is also not a good thing. Indeed, it can be the expression of a puritanical fear of creation that is a million miles from the good-natured celebration of thanksgiving for God’s gifts that lies behind that cheerful song.
Finally, of course, there is the bright side to vulgarity and swearing. C.S. Lewis once remarked that almost the whole of Christian doctrine could be deduced from the fact that we tell dirty jokes and feel the dead to be uncanny. Why? Because both testify to the fact that we are curiously estranged from our own bodies, a clue which, when followed, leads us back to the fact of original sin. Dogs see nothing funny about dog reproduction and approach it in the businesslike manner that they approach their dinners. Likewise, of all bodies, dead bodies are the least likely to harm us. But we recoil against (and laugh at) the peculiarity of our status as souls united with bodies and, still more, at the horror of souls severed from their bodies. We are, says Lewis “half shocked and half tickled to death” to find ourselves being the creatures we are. We act, in short, like animals with rational—and fallen—souls for whom death is not natural, however, normal it may be. So even the phenomenon of vulgarity bears witness, in its own queer way, to the truth of the gospel—especially of the Fall.
As to swearing? Well, Chesterton summed it up a long time ago: Nobody blasphemes Thor. Blasphemy too is the backhanded way we continue to bear witness to God, even when we mean to insult him and even when it never occurs to us to think of him. Not for nothing does Paul tell us that every knee shall bow.