In 2005 the American Film Institute voted that the best movie line of all time was the one that Clarke Gable deftly delivered as the character Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. If you endured all four hours of melodrama you’ll certainly recall his parting dismissal of Scarlett O’Hara’s whiny interrogative, “Where shall I go, what shall I do?” Rhett rewardingly utters the words on the mind of every male viewer who is still awake, served with the cool and immortal preamble: “Frankly, my dear …”
The Motion Picture Association’s production code was fortuitously amended a mere month prior to the film’s release and for the first time it allowed the use of borderline curse words under this condition:
if it shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact …or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”
The determining standard of what is “intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste” has proven quite the moveable feast. Words that were respectable vernacular in the Elizabethan era would get a kid’s mouth washed out with soap today, and diction that would never escape the censor’s “intrinsically objectionable” razor as recently as 1939 are now heard on every silver screen in the Western world, and even occasionally on the news (at least in Anchorage).
While as Christians we acknowledge that God’s standards of holiness are immovable a thinking linguist must acknowledge that what different cultures and periods consider to be taboo is a perplexing field of study.
It’s hard to use examples without stepping into a cow paddy of intrinsic objections. But one instance I am confident no monolingual American would find offensive is the Afrikaans cuss words “bliksem” and “donder”. These are two words South African pastors are permitted to use neither in the pulpit nor in private. Both words “offend good taste” and commonly precipitate the taste of soap for a South African child. Exactly what Afrikaaners find offensive about the words is a brow-furrowing enigma.
Biksem and donder are the words for—I kid you not— lightning and thunder, respectively. When deployed in a meteorological context they are perfectly acceptable and often used with impunity on the nightly news.
But when either word is used as an expression of surprise (my bliksem), anger (“jou klein bliksem”—literally “you little lightning”), or threat (as in “Ek gaan jou donder”—literally “I’m going to thunder you”), the result is a disapproving tut-tut from polite society. If ladies are present during the thunderous outburst it is expected that the foul mouthed offender apologizes for the strong language.
I was asked recently “Where in the Bible does it say Christians shouldn’t cuss?”
Well, it doesn’t. There is no list of words Christians of all cultures and every epoch are required to memorize for the sake of exorcising from out collective vocabulary. But the Bible is replete with instructions to exercise restraint of our tongues.
The truth is that a particular word has no inherent sinfulness beyond that which a culture or community assigns to it, nor can it be intrinsically objectionable,. Every short-term missionary has an anecdote of a faux pas where they used language that crossed a line only when it crossed the border. But connotations that contravene our sensibilities are real and require wisdom to discern.
This is why Christians don’t cuss: we cherish the purpose for which God gave words.
Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Colossians 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
We also appreciate words as a barometer of what lurks deep in a person’s heart.
James 3: 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
Christians understand that an inability or unwillingness to take control of our language shows a paucity of self-control or lack of graciousness toward others. Swearing shows that you are unconcerned about that which Christians ought to be concerned: edification, grace, humility, patience, self-control, evangelistic witness, example to children, integrity, and many other virtues that we extol. These are undermined by the use of language that offends or lumps us in with others who offend.
Our words put us in cahoots with others who use those words indiscriminately. A guy at my gym swears like a sailor, as do his companions. But when he heard a pastor drop a curse word, he considered that solecism to be a justification for a slew of other infractions: “You see, when a Christian hits his thumb he cusses just like I do. He’s obviously harboring stuff inside that he doesn’t show unless his guard is down.”
In the end language is to be used for what glorifies God. A handy rule may be that if you aren’t prepared to use a particular word in your prayer to God then you shouldn’t be using it in your conversations with others.
So, what shall Christians do about swearing? Frankly, we need to give a…hoot.