Are E*plicit Words Ok?
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Words in Media Pt. 2

“Words in Media Part 1 – The Power of Words” discusses how communication has the power to alter reality. We all have a responsibility to be keenly aware of our intent, precise in our word choice,  and full of care for those we are communicating with. Words are meant to coincide with one’s intent. They express the inward reality. With this understanding, let’s turn our attention to harsh language.

“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” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV).

Language is meant to bring life to others (Proverbs 15:4). Can the use of harsh language ever bring grace to another? Friday night Noel, a college intern, is working late at the office. The senior staff is trying to close a business deal before the weekend. Tensions are high. Employees are working quickly and mistakes are being made. Noel opens her email. A co-worker, who is also working late, sends out a meme to those in the office. It’s a squirrel, standing on its back legs. Its tail puffed out to the side. Learning forward with little arms raised in the air, poised to make a statement. It reads “Alright! I need everyone to calm the f*** down!” Noel chuckles out loud. She turns to her co-worker sitting next to her and shows him the meme. He laughs. As they are enjoying the moment a grinning co-worker comes over to Noel, the meme on her phone. Soon the whole office has seen the frantic squirrel, desperately pleading for peace. Is this an example of corrupting talk or building up? The circulating meme brought grace. The tension settled as laughs were shared among the employees. When used wisely, harsh language is able to bring life to others. Often, this is done in the context of humor. But, the Bible presents harsh language in other contexts.

There were certain Jews in Galatia who were challenging Paul’s teaching of grace through faith alone. These Jews were called Judaizers. They advocated for certain Jewish laws to be upheld by converted Gentiles; circumcision in particular. In Galatians 5:12 (ESV), Paul writes, “I wish those who unsettled you would emasculate themselves!” If cutting off a little bit of the male organ makes you holier, than they should take the whole thing off! Isaiah writes, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV). Our self-righteous deeds are nothing more than a polluted garment (which culturally, is as if we were to say “nothing more than a dirty tampon”).  When we consider the righteousness of God. John the Baptist refers to the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers”(Matthew 3:7, ESV). John calls them the offspring of a snake. The snake commonly represented evil or the devil. John is communicating that they are sons of the devil, conceived when their mothers slept with a demon. Jesus uses the same term in Matthew 12:34 and refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees as evil ones.

Self-righteous individuals are condemned in the scriptures by harsh language: Judaizers who believed holiness was attained by righteous adherence to the law, Israelites in rebellion against God, and Pharisees and Sadducees who lorded their strict obedience over others. God despises self-righteousness. Harsh language is able to impart grace by exposing self-righteousness. The self-righteous stand in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus. Left unchecked they will crumble in the presence of the Holy One. Harsh language draws sharp attention to the dire situation.

In Philippians 3, Paul lists off his accomplishments as one who adhered to the law. He then writes,

“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 rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” -(Philippians 3:8, ESV).

There is debate surrounding the vulgarity of the Greek word, skubalon translated here as “rubbish.” Whatever degree of vulgarity, the word conveys a harsh tone. Paul is intentional in its use. His intent is to express the gap between his good works and the goodness of God, harsh language accomplishes this. “My self-righteousness is crap compared to Jesus’ holiness” compared to“my self-righteousness is sh*t compared to Jesus’ holiness”conveys different degrees of contrast. The word “sh*t” emphasizes the stark difference between our goodness, and Jesus’ goodness. It also captures a deeper raw emotion. Coarse words can convey the profound emotional stirrings in our hearts. There are times when harsh language most accurately and adequately expresses the inward reality.

Harsh language can impart grace and build others up by creating humor, shocking the hearer to expose the seriousness of a situation, and effectively expressing one’s intent. The use of harsh language calls for maturity and wisdom, always clothed in love. Dropping an f-bomb every other word in conversation does not show maturity. Using vulgar language to be perceived as cool does not show maturity. Speaking profanity in a professional environment does not show wisdom. Regularly using the same harsh words in one’s humor does not show wisdom. Cursing at another individual with a heart full of anger does not show love. Using harsh words to expose someone’s faults, for another’s joy in that person’s failure, does not show love. Freedom of self-expression means doing so with maturity, wisdom and love.This is true for our daily lives as well as in the media.  

What About In Media?

Media consistently uses harsh language. Movies, music, and plays use foul words. These word choices are intentional. Directors use vulgar words in a comedy, and it makes people laugh (self-righteous people probably would not laugh). Dramas may use harsh language to convey the inner life of a character on screen, or to evoke a specific response within the viewer. In music, the use of coarse words helps the listener enter into the emotions of the song and artist. In live theatre words hang in the air. Strong language can strike a chord within the audience, shock them into attention, or provide a comedic break.

In 2016 Christian alternative rock band Kings Kaleidoscope released their album Beyond Control. It contained an explicit track, A Prayer.

“Will I call You with my last breathe? Will You be there for me after? Will I waste inside the silence, where the fear is f***ing violent? Wicked sinner thrown to lions, with no hope on the horizon, will I fall or will I misstep?”

In numerous interviews, lead singer and songwriter Chad Gardner explained his intention to be vulnerable and provide a powerful moment for others to engage in. The song reflects Gardner’s emotional stress in terrifying moments and God’s response. The line “where the fear is f***ing violent” came directly out of his journal, during a dark time struggling through anxiety. It is important to note that there is a clean version, “where fear is vicious violent.” Gardner wanted to ensure that those with different views heard the overall message of the song.

Likely, Christians will always have different convictions regarding swear words in the media. It is important to respect those who differ from us, yet still remain true to who we are. Whether you are an artist or one who appreciates the arts, you must gauge your own convictions and act accordingly. As you journey through and express your life’s story, strive to engage in our culture with maturity, wisdom, and love. In so doing we accomplish the purpose of life: to love God and love people.  

by Taylor Philippi