Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Other Words

Where do I begin...

Several things have occurred in the last few days that all have come together to inspire this post. I'm going to try to put them in some context, using the perspective of the Bible--as it is today in the minds of believers, and what it was like in the time it was being written.

First, there's the "Save the Boobs" public service announcement. There was a story on today about the video that has gotten a lot of attention lately. Just to see what I'm talking about, here it is on YouTube:

There were several comments on, mostly supportive of the idea of breast cancer awareness, which was really what the PSA was about. Several commenters, as of this evening, have taken exception to the ad--it was too sexy, it was exploitative, it didn't really address the tragedy of the disease, etc. In my own mind, the ad makes perfect sense. Yes, it is sexy, and yes, it does focus attention on something other than the tragedy of the disease. But that's the point--the ad does this to shock us out of our complacency and realize that breast cancer is a killer of young women, not just of older women. In that, I think it's a rousing success.

One sentiment appeared in several of the comments. People complaining about the ad were viewed as being too uptight, too hung up on the body of the model. One commenter said, "Relax people!"

This leads right up to the next thing I wanted to post about, which is that I'm currently reading "Lamb," a novel by Christopher Moore. It's subtitled "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." Now that seems like an appropriate thing to tick some people off. It purports to be the previously untold account of the first thirty years of Joshua's life. For those not aware, Joshua is closer to the actual name of the son of God than Jesus. Jesus is a transliteration of the Greek version of his name. So, it's the story of Josh and his childhood bud Biff.

Josh and Biff have a lot of adventures, and I won't go on at length to recount them. I'll only recommend that anyone curious find this book and sit down to a good read. It's by turns frat-boy hilarious and poignant. One thing that several commenters have pointed out in various forums is that there is some "dirty language" in the book. There are words that refer to the act of sexual intercourse. There's a word that is used to refer to human feces. There is mention--heaven help us!--of breasts, and of various things that can be done with them.

In other words, this novel is written in a modern day idiom, although it takes place in the first years of the first century. Does anyone seriously believe that people of that time spoke in King James English? Or at least, the Greek or Aramaic equivalent?

And that brings me to something that has been puzzling me for a long, long time.

Why are we as Christians expected to abstain from the use of "earthy" terms to refer to certain things? We'll say "oh, crap!" when we really mean "oh, shit!" We'll dance around various subjects because they're so indelicate. We'll get uptight because there are bare breasts in a picture, or somebody has their butt exposed.

And this wussiness is characteristic of the larger American society as well, even as parts of that society are fixated on really healthy things like beauty contests and smirking glances at "up-skirt" pictures on web sites. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton tapped into a national vein of twelve-year-old-boyism with their no-underwear paparazzi photos. Thank God for the digital patches that protect us from those flagrant body parts. And I'm so glad that not only do those dirty words get bleeped, but that we obscure the mouths (and hands--wouldn't want to see any offensive finger gestures!) of people who are just too free with their words.

This is really nothing new, of course. In some ways we've been a nation of hypocrites for a very long time. There have been plenty of books and articles written about our "cover that up!" but "let me see it!" mental disconnect over the years. I'm not going to delve into that, except to point out that the good Christian disdain for earthy language is just part of a larger phenomenon.

No, as I mentioned above, I wanted to view these two things through the lens of the Bible, as it is now and as it was when it was written.

As it is now, the Bible gets sanitized, euphemized, and frankly, in my opinion, de-fanged. There are plenty of places in both the Old and the New Testaments where earthy language is used, but we never really wrap our arms around those spots. Instead, we stick (more often than not) to the easier parts, the parts that don't slap us upside the head with a gutsy harshness that could take our breath away.

The Bible as it was written, though, now that's an entirely different item. Consider for a moment the times in which the Bible was written, two thousand and more years ago. In the Roman Empire, for example, it was routine to crucify someone very publicly, and leave their rotting corpse hanging on the cross until birds had picked the bones clean. Public executions by crucifixion were common--nothing got Roman magistrates or soldiers angry as fast as someone endangering the Pax Romana. There was nothing like the relatively easy sentences of today, when so many nations have eliminated the death penalty altogether. Even the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib pales in comparison to what was done in the Roman Empire.

The times during which the Bible was written, roughly two to three thousand years ago, were times that would have made many Christians of delicate mind faint. Slavery was rampant, the very basis of most societies. Life expectancy probably ranged from 25 to 35 years. Child mortality was wide-spread, and many children were left out in the open, to die of exposure, for a variety of reasons. Wars seemed to erupt at frequent intervals, often over the most minor of causes. Disease was rampant. Leisure was rare, and certainly not found by many beneath the nobility. In short, it was a harsher time that we have very little familiarity with.

It was in these harsh times that our Bible was written, in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There are plenty of places in Scripture where earthy language--shockingly direct language--is used to make a point. For instance, in Ezekiel 23, we read this:

23:20 She lusted after their genitals – as large as those of donkeys, and their seminal emission was as strong as that of stallions. 23:21 This is how you assessed the obscene conduct of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your nipples and squeezed your young breasts. [all citations from the NET Bible]

In Isaiah, there's this passage:

57:8 Behind the door and doorpost you put your symbols. Indeed, you depart from me and go up and invite them into bed with you. You purchase favors from them, you love their bed, and gaze longingly on their genitals.

Of course, there's the Song of Songs:

4:5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of the gazelle grazing among the lilies.

7:1 (7:2) How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O nobleman’s daughter! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a master craftsman. 7:2 Your navel is a round mixing bowl – may it never lack mixed wine! Your belly is a mound of wheat, encircled by lilies. 7:3 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.

Interestingly enough, the note for the word translated as "navel" ponders whether it means "navel" or "vulva." It seems like someone is always getting their "horn exalted." David (the future king) had to bring back one hundred Philistine men's foreskins as a gift to King Saul to marry his daughter Michal. David, the perpetual over-achiever, brought back two hundred foreskins instead.

In the New Testament as well, we get hit in the face with the reality of life in a time perhaps more dangerous, or at least less sanitized, than our own. For instance, Paul writes in Philippians 3:

3:8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 3:9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.

What is translated as "dung" here could probably be put in a stronger vernacular as "shit." The translators' notes say that the word--ancient Greek "skubala"--refers to "a vulgar term for fecal matter." That sounds like shit to me.

Paul, the great letter writer of the New Testament, mentions all sorts of things people do that can get them crossways with God. Things like prostitution, incest, homosexual behavior, and on and on. There are child sacrifices in the Old Testament, temple prostitutes, hypocrisy, vanity, gluttony, swords stabbing so deep that the contents of the bowels come oozing out, people getting tent stakes driven through their heads when they think they're safe, genocide, death, murder, infidelity, and so much more.

And yet this is the book of God's word. This is the story that promises that God loves us and wants us to be reconnected with him. This book, with all the brutality of its imagery, all the bluntness of its language, is the holy Scripture that we say we follow.

All I can say about all this is that we need to do some major soul-searching about our attitudes about language, words, and what's important and not important. The God of the Bible is a god who uses direct, in your face language to get his point across. And more than language--look at what his Son had to do!

Christianity at its heart is not a faith for those of delicate sensibilities. PETA members may think that blood sacrifices were an anomaly, but Jesus' death on the cross shows that to be the delusion it is. Christians know this truth about our faith, if they're honest, but we just don't communicate it very well to those outside the walls of the church.

Enough of this musing. I don't believe for a minute that by the strength of my words I'm going to make any real change in the attitudes of people who would rather euphemize so much of the reality out of life. If I've planted any seed of subversion, though, an attitude of new interest in the Bible, then I'll consider this effort successful. There are some parts of the Bible that could be viewed as "dirty." This is the word of God, however. It got one man killed two thousand years ago because his words so offended the elite of his time. There's no way it can keep from being offensive.


  1. Funny you should bring this up, because I recently found an article about cursing on It's pretty straightforward, but whether you agree with it or not, I think you might be interested in what people are saying in the comments section.

    Here's the link.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Reed. For what it's worth, I make a distinction between cursing and using profanity. I try to view cursing in the Biblical sense, i.e., pronouncing a curse on someone, like "Screw you!" Cursing is a reflection of your attitude to another human being, and generally isn't an indication of love or respect.

    Using profanity, on the other hand, becomes a matter of word choice. Whether one says "crap" or "shit" is determined by the context. Who are you with at the time? What kind of language do they use? What are the circumstances around you? These are the types of questions that we need to evaluate when choosing our words. There can once again be an element of our feelings for those with whom we're talking. For instance, I would probably moderate my use of either "crap" or "shit" if I were with my mom, or with my grand-daughter.

    Words are funny things. I've looked at the power they have in a previous post. I'm sure that I'll have more to say about how we use these powerful bits of language in the future.

  3. Dennis,
    I really liked this post, I feel a little better about dropping the "F" bomb around here when things are not going so smooth. Of course it is dropped out of love and meant to emphasize the magnitude of the cituation at hand as it is done in the Bible. Oh, and never fear, your words almost always inspire me to commit acts of subversion!