I’m hesitant to enter into this sort of conversation in an online format. There’s a lot to be said for body language, tone of voice, and the way someone’s heart can pour out of a face-to-face exchange in a way that surprises even the speaker. But I guess I was the one who opened up Pandora’s box (no offense), so I’d better offer a reply, feeble though it may be.
For those of you who didn’t read my post or its comments from a few days ago entitled “What Connects Us All,” here’s a recap. I recommended Once, the independent Irish film about a songwriter, with one caveat: if you’re bothered by the F word, avoid this movie. One brave soul spoke up and questioned the propriety of subjecting oneself to any film that included [expletive] thirty nine times. I’m assuming the commenter knows that because there’s a website somewhere that keeps a tally of such things for discerning viewers.
So the issue is language. Specifically, the foul kind.
For starters, I want to make a disclaimer. I’m not a theologian. I’m a songwriter (mainly). I don’t think that lets me completely off the hook, as pertains to my duty to be responsible for the things I write and write about, but it does mean that I’m going to approach this argument differently than, say, a seminarian pastor would, or any logical, systematic thinker, for that matter. It took me years after Bible college to learn to rest in the fact that God didn’t give me the kind of mind that can hold its own in a theological debate fraught with proof-texting. I just can’t do it. I’ve tried, I’ve failed, and I’m finished with it. But I do have a decent mind, and can reason through things in an Everyman sort of way, or at least I hope so. So if you’re of the systematic theology camp, be gentle with me. I’m still learning. Also, keep in mind that those of us who lose our keys daily and cry at the drop of a hat might have something to teach you, too.
First of all, I think there’s a difference between Cursing and Using Foul Language. We tend to lump them together, but they’re not the same, I don’t think. Cursing, at least in the Biblical sense, has more to do with wishing death and evil upon someone instead of life and goodness; it is meant as the opposite of blessing. According to two concordances, the word “curse” is used in the New Testament only nineteen times, and after a quick read of each case it looks to me like that’s the sense in which it’s used every time. It doesn’t have to do with the use of certain words that society deems foul, but with wishing evil on someone, by using the inherent power of words to hurt and not to heal. Like I said, I’m no exegetical guru, so if I’m reading this wrong, by all means let me know.
I think someone uttering and meaning the words “I hate you” is much more offensive than thirty nine casual uses of the F bomb. I’ll say that again. Words are the overflow of the heart, so words spoken in anger, hatred, and bitterness are far more damaging and dangerous than the flippant use of words that are thought of as dirty. To put it another way, cursing is active; it is the result of energy placed into the utterance. Those who use foul language usually do so out of laziness; they don’t feel like thinking of the right word, so they vomit out the lowest, dumbest form of the vernacular.
That’s a harsh judgment, I realize, because the idea of vernacular, of the cadence of speech common to a place, is beautiful in its way, and should be preserved, and even celebrated. But within the regional vernacular, wherever you are, there will always be a hierarchy of bad words, and everyone will know it, more or less. But that list of acceptable words will change depending on which culture (and which social situation) you find yourself in. I speak differently on the stage than I do in the car with Ben and Andy on the way to the hotel after the show. We’re not two-faced. There’s a level of comfort and vulnerability and healthy irreverence that is rightly reserved for time among close friends. In England, from what I hear, “bloody” is as vile as you can get. Not so much the case in Nashville. The F bomb in Ireland is more like “darn” in the U.S. There’s a sexual connotation to us, but language morphs and words lose and gain meanings over the years. I’m not from Ireland, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of the thirty nine uses of the word in the film are of the “darn” variety and not the sexual euphemism kind.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to say the word “fart”. We said “I passed gas.” The word “butt” was similarly off-limits–“bottom” was encouraged. I also remember that we didn’t call it “poop”. We called it–ready for this?–“boopie”. Say that aloud once or twice. Boooopie. It’s hilarious. My parents had a strong sense of which words were okay and which weren’t, and though my brother and I rode right up to the line of propriety in their presence (and leapt across it among our friends), now I completely understand that they were teaching us good manners. They were giving us the tools to be able to function in a society with rules of proper behavior, just like keeping your elbows off the table, and chewing with your mouth closed, and not burping out loud if you can help it (exception: when you’re in the car with just the guys, or if you’re Alison Osenga).
That’s how I’ve approached it with my kids. They heard the S word (for boopie) once and asked me what it was. I didn’t hide from it or cringe when they said it. I just told ’em it was a strong word for poop that wasn’t a good word to say (in most circumstances–being trapped on a rope bridge like Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom might be an occasion in which it is called for). But seriously. They said okay and that was the end of it. I could’ve launched into a diatribe about the evils of the S word, I could’ve forbade them to ever think it, let alone say it, but then if my boys are anything like me it would then be imprinted on their brains forever and they would find themselves saying it aloud when they were alone, for starters. By the time ninth grade rolled around, they’d be addicted.
I admit, there’s a difference between not using foul language and chewing with your mouth closed. Nowhere in the book of James is there any mention of bad table manners being like a restless evil, full of poison. But when you grow up with the assumption that “cursing” is just using any one of a laundry list of bad words–a laundry list that changes with every generation, no less–then you tend to focus on the “foul” words and not the foul hatred in your heart. Isn’t the heart what God’s interested in? Can you get through life without ever using the F word and still have a roiling darkness in your heart? Absolutely. Can you have light and love in your heart, the ability to encourage, to bless, to show compassion to those around you even if your banter with them includes some of the words on the naughty list? Absolutely. Sure, it’s not proper, preferable, or wise to litter your language with unnecessary expletives, but I’d rather hang with a salty sailor any day than a whitewashed tomb. And speaking of whitewashed tombs, that’s exactly what I was in high school. See, I studiously avoided bad words when my parents were around, but my brother and I constantly ridiculed my sisters. We called them “stupid idiots”, we made fun of the things they liked, we taunted them. My sisters still bear the wounds of the words I said to them twenty years ago. But I didn’t cuss! No sir.
Of course, I’m not saying that everyone who’s sensitive to foul language is a whitewashed tomb. That’s not my point at all. If my mom started speaking with an Irish brogue and using words like we’re talking about, I’d fall over dead. Something in the time/space continuum would rupture and dinosaurs in tutus would pirouette across the White House lawn. My mother, God bless her, is carrying the torch of her upbringing and will forever cringe at the word “butt”; I wouldn’t have it any other way. But our friends in Ireland come from a culture that is quite literally foreign to us. Could it be that the F word carries no more weight over there than “stink” does here? And is it possible for me, with the Holy Spirit in me, to watch a film made by these Irish folks and glean the sweet spirit of their heart, or their intent, from the film without being polluted by something that in their culture is innocuous and in ours is at best impolite and at worst offensive? I think so. I know so, in fact, because that’s exactly what happened when I watched this film.
I didn’t wake up the next morning with foul language dripping off my tongue and into my cereal. My kids weren’t cursed six ways from Sunday. No, I had a deep sense of inspiration regarding my calling to write songs. I was reminded of the power of good music. I thought about how good it is to make decisions based on wisdom and patience and not infatuation (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you saw the film). Not to make more of it than it is, but my heart was changed for the better by watching the movie. How can that happen, when they used the F word thirty nine times? Because the Spirit in me–guiding my attentions, my decisions, teaching me gently and patiently every minute of the day–allows me to live my life out of faith and not fear. I have so often shushed the Spirit’s promptings in my life because it contradicted what my flesh lusted for. I have ignored it. I have wished it would leave me alone. But I also have managed to listen at times, and have obeyed. I have learned to feebly trust that I am a new creation, that in some mysterious, wondrous way, God inhabits me. If he’s there in my heart, and I choose (with discernment) to spend 90 minutes experiencing a story told by an image-bearer, what have I to fear? (Remember, we’re not talking about my use of the word, but of my exposure to stories that have characters who might use those words.)
Now, here’s the other side of the coin. I made the disclaimer about the movie because I realize that we’re all at different stages on the journey. We all have unique baggage that we’re lugging around, and some things that you might not think twice about will send me up the wall like a cat in a dog pound. If I had watched this film when I was in Bible college, I would have been offended to my core. I know what it’s like to be sensitive to foul language, and I sympathize. I’m not writing this to convince you to not be offended. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you, seek counsel, be humble, love wisdom, and pray that I’ll do the same. I have come to know Christ much better over the fifteen years since my Bible college career began, and I find that I am much less worried about some things and am much more sensitive to others.
I believe that words have power. They are a gift unique to the crown of God’s creation on earth, and are to be used carefully. The Bible in James 3:6 calls the tongue a “world of evil”, and after many instances of hurting myself and the people around me with nothing more than my words, I’m inclined to agree (it is the Bible, after all). Just tonight after our Bible reading with the kids we compared Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1ff, and talked about how wonderful it is that Jesus himself was the Word by which the world was made. What power there is in the spoken word! What power to heal, to teach, to preach, to love–and what power to tear down, to despise, to kill.
I’m not sure how to wrap this up. It’s 3 AM, and I’m still glad I watched the movie Once. And I still think that it’s okay if you don’t understand how I could enjoy it in spite of its language. I enjoyed sitting on the couch with my kids, taking turns reading through Genesis even more. I’m going to bed, cringing in anticipation of being schooled by you all in the ways of rhetoric and exegesis. So be it.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.