Cussing might be a bigger deal than you think.
When I was in college, I wrote a newspaper piece about cursing. It was a two-page, 3,000 word story I had researched and worked on for a month. It covered all the angles of cursing from a Christian perspective, including insightful interviews with English and Anthropology professors, and even a survey of 100 students who reported on their cursing habits. My biggest finding in the article? Seniors were about 30% more likely to cuss on a daily basis than were freshman. And more likely to use the f- word on a daily basis. No big surprise. The language of Christian young people isn’t as pristine as it used to be.
The issue of language is, of course, a terribly complex one. Whole books could be written on the idea of cursing, profanity, expletives, what defines those terms, how cultural context affect language’s meaning, etc.
But I think the issue for Christians is pretty cut and dry: We should avoid using profanity; we should keep our cussing to the absolutely minimum, especially in public.
It has less to do with anything inherently wrong with the words themselves and everything to do with our Christian witness. Even if you disagree that certain words are “profane,” you can’t change the cultural perception. You can’t change a taboo. And as long as certain words are viewed as offensive, profane or taboo, Christians should make every effort to avoid speaking them. We are called to a higher standard, right? Aren’t we supposed to be set apart? For the same reasons we should avoid drunkenness and drugs and other “worldly” activities, we should avoid cursing. We are the salt of the earth. We need to discipline ourselves as such.
When I’m around Christians friends and I hear them cussing up a storm, I cringe. It makes me sad. The words themselves don’t necessarily bother me. They aren’t what make me cringe. Rather, it’s the fact that my Christian brothers and sisters are so recklessly abandoning scruples in what I daresay is one of the most crucial areas of our Christian witness: our language. Just read James 3:1-12.
Not using profanity in today’s world is noticeable. It’s the sort of abstaining activity people will take note of. What an opportunity for Christians to truly show restraint and demonstrate the difference of the Christ-like life! We shouldn’t chastise non-Christians for using bad language or avoid movies or music with salty language, but we, as Christians, should set an example by being different.
Certainly the case can be made that a well-placed swear word might be appropriate for a Christian when no other word will get across an idea or express a certain level of emotion/emphasis. Some of my favorite Christian artists will occasionally throw an expletive into their lyrics to really drive home a point.
David Bazan, for example, in his Pedro the Lion song “Foregone Conclusions”:
And you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord / to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f— up.
Or Over the Rhine, in their beautiful song “Changes Come”:
I wanna have our baby / Somedays I think that maybe / This ol’ world’s too f—-d up / For any firstborn son.
And most recently, Derek Webb caused a stir when his record label refused to include the song “What Matters More” on his new CD because of this lyric:
‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save / Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a sh— / About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today.
So there is definitely a place and a time for a well-placed cuss word. But it has to be used sparingly and with a real meaningful purpose behind it.
In general, Christian brothers and sisters, we need to clean up our mouths. I don’t want to get all pharisaic or anything, and maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not a huge thing. But it is a thing. And a thing we need to be better about controlling. We have cussing pastors now, and cussing Christian bands and lots of cussing Christian college graduates (they tend to take special pride in developing their long-silenced cursing skills). If I was a non-Christian observer I’d be wondering: “What ever happened to the good little Christians who always said darn and dang and butt and shoot? I kind of miss them.”
Brett McCracken is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. When not watching the films of Terence Malick, he can be found blogging at Still Searching.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013), Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.