A Few Bad Words of Theological Humor
Conservative evangelical Christians have long been known for shunning all sorts of behavior considered by others to be morally neutral or enjoyable. Whether it’s drinking alcoholic beverages,1 smoking tobacco products,2 playing cards,3 going to movie theatres,4 dancing,5 or even drinking coffee,6 “fundamentalist”7 Christians are often viewed by outsiders as having a God who is not only a white-clad, frowning prude, but also a “Cosmic Killjoy.”
However, the study of cussing, kakalogology, has a less refined history among Christians in general and evangelicals in particular. This lack of definition has caused many outright offenses and some extremely awkward social situations. These range from blurting out words that sound mischievously like curse words but are, in fact, not,8 to a teacher or preacher’s hesitancy to utter the word “hell” in reference the place of eternal torment.9
What does the Bible teach concerning cussing? Can there be a Christian consensus on kakalogology? How are we to determine, in an age of words that did not exist in biblical times, what is appropriate and what is foul? If the Christian is to avoid uttering certain terms, we need to know what those are so we can at least keep an eye on them. And if there is a world of vocabulary available for communicating God’s message, shouldn’t we also be free to use it?
To avoid being flushed down the hermeneutical spiral, I will evade the issue of hermeneutics altogether with the exception of the following. There is much ado in hermeneutical works concerning such things as symbol, thing signified, meaning, referent, sense, indicator, sign, undsoweiter. In my own scheme, and for the sake of simplicity, I am limiting my discussion of bad words to symbol, meaning, and referent. In this work the term “symbol” means the actual word itself. There are two types of symbols: oral (the spoken word) and written (the written word). For example, the written symbol “crap” is simply a particular ordering of the right-open-crescent “c,” right-facing-hook “r,” clockwise-spiral “a,” and circle-with-left-tail “p.” The oral symbol is the combination of sounds made when one utters the word “crap,” that is, a short, silent tongue-scraping, semi-guttural sound (unvoiced velar stop), followed by a noisy bit of air passing over a lifted and retracted tongue and through a semi-pursed set of lips (voiced aveolar liquid syllabic), sliding smoothly into a smiley-faced, mid-length vowel tone (low front tense unrounded vowel), and ending in an abrupt and non-vocalized lip-popper (unvoiced bilabial stop).
The term “meaning” in this paper has both an objective and subjective sense. Objectively, “meaning” is the unaffected definition of the word, that is, the connotation that the word itself brings to the context. For the word “crap,” the objective meaning is simply “something unpleasant.” The subjective meaning is the definition attached to a particular symbol by the user or receiver, which meaning is wholly dependent on context.
“Referent” is the concrete or abstract “thing” to which a particular symbol is applied with a particular meaning. Thus, one may apply the symbol “crap” with the specific meaning “bad-tasting” to a Pizza Hut pizza.10 “This is crap!” would then simply mean, “This pizza has failed to satisfy my culinary standards.”
The significance of the symbol’s meaning as applied to a particular referent is the broader contextual import of the semantic situation. The significance of equating pizza to crap is that it reveals the speaker’s general disdain for that particular pizza. If the person speaking is the president of Yum Brands, Inc., the owner of Pizza Hut, this statement has tremendous significance. If it’s your pet parrot, it’s not likely to be considered a paramount verbal event.
Although this extremely elementary discussion may fail to satisfy the hyper-intelligent cerebrals of the French and German philosophical hermeneutical schools, I must further point out to them that, after all, a sign is only significant when its referent signifies the expressive significance of its indicated meaning. When this happens, which is most often the case in phenomenological associative origins, the unity of the particular whole (and its parts inductively related to the whole’s particularity) functions as the sense of which the life-experience and expression of one’s own particular and general individuality relates to the significance of the sign, which, obviously, renders significance wholly meaningless.11
What exactly is a cuss word? This is a matter of intense debate among scholars12 and lay-cussers13 alike, because while some words are considered taboo in certain cultures or countries, others are not. As a mild example, in some families quasi-cuss words include “dumb” and “shut up.” In other families, these words and worse constitute polite dinnertime conversation. Foreigners, too, are known to make all sorts of verbal blunders. In fact, mastering the use (and non-use) of cuss words is a skill that indicates a high level of proficiency in any language.14
To Cuss Or Not To Cuss?
Clearly, the Bible forbids something called aijscrologiva (aischrologia), “obscene speech.” Colossians 3:8 says, “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech [aijscrologiva (aischrologia)] from your mouth” (NASB). The NIV translates the word as “filthy language.” The KJV has “filthy communication.” The ASV reads, “shameful speaking.” Luther, who is known for his affection for cussing, translates the word “schandbare Worte.”
The question is What does Colossians 3:8 specifically forbid when it tells us to put away aijscrologiva (aischrologia)? The word itself is made up of two Greek words: aijscrov" (aischros) meaning “disgraceful, shameful, dishonest,” and lovgia (logia), meaning “oracles.” In every use in the NT, lovgia (logia) refers to “oracles,” or the revealed message from God. It is not the word lovgo" (logos), which can refer to actual words themselves (Matt 12:36), a message (Matt 13:19), or speech in general (Matt 5:37). So, it appears that Paul is actually forbidding false prophesying.15
Although many liberal scholars and non-Christians believe the Bible is full of crap,16 there’s actually only one place where the word occurs, though it is often scooped up or covered over by modern English translations.
In Philippians 3:8 Paul tells his readers that all the things of religious value in his former life are regarded to him now as skuvbalon (skubalon), that is, “crap.” While liberals, neo-orthodox, post-liberals, feminists, historians, Methodists, and other heretics may feel obliged to remove “crap” from the Bible by flushing it away with euphemisms such as “rubbish” or “refuse” evangelicals who believe every word is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) should refuse to flush. Instead, we should embrace a translation that conveys the rhetorical effect intended by the author, as crass and base as it may seem to our perhaps overly-pious ears (cf. Eccl 7:16).
The King James Version had no qualms about translating skuvbalon (skubalon) with a more suitable—though emotively sub-standard—“dung.”17 Only Luther had the guts to translate the noun with Kot in his landmark German translation.18 The problem with translations like “refuse” and “rubbish” in today’s idiom is that the recent movement by earth-worshippers, tree-huggers, witches, Democrats, and other pagans towards recycling implies that almost all refuse or rubbish has some value. Likewise, even “dung” could be construed as having usefulness at least as fertilizer. Only a harsher term like “crap” would indicate the utter uselessness that Paul had in mind.
What does the crap we find in the Bible teach us about our emerging biblical kakalogology? Simply this: that however we seek to apply passages that forbid “unclean” speech, it must be done in such a way that allows Paul to utter the word skuvbalon (skubalon) in reference to Judaistic religious practices.
In light of this introductory discussion toward an evangelical theology of cussing (practical kakalogology), we must conclude with the NT that the utterance of a cuss word in and of itself is neutral (Rom 14:14), that there is nothing inherently sinful about a particular verbal symbol. Rather, its filthiness or appropriateness is derived from its referent and significance. Paul demonstrates this in his use of “crap” in Philippians 3:8, where the symbol skuvbalon (skubalon), has a metaphorical referent of his former religious practices, with the significance that these practices are worthless.
1 The ban on alcoholic beverages has several levels of extremity. The first, which we will call the Level 1 Ban, is universal and categorical and includes everything from cordial cherries to rubbing alcohol. Level 1 Bans usually include other rules against selling alcohol, patronizing businesses that sell alcohol, reading magazines that advertise alcohol, and even making jokes about alcohol. If you’re a Level 1 Banner, the chances are you haven’t made it far enough in this paper to read these words. Even apart from their psychotic approach to a naturally-forming chemical, these people are generally bores to be around. A Level 2 Ban would be abstinence from the consumption of alcoholic beverages or other products containing alcohol. However, the avoidance of restaurants, magazines, and alcoholics is considered extreme. A Level 3 Ban involves forsaking alcohol as a beverage. That is, one could not consume a glass of beer, wine, or any other alcoholic beverage as such. However, alcohol may be used for cooking, for medicinal purposes, and in liturgical or ceremonial contexts. (One convenient loophole in the Level 3 Ban is pouring the alcoholic beverage into a bowl and calling it “soup.”) Finally, a Level 4 Ban would be something like, “Always say ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second.” The drinking of alcoholic beverages is left up to the conscience and tolerance of the individual Christian within his or her cultural and social context. Thus, Level 4 calls for wise, temperate, Spirit-filled living with Christian love as the guiding principle. This is, of course, grossly unpopular.
2 There are no examples of the use of tobacco in the Bible (with the possible exceptions of Psalm 18:8; 68:2; and Rev 19:3). Neither are there any prohibitions against it. Advocates of the habit often appeal to arguments such as, “Well, if smoking tobacco is such a sin, why do you read books by C. S. Lewis?” or “It’s only harmful if you inhale,” or “God graciously provides all things for our enjoyment. I enjoy tobacco. Therefore, God graciously provides it. Who am I to resist God?” Unlike the use (or non-use) of alcohol, Christians tend to either completely abstain from or completely indulge in tobacco. The latter are considered by the former to be very carnal, unsaved, or Minnesota Lutherans.
3 Sometimes this is nuanced to include only “Tarot cards” and “traditional” playing cards, i.e. cards that are used in witchcraft or gambling. Card games such as “Uno,” the German favorite “Set,” and educational flash cards are generally regarded as acceptable by most, except the ardent ascetic who believes leisure activity and advancement out of cultural ignorance are inherently sinful. For Christian organizations and institutions that ban traditional playing cards, the argument is usually something like this: “Playing cards are actually morally neutral, but because they are associated with gambling and because some weaker brothers believe they are inherently sinful, we must abstain from them to avoid the appearance of evil and offense to the weaker brother.” In response to the first point, consistency would dictate that Christians shun the use of money as well, since money is the single common element of all gambling while playing cards are not. Regarding the second objection concerning the weaker brother, who really cares about him anyway?
4 While some Christians regard movie theatres as sinful, they often permit the viewing of videos at home, where we’re accountable to nobody and can watch anything we want all day long without getting caught.
5 As many other Christian prohibitions, the policy against dancing has been variously interpreted. Some disallow all types of dancing. Others allow only dance in worship or formal dancing, rejecting social dancing. Bans on dancing by educational institutions have been interpreted in a variety of ways by students: while some apply the rule to all dancing as long as one is enrolled at the institution, others take the ban to mean “no dancing during class.”
6 For a thorough examination of the Christian view of coffee, see Michael J. Svigel, “Coffee As a Means of Grace,” a paper presented to the Southwest Region of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 21, 2003, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. Available online at www.bible.org.
7 “Fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” have themselves become bad words. While evangelicals today tend to hold most of the “fundamentals” that gave these people their name, few want to be called “fundamentalists.” E. J. Carnell once defined a “fundamentalist” as simply “a conservative.” In another place he defined it as “orthodoxy gone cultic,” illustrating the difficulty of defining the term even by the same person. While I could be called by many a “fundamentalist” in my theology, I’m one of those small but growing number of conservative evangelicals who wants to put the “fun” back into “fundamentalism” while cutting down on the “mental.”
8 Anecdotal evidence for this abounds. One example from personal experience is the Church History lecture where the professor was droning on about the heretic Marcion. Sensing that the class was drifting off, the professor decided to animate his voice and re-capture attention. Unfortunately, the point at which he decided to employ this new strategy was at the phrase “he was the son of a bishop,” which, when spoken loudly and quickly, sounds like a phrase that says much more about the immorality of one’s mother than the holiness of one’s father.
9 As can be expected, this has led to heterodox views of the eternal punishment of the lost. The terms “oblivion” and “annihilate” are less prone to linguistic offense than the traditional “hell” or “damn.”
10 I am using Pizza Hut as an example because of the obvious inferiority of their pizzas. This inferiority is demonstrated in two ways: 1) Papa John’s, Inc. has run an advertisement for some time wherein their slogan is “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” This obviously implies that Pizza Hut’s pizza in particular is inferior because it uses inferior ingredients (see Steve Malloy, “Pepperoni, Cheese and Whining; Pizza Hut Targets the Competition,” Washington Times, January 18, 2000, which can be accessed online at http://www.cato.org/dailys/01-22-00.html; “Papa John’s Win’s a Round over Pizza Hut,” AP article, accessed online at http://www.usatoday.com/news/court/ 2001-03-19-pizza.htm). 2) Pizza Hut is constantly introducing new products, be it the cheese-stuffed crust or the “Big New Yorker.” Companies that have to incessantly change or add products are obviously struggling with an inferior product line to being with. This last line, of course, doesn’t apply to evangelical churches and ministries that are constantly modifying their marketing while pretending to preserve their message.
11 But in a hermeneutical light, essential distinctions of this kind must be regarded with open suspicion, for the independence of unjustified intentional and phenomenological distinctions, which pertain to expressions and signs (whether they express a sense on the one hand or remain ambiguous on the other) are intentional expressions only insofar as they express the mental life of the individual, whose communication must be seen as a kind of ambiguous sense of meaningfullessness (If this made no sense to you, try reading Heidegger, whose writings on hermeneutics scholars only pretend to understand.)
12 See the recently-edited work of Martin Heidegger, Schwren und Dasein, (Marburg: Frankendrück, 1999) and the all-but-ignored work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Vielleichtigkeit und Schlechtigkeit (Berlin: Schwortz, 1950) as well as Karl Barth’s forceful response, Nein, verdammt! (Berlin: Schlagen, 1951). Of less significance is Franz Bibfeldt’s Martin Luther’s “Das ist Mein Po” und frühe evangelische Rhetorik (Bad-Lauterberg: Am Hausberg, 1962) and Hans Küng’s critical work, D. Luthers Theologie der Gerechtigkeit: “Auff-” oder “Aus-deisem-Kloake?” (Kln: Katolische, 1980).
13 One is reminded of the rather exhaustive list of foul words and phrases of the sinfully raucous comedian, George Carlin. It is still a matter of debate in the field of philosophical kakalogology whether his list ought to be regarded as the standard (cf. Richard Wannabagel, Dale Carnegie Meets Carlin at Carnegie, or, How to Lose Friends and Insult People [Dallas: D-Press, 2001], 140-142).
14 The reader is directed to the delightful works by Gertrude Besserwisser, Scheisse!: The Real German You Were Never Taught in School (New York: Dutton/Plume, 1994); Ralph A. Lewin, Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Sociohistorical Coprology (New York: Random House, 1999).
15 Thus, rather than reprobates like George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, and Buddy Hackett, the condemnation pertaining to the aijscrologiva (aischrologia) rather applies to the practices of such men as Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson, Robert Tilton, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland.
16 Cf. inter alia, Gary Greenberg, 101 Myths of the Bible: How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000) and Gerd Ludemann, The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible (London, SCM, 1997).
17 This may be construed as yet another evidence for the supremacy of the King James Version among English translations. One may reason from the lesser to the greater (the Rabbincal practive of qal w’homer): if the translators of the KJV were conscientious enough to leave crap in the Bible, how much more would they be eager to retain quality!
18 It is interesting that Luther’s translation of the Bible standardized the German language. It is also interesting to note that Germans today, including German Christians, rarely hesitate to use colorful, earthy language in every-day conversation.