On Foul Language

The Stranger: Do you have to use so many cuss words?

The Dude: What the f*ck you talking about?

The Big Lebowski

There was a man I knew, an elder at his church, who, whenever he was called upon to announce a pregnancy, preferred the euphemism “with child” because in his youth the word “pregnant” in reference to a woman was deemed inappropriate for public use. I thought it was funny that he couldn’t bring himself to say a word even though it was no longer taboo. The world aged, fashions fell, new trends rose, the language evolved, and what things were cool to say or what things were crass changed.

For Christians the question of whether sex, violence and foul language are permissible or beneficial in the media we consume can be vexing, especially if we’re looking for a simple, black and white rule that fits everyone. But the challenge cannot be ignored because the threat is to the whole body; the danger of sex in cinema to our eyes, of violence to our hands, and of language to our tongues. For this article we will engage the question of foul language, first defining it, then looking into its permissibility before finally considering any possible benefit to watching movies or reading stories that contain unsavory speech.

In H.L. Mencken’s classic The American Language, he noted the fashions of forbidden words in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The expletive nuts was a tad too raw and thus changed to nerts, talk of animals was cleansed of bitch, bull, cock and stallion. Even the Bible was bowdlerized by Noah Webster: nourish was changed for to give suck, lewd woman for prostitute, breast for teat, smell for stink, particular members for stones (in reference to anatomy); he excised womb entirely and, to quote Mencken, he “expunged many verses altogether, as beyond the reach of effective bowdlerization.” All languages go through stages purification and coarse slang, prudishness and lax talk, and it can make for some slippery standards if we’re treating foul language as an immutable list of vocabulary.

St. Paul counsels us to not be characterized by foul language, specifically filth, foolishness and coarse jesting (Ephesians 5:3,4), but he does not imply that mere use defiles us. There’s a world of difference between not being characterized by foul language and never using it. Christians are not to be characterized by alcohol, but neither is that a prohibition. Perhaps it would be contentious to suggest that St. Paul himself uses expletives and pratting in Philippians 3:8 and Galatians 5:12, but even if he isn’t showing a proper use, he stops short of giving a complete ban. A better example showing that words do not have magical defiling properties is the example of Jesus in Matthew 5:22. “Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hellfire.” This cannot be a ban on calling people fools for he proceeds to call the Pharisees “fools” (Matthew 23:19). Clearly, context matters; clearly the heart matters.

So there are no bad words. Words do not have moral standing. Words are a collection of sounds and hearing a series of sounds cannot defile you. Even saying a series of sounds cannot defile you in themselves. We with the Psalmist and the fool have said, “There is no god,” the difference being that the fool has said it in his heart (Psalm 14:1). But to say a thing is not uneventful. Words are powerful. Words can change you, both to hear them (not guilty, I forgive you) and to say them (I do, amen). Tongues must be guarded because they can do evil or they can do good. They can strengthen or they can tear down; their hurt lasts long after the sting of sticks and stones have faded. There are no bad words, but there are bad hearts.

So since words do not have magical properties to defile us and there is no ban of words from on high, it seems there can be no prohibition against movies or stories that use foul language. But the mere fact that something is lawful does not make it profitable. Do not to be characterized by such talk, but what doth it profit a man to gain all words and yet lose his soul?

One of the concerns of watching films with vulgar language is the fear of imitation, and for good reason. We have been designed to imitate in order to learn. We typically call this peer pressure and use the term negatively, but really it is a wonderful design feature. That we become like those we’re around is economical and liturgically advantageous, but also a great threat to those unwary of wolves. Therefore we must teach our children to consider their words, practice wise speech and turn from evil. It is the social version of “you are what you eat” and knowing this we must make sure that an uncouth tongue is not a dominant presence, especially for our young adults.

Art is training. In great literature we learn how to confront trials, discern evil and resist wickedness. We follow the hardship of every Hobbit and the temptation of Harry Potter; rejoicing in their triumphs and sorrowing over their shortcomings. Movies are two hour exercises in morality, faithfulness and love. The sins of bratty teenagers are exposed, the vanity of some bigshot can be mocked, the loose lips of the fool can be condemned, all from the safe confines of your home.

We have taken the counsel to not be blown about by every wind of doctrine as reason to stay out of the wind. We think that avoiding unsavory speech will give us strength, when rather strength comes from the resistance of evil. To have holiness become second nature you must practice, like the little leaguer shagging flies and fielding grounders.

Ultimately, the heart is not threatened by an exposure to foul language, the threat comes from ingratitude. The foundation of our language is thanksgiving. If thanksgiving characterizes our speech then there is no foothold for filth. How could someone use an expletive after spilling coffee or stubbing toes? If there is an overflow of gratitude for coffee and toes there can be no place for vain speech. Good speech drives out the bad and a house built on such ground need not fear the boorish assaults of a potty mouth.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.