There’s a self-evident answer to the question “Can Christians cuss?” We’ve heard it from preachers of the Mark Driscoll/Tony Campolo stripe, whose strategic use of profanity was hailed by Patrol Magazine as “the new fire-and-brimstone.” We’ve heard it from those of gentler manners but equal passion, such as John Piper, who was admonished after a Passion conference for the use of a mid-level profanity. It’s now fairly common practice among the church’s rank-and-file. Profanity helps us fit in, puts others at ease, and relieves our emotions.
“Should Christians cuss?” is problematic. Salty-mouthed preachers and laymen alike cite Philippians 3:8 as a precedent, where Paul uses what might be the Greek equivalent of “shit.” (The bolder derive the principle from Jesus calling the Pharisees “fools” in Matthew 23.) They say that they are “redeeming language” by calling a bad thing a bad name, using the vulgar in service of the holy.
These words are more complicated when it comes to their expletive use. Can we (or do we) ever express love with spontaneous profanity? Is it harmless to cuss out a stalling car or a malfunctioning phone, if we believe that these things are provided by God? Whom are we addressing when we say, “damn” in surprise, even in appreciation? (Though this use of the word is probably ironic, there’s still an implied object being wished to hell.)
Sometimes there is no other word for it
There is one apologetic for profanity that seems tenable to me. (Maybe because it’s been my own excuse.) As one friend put it, “Sometimes there is no other word that fully expresses the force and brevity of an emotion.” Besides, the virtue of self-control can function as a blind for passions that we’d rather not confront. Michael B. Allen, co-producer of the popular documentary Beware of Christians, is familiar with the religious habit of avoiding the acknowledgement of evil along with the appearance. “It’s not that hard to resist saying those eight bad words,” he says. “It doesn’t require the power of the Holy Spirit to [not do] things that aren’t culturally acceptable. We should understand that there are many more offensive things in our hearts and in our minds to God than the language we use.” By way of contrast, he told me about a friend of his, a 60-year-old Christian man who spends his days on the street with the homeless. “He loves God. He loves people. And he cusses like a sailor.”
Receiving the hand-slap for his verbal indiscretion, John Piper wrote: “I am sitting here trying to figure out why I say things like that every now and then. I think it is the desire to make the battle with Satan and my flesh feel gutsy and real and not middle-class pious… I don’t like fanning the flames of those who think it is hip and cool to swear for Jesus. On the other hand, I want those hip people to listen to all I say and write.”
Language is a strange matter for a writer.. It wavers between being a tool and a liability. I’m intrigued by it. I want to have a natural grace with it. But at times, nothing it offers seems to fit.