Thursday, January 08, 2015

Cussing Christians

In this post I'm going to venture some comments on the touchy subject of whether it's ever morally permissible for Christians to use obscene language. This isn't the most elevated topic to discuss, but it is a practical and unavoidable question. After all, most Christians talk to other people many times a day. 
Before assessing specific verses, I'd like to make some preliminary observations:
i) At one extreme are Christians who think it's always wrong. They cite commands like Eph 4:28 & Col 3:8. And I agree with them that such passages represent the default position on Christian discourse. But whether that ever allows for obscenity is the very question at issue. There are other passages of Scripture to consider.
At the other end of the spectrum are professing Christians whose use obscenity as freely and frequently as unbelievers. For instance, I've encountered this among Lutherans.
When I say "extreme," I'm not using that as a pejorative adjective. Rather, these simply represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One extreme could be right, or both could be wrong.
ii) It's striking that the KJV is somewhat earthier than the NIV. 
iii) The concepts of obscenity and indecency overlap. In terms of social mores (not to be confused with objective morality), what's considered indecent or not depends in part on how much physical privacy is available for bathing, excreting, or copulating. In a modern home where everyone has their own bedroom and bathroom, that physical privacy fosters a sense of decency that isn't practical in settings which lack those accommodations. 
On a related note, back when many people lived on farms and ranches with barnyards and outhouses, when people rode horses everywhere, when urban dwellings didn't have indoor plumbing, human life was a lot earthier. Our Lord's indecorous explanation in Mk 7:19 is a case in point. 
Likewise, before the invention of swimwear, swimming in the nude was more socially acceptable–in some settings. 
At the same time, the fact that modern homes have more privacy also reflects a popular demand for more privacy. So there may well have been a percentage of the population that was always uncomfortable with lack of privacy, but conditions at that time and place made it unavoidable. 
iv) Another example of variable social mores concerns religious sensibilities. For instance, semi-public nudity (e.g. a locker room) is taboo in Islam in a way that's not the case in Western society generally–or Christianity, for that matter.
v) As a rule, a good English translation should render Greek and Hebrew into idiomatic equivalents. If a Bible character was speaking in idiomatic English, what words would he use? 
vi) The English language has a variety of words and phrases for excretion, copulation, and related anatomy. This ranges from medical nomenclature through neutral lay language to obscene slang.
Although these are synonymous, we need to distinguish between denotations and connotations. Two words can have the same meaning, but one is obscene and the other is not. They share the same denotation but have different connotations. 
Obscene language depends on connotations as well as denotations. A word with a particular affect. 
vii) In terms of ancient languages, I doubt that we can usually tell which words were obscene. I doubt we can tell from the written word if particular words were obscene. I suspect that requires experience with hearing how the spoken language is used in daily situations. There may be some exceptions, like ancient graffiti.
viii) It's possible to compose an obscene word-picture without using obscene words. What makes it obscene is the verbal imagery. 
ix) To my knowledge, Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew don't contain the same range of synonyms (for excretion, copulation, and related anatomy) that we have in English. Therefore, it would be harder for a modern reader to determine if a Bible writer is using a word with a specialized obscene connotation. 
However, that might still be evident based on context, rather than lexical semantics. 
Ancient Hebrew, and especially ancient Greek, might well have many obscene words which never made it into the Bible. So we don't have the same frame of reference as we have for English usage. 
Likewise, we need to be cautious about construing Biblical usage based on types of literature which it's unlikely that Bible writers read. For instance, it's unlikely that a pious Jew like St. Paul ever read X-rated Greek plays–much less attended such performances. 
To the extent that Paul was familiar with Greek obscenities, that would be street Greek. Something which, like it or not, he picked up through cultural osmosis. 
x) Years ago I was reading a book by linguist Charles Berlitz. As I recall, he mentioned that certain Chinese cities have names which are homophones for obscene English words. The "obscenity" is purely adventitious. A linguistic coincidence. 
Now let's shift to some specific candidates:
xi) Phil 3:8. Here Paul uses a word which in English can mean excrement or garbage. It sometimes has the specific connotation of scraps that dogs eat.
Scholars differ on what denotation Paul intends. O'Brien thinks it means "excrement," but doesn't explain why he favors that denotation. BDAG (932b) agrees with O'Brien. As does Hansen. 
Silva thinks it's a double entendre. It plays on the connotations of excrement as well as folk etymology involving dog scraps. 
However, Bockmuehl thinks the etymology is anachronistic. Fee thinks it's a canine pun directed at the Judaizers. He argument doesn't depend on folk etymology. 
Although he and Silva don't spell that out, I assume that would trade on the fact that dogs were ritually impure–because they were scavengers. So that would be quite a slap at the Judaizers. 
So it's quite possible that this is a play on words. But even if it means "excrement," that's not necessarily the same thing as scatological language in the obscene sense. For instance, "excrement" and "mature" are neutral terms. 
Spicq glosses the phrase as "It's all crap." However, that's an English translation of a French rendering of a Greek word! 
So unless the word was a specialized synonym, I think this verse is inconclusive.
xii) 1 Cor 6:9. According to Gordon Fee, in his revised commentary on 1 Corinthians:
There is no question as to the meaning of the koitai part of the word; it is a vulgar slang for "intercourse" (269). 
[Boswell] himself points out the vulgarity of the word by offering the English equivalent; what Boswell seemed to have missed is that for a long period this English equivalent was also seldom found in literature of the kind preserved for posterity for the same reason the Greek one was avoided–it would ordinarily have offended good taste. Paul apparently is not above the use of such if it will make its proper impact (269n245).
This suggests that Paul used the equivalent of the F-bomb. However, I'm dubious about the analysis:
a) Boswell is an unreliable source. He was a homosexual apologist who died of AIDS. 
b) Was Paul conversant with the same profane literary usage? Did he move in those social circles? 
c) I think it's a semantic fallacy to construe koitai in isolation. Paul uses that in a compound word, based on Lev 18:22 & 20:13. Therefore, the denotation and connotation derive from the OT counterpart, not from contemporary Koine Greek.
So I think these two Pauline candidates are inconclusive, although I could be mistaken. 
xiii) 1 Kgs 18:27. That's a taunt, using bathroom humor. Less than obscene, but intentionally crude.
xiv) Judgs 3:19-26. exploits bathroom humor. This may fall into the genre of slave writing, where the oppressed describe their overlords in humiliating situations.
It's scatological humor without using scatological slang. 
xv) 2 Kgs 18:27. This is a taunt or threat by a pagan soldier. If he was speaking in idiomatic English, he'd use vulgar slang. 
It's not so much the specific terminology, but the context, that makes it intentionally vulgar. 
This is a case of the narrator quoting a character. 2 Chron 10:10 is similar.

Same with 1 Sam 20:30. But the idiomatic English equivalent of Saul's expletive has become so conventional that it's lost much of its string. 
xvi) Judgs 5:30. This is essentially a boastful speech put in the mouth of conquering soldiers who claim women as booty. 
Although it literally speaks of "wombs," that's a bit euphemistic in context. If they were bragging in idiomatic English, they'd use obscene slang.
xvii) Ezk 16 & 23. In his commentary, Bock says:
They present serious problems for the commentator, who must clarify the author's intention, and even more so for the modern translator, who feels constrained to tone down the language in respect for sensitivities of the target audience…For the translator whose aim is equivalent impact, the line between appropriate shock and offensive lack of taste is extremely fine. I have tried to respect this distinction by rendering these expressions euphemistically in the translation, and leaving the literal interpretation for the commentary (1:467).
I don't know if Ezekiel uses obscene language, but he does draw obscene word-pictures in chaps. 16 & 23 for shock value, to reach his hardened audience. 
This is quite exceptional in Scripture. But it does indicate what's morally permissible in principle, under analogous circumstances.

xviii) Ezk 6:4. As two major commentators explain:
Modern sensitivities prevent translators from rendering this expression as Ezekiel intended it to be heard, but had he been preaching today, he would probably have identified these idos with a four-letter word for excrement. D. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24 (Eerdmans 1997), 226. 
Most English translations avoid conveying the actual sense of the term so as not to offend modern readers, but the scatological term was chosen deliberately to be offensive. This commentary usually translates it as "fecal deities" to convey the sense…If anything, our translation is still a bit "sanitized." H. Hummel, Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia 2005), 193. 
xix) Obscenity is hardly a neglected feature of the pop culture. Very explicit about heterosexual activity, but ironically prudish about homosexual activity.
As a rule, I think Christians should avoid obscenity. But that's not a moral absolute. Based on Scripture, I think some Christians should be more inhibited in that respect while some other Christians should be less inhibited in that respect.

1 comment:

  1. This line also naturally touches upon the question of the moral acceptability of Christians listening to music and watching movies/television containing salty language.