Shut the f*** up! — the proper use of profanity & the need for propriety

I cuss. Probably more than I should. And far more than my kids think I do.

There is a time for profanity. There is a time for exalted words that express a depth of feeling other words simply can’t convey. So, I cuss.

I cuss when I pray, because there are times when the world around me and the world inside of me is so bad that I need ugly words to express the ugliness. Besides, I think God can handle the truth of what’s going on inside of me and around me. He sees it all. He knows. And he can handle the harshness of the words I feel I need to use to express my prayers to him. Besides, there are plenty of instances in the scriptures where the writers are rather salty with their language.

There is Paul’s use of skubala in Phil. 3:8, which I’d translate nicely as “sewage.” Isaiah 64:6’s righteousness being like “filthy rags” could be translated as “used tampons.” And then there’s David’s use of the term “piss against the wall” in 1 Samuel 25:22 which is intentionally crass but which most translators prudishly hide as “man.” I could go on, but I’ll stop there.

So, I’m in good company biblically.

One of the most powerful contemporary prayers to include an f-bomb is U2’s “Wake Up, Dead Man” from their Pop album. Here’s a video of it and lyrics for it. I find it interesting how the use of one word makes some Christians hate this song, even though it is explicitly sung to Jesus.

I cuss in some conversations. It’s not often and it’s only when it’s appropriate to the conversation. There are times when unfiltered emotion needs to be expressed. But the need here is less than in my prayers, because not every conversation is this appropriate. Knowing when it is and when it isn’t appropriate is the key for me.

When I was in my early 20s, I lived in the University District in Seattle and worked in a warehouse in the city’s industrial area south of downtown. At work, my co-workers swore up a storm. It’s just the language they used for everyday life. And living among the University of Washington’s fraternity houses, I heard a similar amount of swearing at home. There was nothing profane in the profanity of my co-workers when compared with the frat boys. My co-workers were using common parlance. The frat boys were intentionally trying to be coarse and should have had twice the words available in their vocabularies to use.

And for a while, I subscribed to music culture magazines like Paste and Rolling Stone, but I eventually grew tired of all the f-bombs. The article writers and the musicians they interviewed were supposed to be artists and yet they had to resort the same one word to describe everything! How utterly not creative!

As I’ve thought about the over-use of profanity, a relatively unused word has come to mind. Propriety. Wendell Berry is the one who highlighted this rarely used word in my vocabulary and I’m grateful to him for it. Propriety is the consideration of what is appropriate within a given situation and with a given community.

Propriety is what keeps most people from cussing in front of kids.

Propriety is also what allows me to cuss in my prayers. Certain prayers call for it and God can handle it, therefore, they are situationally and relationally appropriate.

I’m not the morality police, and I don’t want those around me to treat me like I am. So, I have no trouble with how restrained or colorful the language is my friends use around me. They know I can handle it, even if I am a pastor. But there is a time and a place when propriety must kick in and temper our language. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we’re losing a sense of propriety in our culture.

Besides, when I cuss, I want those words to be more than just crude and dirty words. I want them to express something powerful. I want them to cause my listeners to pay close attention. And that requires propriety.

So, to those who use f***ing as an adjective for just about everything, please shut the f*** up! It’s time to use other words. There’s a whole dictionary full of them, just waiting to be used.

[Here’s an interesting theological post on crude humor.]