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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Bad Words?

  • Dr. James Emery White
    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
  • 2008 May 16
  • Comments

A new church had a trailer, full of church supplies and equipment, stolen.  In a unique reaction, they rented billboards throughout their city to communicate to the perpetrators.  I would assume the goal was a unique marketing opportunity, the chance for some sympathetic financial support, and the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation with the perpetrator.

But the church may have gotten more than they bargained for, particularly from one billboard in particular:

CHURCH TRAILER THIEF,
Stealing from God…Ballsy.

From this, the church received more attention for their vocabulary than their plight.

Which may, of course, been their intent.

Regardless of where you stand on the church’s chosen use of words, it would have been difficult to have imagined any church using such a word in its marketing even ten years ago - no matter how edgy or hip they may have attempted to be.

Yet it is surely part of a larger coarsening of language in general.  Consider the recent slip of Sue Simmons, a news anchor on WNBC-TV, who, while trying to get the attention of longtime partner, Chuck Scarborough, asked “What are you doing?”

Only she did not realize they were live on the air.

And she did not say “What are you doing?”

She inserted two words between “what” and “are” – and one of those was “the.”

I’ll let you do the math.

In commenting on the slip, Clyde Haberman of the New York Times writes that the most surprising thing about Simmons’ unbleeped blooper is that anyone even noticed.  “The reality is that this word has been tossed about with such abandon in public for so many years that…the word is no longer shocking, just tedious.”  The station certainly did not seem to mind.  “She’ll continue to be on the air,” said WNBC spokeswoman Susan Kiel.

It would seem, notes sociolinguist John V. Singler of New York University, that the only remaining taboo words “have to do…with race.”  And even those, he notes, depend on who’s saying them.

I don’t know that I’ve ever reflected on profanity, or even vulgar language, before.  At least in terms of what makes it vulgar or profane.  The words themselves have a wide variety of referents, many of them perfectly acceptable in the proper contexts, including place, religion, physical anatomy, and bodily functions.

The danger, of course, is what the use of such words – particularly to the point of numbness – does to our world. 

Haberman writes of a street argument between two men.  Finally, one of them shouted at the other, “I’ve only got two words to say to you.”  And then he said four.  Two of them were sandwiched between “shut” and “up.”  You can probably surmise the missing phrase. 

The point is that the man truly thought he was using only two words.  And that is the problem of vulgar language: 

We lose our sense of what it means to be vulgar.

James Emery White


Sources

For local television reports of the church billboard signs, see:  http://www.wcnc.com/news/topstories/stories/wcnc-040308-mw-churchbillboards.2b202ede.html as well as http://news14.com/Default.aspx?ArID=594581.  For the church itself, visit www.kineticchurch.com.

For the pastor’s defense of using the word “ballsy,” see http://www.davemilam.com/?p=212.

For the video of Sue Simmons cursing on “live” TV, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kr4AaMEvNwY.

“Bad Words, Overused, Can Lose Their Sting, and Then They Become Just Impolite,” Clyde Habermann, The New York Times, Friday, May 16, 2008.  To access this story online:   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/16/nyregion/16nyc.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=haberman&st=nyt&oref=slogin