Faith Works 9-24-16
Is Decency Ever Graphic?
There's an old story about Justice Potter Stewart and the Supreme Court trying to come up with a definition of obscenity under "community standards" and he finally said more out of frustration than insight: "I know it when I see it."
Some words are pretty generally accepted as profane and, at least once upon a time, not to be said in public. Let alone in church.
But as I started to wade into last week here in this space, community standards seem to be changing (again). There's a marching band that wears scarlet and grey, with a certain tagline that I, at least, just can't say from the pulpit. But I've heard folks I think of as quite decent saying in full "TBDBITL" (not just the incomprehensible but immediately recognizable acronym), and yes, in church. Without any overt sense of irony, it's said in what is taken to be a different context.
To use such a word as an expletive, rather than an adjective . . . but there's a well-worn preacher's story about a staid and decorous evangelist using an Anglo-Saxon profanity in observing "it's a darn shame that more of you are upset I used a swear word than you are that your friends and neighbors are going to Hell." Except he didn't say darn.
Standards are changing, though, and that word I'm feeling constrained to work around in this column is showing up on TV in the long-lost "family hour" and printed on billboards, let alone in print. Am I just being . . . prissy? (Can I use that word?)
One of the common complaints about political correctness is that often objections to some insensitive terms are raised in profanity-laced tirades, with the justification that the racist label is more hurtful than monosyllables about human biological functions. To some, that un-distinction makes sense, while others of us just shake our heads.
I'm not horrified or offended by swear words or harsh language. I've been on Boy Scout campouts and to Marine Corps basic training, I've helped move dead bodies to the mortician's vehicle and cleaned out abandoned homes, I've been to court and to the jail. I won't say you can't surprise me or make me flinch, because life is funny that way, but it's just not that I want to live in a happy-clappy bubble of pink cotton candy.
Yet as I see the coarsening of the culture and the ratcheting down of standards about language in public, in entertainment, in life in general, I can't help but wince. "For the children" is one battle cry for this concern, but I'm more concerned for us all than just for the kids. I think there's a certain set of rules and guidelines and, well, decorum that can ease the unavoidable strains of everyday life. Is it sexist to hold doors? Well, I try to hold them for about anybody; is it ageist to say "sir" let alone "ma'am" if you do it across the age ranges?
And yes, when I post on social media, I try to add a "language alert" up top if there's profanity. It just seems appropriate, just as some ask for "trigger warnings" on violent or disturbing content (which basically I just don't post, given my roles in the community).
But then I run into some pretty insoluble dilemmas, between a graphic description of life and sorrow and yes, sin, and the proprieties we've tending to think of as necessary in church life. Our church library has a large number of lovely Christian romance novels, and they're quite popular; one author got a little more raw-edged about what happened to his protagonists, and I heard a great deal of dislike for that shift on his part.
I've got some books I'd like to put into our church library, for the "equipping of the saints" for the battles we are fighting. "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance is one; a marvelous treatment of growing up in a town not at all dissimilar to Newark. But it is rough, and raw, and definitely with profanity throughout. It also reads like what I live as a minister here: should I shelve it? "The Liars' Club" by Mary Karr I think can offer a measure of hope to women who lived through childhoods like her own, and the adult end of her story in "Lit" surely would speak to many Christians: but oh, the content. I recommend it, individually, cautiously.
Please bear with me if you would, as I spend one more week on this topic next Saturday. Thank you for the feedback last weekend!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he still has a tendency to say "sir" and "ma'am" even when people ask him not to, and let's not even talk about holding doors and chairs. Tell him your ingrained habits at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.