Lot’s of people have a special fixation on “bad words,” particularly children. There’s a special cocktail of shock and glee evoked by the sound of an “f word” or “s word” in a room full of people. Why just today I caused considerable excitement when I told a student to press the Shift key and some students misheard me. There’s a class of words that we as a society have deemed “bad words” (though the boundaries are very fluid—compare what’s on network TV now to even 15 years ago).
We’ve given these words an embarrassingly inaccurate nomenclature: curse words, swears, profanities. Most of the time when we use this language we are not literally cursing (with the exception of phrases like “damn you” or maybe “go to hell”). We are not expressly invoking evil on someone else. The same goes for swearing. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus condemns swearing oaths, but he seems to have in mind invoking God to give our fickle human plans some gravity, and instead commends us to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. We are not technically making any profane oath when we yell “shit!” when we lock our keys in our car. “Obscenity” seems a little closer to the mark. It simply indicates words that are not polite to say. But even that isn’t very precise. I might tell someone, “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Strung together these are impolite words, but I’ve technically not uttered any obscenity.
At this point you might be wondering, “What the hell is he getting at?” Well, I merely want to suggest we think closely about the [religious] concept of profanity. Hopefully, I’ve said enough to indicate that I harbor no pious prudishness towards R-rated language. But I do think secular culture has flattened out the world to such a degree that we feel a degree of puzzlement that we would consider anything vulgar, or unholy. You need look no further than the mass consumption of raunchy movies and music. We are de-sensitized to much that we know is supposed to be vulgar, and things we might see as a no-biggie, would be shocking to other generations. For example, I know scores of pre-teens who play games like Halo where you basically go around killing indiscriminately with high-powered artillery on the slightest of premises. The very word profanity literally means “outside the temple.” We’d look down at this type of pre-enlightenment distinction as superstitious, (is one building literally holier than another?). We just tend to think differently about profanity these days. We’re afraid to call anything profane. It offends us.
I occasionally run into this aversion when I talk to people about Christianity. Even Christians sometimes feel uncomfortable with ideas like confessing sins and calling themselves unworthy.
I think I am attracted to thinking about this concept because it negates modernity’s flattening of everything into one homogeneous plane without any notion of the sacred (as a side note: this secular viewpoint is often too readily accepted by Protestant and Evangelical lines of thought). What do we consider holy, and what do we want to build a hedge around? That is what’s truly at stake in deciphering what’s “profane” or not. We ought to create holy spaces and times in our lives, that we set apart. I’m not puritanically against raunch (in fact I’m looking forward to The To-Do List). But I am convinced there are holy places, practices, things, and people that are vulnerable, and susceptible to corruption, and are worth protecting.
St. Paul tells the church at Corinth not to “eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily.” Catholics have deduced from that the doctrine that one may not receive Holy Communion without going to confession, and fasting for an hour beforehand. It may seem easy to mock these, particularly the latter, but they’re exactly the kind of holy-making practices I mention above. What do we have to do to prepare ourselves to receive God? That is the point. St. Paul tells us we bring ourselves under judgment when we don’t so “discern ourselves.” God cares about what we decide is holy, and how we treat the holy in our lives. We must examine ourselves to receive Christ in holiness in the Eucharist, thus to become a holy body in the world, no less than the body of Christ (cf 1 Cor. 12:27).
Lenny Bruce will serve as a decent theologian on this topic, "certain words offend me...Segregation offends me."