WTFWJD — Christians and the F-bomb

Had an interesting chat with Chris Tilling and Lucy Peppiat in a pub at the airport in Baltimore on the vexed/non (delete as appropriate) issue of Christians swearing. Chris told us the typically Tillingian tale of how he gave himself swearing therapy in a Christian bookshop to get over his aversion to dropping the F-bomb. Only the Tilling would do such things!

There was a recent incident in the news of a parishoner in the UK complaining that her vicar had a car sticker that said WTFWJD. This, said the lady, was blasphemy! The vicar begged to differ. She said that there was a big difference between blasphemy and vulgarity. The F-bomb is vulgar but it is certainly not blasphemous. Amen.

I know loads of Christians who are more shocked when they hear "F-ing this" and "F-ing that" than when they hear actual blasphemy. Film censors take the same approach. Drop two or more F-bombs in a movie and you get a R rating (though you are welcome to have plenty of gratuitous violence and graphic, promiscuous sex) but you can avoid that if your actors just say, "Oh Jesus Christ!" instead.

This reminds me of an evangelical Religious Studies teacher I met in Oxford back in 1990. One of the pupils in his lesson said, 'Oh Jesus!" in a less than prayerful way. The teacher replied, "Don't let me ever fucking hear you take the Lord's name in vain again!" That response worked amazingly! Many may think the teacher's reply more offensive than the pupil's exclamation, but perhaps that simply shows how much our sensitivities about bad language are shaped by cultural factors other than Christian faith.

As Chris Tilling pointed out in our conversation, when the NT tells Christians to speak in wholesome ways its target is matters such as gossip, slander, lying, and the like. Using swear words is not inherently sinful (although it may certainly be sinful depending on the context in which one does it).

A few years back I hosted a gathering in Worcester of evangelical OT scholars interested in feminist hermeneutics (the superb book that came from that gathering can be found here). We had a fascinating discussion on some of the vulgar language used by OT authors that translators would never dare to try to find contemporary equivalents to (or their Bible translations would never be used in church!).

My beef is not with those who use the F-word but with those who devalue its power by using it all the time as the equivalent of "urm"—a filler until your brain can catch up. This sucks the life out of it by making it invisible by its sheer ubiquity. The F-bomb works best when used sparingly.

But WWJD? He would never drop the F-bomb, surely!

Actually, the Jesus I read about in the Gospels is someone who I could very easily believe would do precisely that if the word had been available in first century Aramaic. Jesus was not meek and mild, he was meek but wild. He knew how to fire verbal rockets at injustice and hypocrisy.

The moral of this story — swear by all means but do so sparingly and do so well.

Develop the Christian virtue of holy vulgarity.

Perhaps I ought to get me one of those bumper stickers . . .


Terry Wright said…
Reminds me of a story about (I think) Tony Campolo. He was speaking somewhere about injustice and said something like, "You don't give a shit about the poor. And you're more bothered about the fact that I said 'shit'!"
Robin Parry said…
The version I heard of that story did not have "shit".

I’ve heard that Campolo story too. But I know of at least two youth workers who tried the same trick in their churches back home, for whom it massively backfired... mostly, I suspect, because they didn’t have the maturity or gravitas of Campolo.
Robin Parry said…

yes, I can easily imagine it going horribly wrong! A tumbleweed moment.

Unknown said…
Believe Paul would disagree Col 3:8!
In fact the campolo incident was the use of tue word shit as I once heard him speak and he refered to it! I also believe that it happened ay Spring Harvest his point was that more people would be upset by the word shit than the fact that many millions die without knowing Christ and/or starvivg to death. He did confirm that the amount of criticism he received for using that word outweighed the comments about lostness by msny hundteds
Marc said…
Campolo has been preaching a similar sermon for decades, I imagine (and to great effect). He's done the "shit" thing in a number of places. He's known for it (as well as "It's Friiiiiiiday! But Sunday's comin'!")

One reason he can get away with it whereas the youth workers cannot is that he is an itinerant preacher and a guest at conferences, rather than a pastor at a specific church.

Plus, it's his own "schtick" so to speak and it works for him. My guess is that those youth workers heard about it and thought it was cool and that they should try the same thing in their churches.... but it wasn't their own...
Sheryl said…
I used the f-word a lot when Megan was diagnosed with leaukaemia and in her treatment....there seemed nothing else left to say :/ but as she progressed through the treatment it really seem appropriate as life didn't seem so, well, life threatening! I also said "Oh Jesus!" about every other breath.....definitely the shortest and most effective prayer in my repertoire :)
Wangyal said…
For people (who defend the use of f-words) whose first language is English (American or British) your command over it is atrocious. Why can't you think of better ways to express yourselves other that using vulgar language? You are of limited imagination. Did your mother drop you when you were a baby?

Your exegesis is also lacking in many aspects. Example: for people who call yourselves "Christian" your defense for the use of the f-word is not Christ-centered. Look at Graham Dowling's comment!

I dare you: why don't you spell out all the f-words on your post, that will be even better for your defense; don't you think so?
Robin Parry said…

Perhaps you make the mistaken assumption in your first paragraph that people who defend the use of the F-word use it all the time and use it because they lack the grasp of English to think of other words. I think a moments reflection on that will reveal the mistake.

You claim that our exegesis is lacking in "many aspects." I did not really offer any exegesis but I am unclear what the many aspects are.

I do think that the F-word can be used in very bad and inappropriate ways but also that it can be used in Christ-honouring ways.

Re: Graham Dowling's comment — this presupposes that the referent of Paul's mention of "obscene speech" is vulgar language. That is not at all obvious to me (though I will look into it as a possibility).

Finally, re: spelling out all the F words? I am unclear how you think that would help my defence. My point is not that people should use the word often and however they like. My point is that it can be appropriate on occasion but not if overused. Surely only spelling it out once is more consistent with this stance.
Terry Wright said…
Personally, Wangyal, I find your question, 'Did your mother drop you when you were a baby?', more offensive than any swear-word listed in this conversation.
Peter Stone said…
On a different note re using God's name or Jesus in vain. To this day I don't and I don't like when people do this but when I was at Bible college over 10 years ago there where a number of students from Latin America and India who used it all the time. They where asked to stop and where questioned over it and according to them they had never seen anything wrong with it and only Christians in their countries would say such a thing. My wife is from Ecuador and she knows my feelings about it. She doesn't really do it now but if she does it is usually in Spanish.
Robin Parry said…

That's an interesting comment. Here is what I think. Avoiding taking God's name in vain is a way of inculcating a respect for God. So it is training in the orientation of our heart.

The Jewish practice of never even uttering the divine name (but using substitues) is another helpful way of instilling respect in us for God.

Using God's name in vain can lead us to trivialize and diminish (in our own eyes) God.
James Goetz said…
Hi Robin, Thank you for this post.

I am unsure of any context that Jesus would drop the F-bomb, but profanity and Christianity is an important topic that is typically oversimplified. For example, if we assume that Paul wrote Ephesians, then the author of "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear" also wrote the vulgarity in Galatians about "wishing" that the Judaizers would emasculate themselves..

I also wonder if the prohibition of not using the Lord's name in vain is mostly about not using the Lord's name falsely.
Steve Galt said…
It seems difficult to argue for the appropriateness of a particular usage of the F-bomb given the different connotations of the F-bomb in the various cultural contexts of the English speaking world. One weakness of this article, therefore, is that it lacks sensitivity to these differences.
Carma said…
I would be extremely interested to learn more about "the vulgar language used by OT authors that translators would never dare to try to find contemporary equivalents," as I often feel our cultural squeamishness about many words and topics owes far more to Victorian mores than Biblical injunction. Does anyone know of a website or book that discusses this topic?
Robin Parry said…

I completely agree with you that context is everything and that one should evaluate instances in terms of their specific context—cultural, but also the specifics of the situation in question. And I did make clear (though perhaps not clear enough) that the F-bomb can be appropriate and can be inappropriate depending on the context. I did not stress the role of cultural differences but that would not fundamentally affect the main point, which was simply that it is not inherently wrong always and everywhere to drop an F-bomb. I leave it to readers to seek to discern whether any particular instance is appropriate or not.
Robin Parry said…

I wish I could remember the details of the discussion. I came away thinking that there were a surprising number of instances (not millions but more than just a couple) where it appeared that vulgar language was used for effect. But I am afraid that my memory fails on the particulars.

Robin Parry said…

Thanks. I agree that biblical prohibitions about using God's name in vain are more connected with taking oaths and then breaking them. But this does underscore the honour of God's name and the need for his people to learn to respect it. So using God's holy name lightly is an issue, even if it is not quite what Scripture had in mind in the ten commandments.

The Bible has many instances of prophets and the like speaking very harsh and shocking words, expressing righteous anger and deep grief. They can often be rude and offensive. Jesus was among them. My point is simply that if not used at the drop of a hat the F-word can be a powerful way of underscoring a point and I see no reason why it cannot be prophetic. Such a use would not, in my view, constitute "evil talk."

(I ought to add that I am not seeking to make theological excuses for my bad behaviour—My use of the F-word is so rare that you are more likely to see a real dragon in Wales than to hear it drop from my lips. But I would not think that I had sinned if I did say it—assuming it was appropriate in context)
Des said…
James 3:10-11

"Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters,it just shouldn't be this way ! Both fresh water and salt water don't come from the same spring,do they?"

Speaking personally, prior to becoming a Christian every other word I uttered was a swear word. The very next morning it was so noticeable I completely stopped swearing. It wasn't a conscious decision, it just stopped, overnight. It was an obvious sign that something had changed. I' ve never used the 'f' word since or felt the need to. Its not that there have never been situations that required an 'f' bomb, it just disappeared from my vocabulary!

I' m personally with James. If you have the same power living within you that raised Jesus from the dead ( and you do), swearing to make a point is not necessary. And how can anything other than praise and worship come from the same vessel ?

Its what makes us different isn't it?
Robin Parry said…

I am pleased that you stopped swearing. It sure is a sign of God's work in you. I hope that you understand that I am not advocating swearing as you used to do.

What James is complaining about is using your mouth both to praise God and to curse people (3:9). But using the F-word need not be about cursing people. It can be an expression of pain or grief or of anger against some great injustice. James himself is not averse to offering some pretty harsh criticisms of injustice. So that kind of talk (even if accompanied by the F word) is not incompatible with praise.

The assumption that we make is that a swear word by definition falls under the category of the "evil talk" that Scripture prohibits. I am simply saying that there may well be occasions when it is not.

However, if you do not wish to swear I have no interest in changing that. I am pleased you don't do it.
Unknown said…
I dont have a problem with Jesus and the f-word.

The c-word would feel pretty wrong though... In my case at least, what I might let Jesus do depends on a projection of my own personal moral limits.

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