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Monday, July 03, 2017

On the Value of Frank Speech

A couple of stories about calling it as you see it.

The first was in a video lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson. Pointing to a particular vignette in the Hieronymous Bosch triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Peterson improvised:

“That’s the lion lying down with the lamb. So that’s this idea that’s maybe projected back in time that there was a time — or maybe will be a time — when the horrors of life are no longer necessary for life itself to exist.

And the horrors of life are, of course, that everything eats everything else and that everything dies and that everything’s born and that the whole bloody place is a charnel house and it’s a catastrophe from beginning to end.

This is the vision of it being ... other than that.”

Boy, you could have heard a pin drop. He had the attention of everyone in the room.

There’s electric clarity to that sort of unadorned, blunt speech that is rarely present in pulpit oratory, as much as I love and benefit from that. But try speaking to a bunch of Christians that way and I guarantee a non-trivial percentage of your audience would get fixated on the solitary use of the word “bloody” and never hear a word of what you have to say from that moment on.

Despite it being, in my estimation, minimally offensive and used to great effect.

Evicting a Donkey

In the second instance, a conference of Christian educators was considering the issue of forced accommodation of transgender students in a Christian school. The speaker was taken to task for uttering the words “expel his ass”.

Uh, yeah. You can picture the scene, right. And the resulting emails, one of which read like this:
“I think what you said dishonored God and exhibited hate, not love, towards who Jesus has called us to love — namely, all people (‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.’ John 3:16) ... As your sister in Christ, I ask you to please not use that type of language, in particular concerning persons Christ died for (however they may treat us or our schools), for Jesus’ sake.”
Pretty much what you might expect, right? Correctly anticipating precisely the response he was about to receive, the speaker followed his remarks with this:
“If you have more of a problem with my robust manner of expression than you do with Metrosexual Classical Academy not expelling anyone’s hinderparts from that, um, community, you have what I am warning you about in a nutshell.”
You can see the problem. To make your point to certain members of an often-lethargic audience, a little well-timed intensity can be a useful thing. There is no quicker way to make your listeners sit up and take notice than to say something a little bit shocking. Not outrageous, necessarily, but bracing and unexpected.

Bam. Point made.

At the same time, you risk alienating older Christians uncomfortable with language or imagery they consider profane and inappropriate.

Residual Victorianism

Now of course the issue is not at all a black-and-white one. For the lady who complained in writing the math is clear: strong language = lack of love. That’s a very binary way to look at things, and I think it’s not a particularly biblical position. There’s more residual Victorianism in it than there is New Testament Christianity.

Strong, vivid language has been a useful tool in God’s communication kit from the get-go. I won’t attempt to exposit these examples but here’s a short list of places in scripture where the original languages are intense, their imagery often sufficiently explicit that translators frequently gloss over what is actually being said, and their readers are probably just as happy about it: Genesis 4:7; 1 Kings 12:10-11, 18:27; Jeremiah 20:7; Ezekiel 16:17, 23:3, 8, 13, 20, 21; Hosea 6:10, 9:1; Galatians 5:12. These are all word pictures employed either by the Holy Spirit in his narration, by the prophets in speaking for God or themselves, or in the latter case by the apostle Paul. Their literal translations are sufficiently eye-popping that even pagans and Muslims feign to be scandalized.

Names Will Never Hurt Me

Further, there is plenty of name-calling in the New Testament, not least by the Lord Jesus himself, who engaged in it regularly. I won’t list every NT reference for you, but everyone has heard “brood of vipers”, “hypocrites”, “fox”, “evil beasts”, “fools”, “blind”, “blind fools”, “lazy gluttons” and so on enough times to recognize that fact is indisputable, nor can the usage of these pejoratives be coherently attributed to “hate, not love”. Peter, Paul and Jude often condemn their enemies in the strongest possible language. Comparatively speaking, the words “bloody” and “ass” are non-issues.

We are quick to quote “Let your speech always be gracious”, but not so quick to remember that Paul appends the words, “seasoned with salt”. Salt is a metaphor for a bunch of things in scripture (and means something entirely different in today’s language), but one of the better suggestions I’ve heard in this context is William MacDonald’s “honest and without hypocrisy”. Graciousness should never be a cover for mincing words or lacking courage.

Robust Verbal Shorthand

That said, even having established the clear track record of the word of God, I am not in the least impressed with modern evangelical video-pastors who sprinkle every sermon with “salty” language (here meaning that peculiar robust verbal shorthand usually attributed to sailors back in the day). That, I believe, shows poor judgment. We should probably keep in mind that though examples of strong speech are common in scripture, they represent a very small fraction of the language used by God. To employ shocking or offensive imagery indiscriminately and as a matter of course is to step away from an observable scriptural balance.

After all, each time a speaker considers using strong language, he needs to weigh his need to show seriousness and intensity about his subject — and a very natural desire to be heard — against the near-certainty of giving offense to some and the potential for unprofitable distraction. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it ain’t. In the end, the servant of God must go with the option he believes is most pleasing to his Lord. It is not at all clear to me that modern speakers always spend sufficient time on such cost/benefit analyses.

Strong speech is an acceptable spiritual tool, but one that needs to be used carefully, with conviction and in the interest of making a spiritual point, not at all frivolously. I can’t speak to the motives of such men, but there are way too many dodgy reasons for resorting to questionable word choices. Sometimes we do it because our case is weak. Peter, fearing he would not be believed when he said, “I do not know the man”, added an oath. That’s a bad reason to use strong language. Wanting to appear “down with the kids”, aping other speakers, being “true to myself”, or “It just slipped out” are equally lame, unspiritual justifications.

A Word in Season

The real issue is not whether this or that expression is a “bad word”, but whether it is “in season”, meaning appropriate to the subject, the circumstances and the audience. The very thing a roomful of rich, complacent Churchians may need most is to be jarred out of their seats, scandalized and angered, just as the Lord Jesus deliberately antagonized the Pharisees. Who can argue that’s a bad move if it causes them to reassess their commitment to Christ? On the other hand, a roomful of old people living lonely, difficult lives need something else entirely. Turning up the rhetoric dial to 11 in such a situation is unhelpful, to say the least.

Frank speech is valuable, but like other things of worth, it appreciates with rarity and depreciates in a climate of overabundance.

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