WORD FROM THE PASTOR: I’m Gonna Wash Your Mouth Out with Soap!
I was genuinely horrified when I first read The Exorcist as a high school senior. It was not the spinning heads or the projectile vomiting or the blasphemy and desecration of sacred things that horrified me. No, what horrified me was…cussing clergy! The priests in the novel actually…(gasp!)…used profanity! It never dawned on me that men of God would swear! (To be honest, my childhood exposure to church was minimal, so I probably had an idealistically inflated image of “men of God.”) The notion of dirty words proceeding from sacred mouths mortified me! (Later, when I became a pastor and hung around actual clergy, I realized that “The Exorcist” was not totally exaggerating!) As the 1970s unfolded, we all got used to nearly non-stop profanity on the big screen. Some of my very favorite movies from that era—“Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Goodfellas,”—were drenched in profanity. It lent an aura of authenticity, of “true grit” to these movies...even though I didn’t know any real people who actually talked like that. But then, as movies got more and more profane, people in real life actually began talking like that! Was it life imitating art? Did the words on the screen liberate people to talk like that in real life? Perhaps! Profanity, of course, was not invented in the 1960s. James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, was the first mainstream work of literature to use the word I’m going to call the “short, guttural verb”—borrowing a description from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in 1929. (Let’s abbreviate it as SGV). Interestingly, Joyce placed the SGV on the lips of a British soldier—and indeed, this particular profane word has been intimately associated with the military. The SGV was so pervasive in World War II that the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle once said, “If I ever have to hear that word again I’m going to throw up.” (A seminary friend of mine, a Korean War veteran, told me about coming home and eating the first post-war meal with his family—and how he used the SGV in asking his mom to pass the mashed potatoes. He was quite embarrassed, and realized that he wasn’t in the Army anymore).
Interestingly, a Vietnam veteran who watched the film “Platoon” noted that he heard the SGV more times in the two-hour movie than he did in a year-long tour in Vietnam! I thought about Ernie Pyle’s desire to never hear the SGV again as I watched a movie called “Three Billboards Outside of Hibbing, Missouri.” Ernie would have thrown up at this film..for the SGV was in almost every sentence. It grew tiresome pretty fast. Especially for someone, like me, who used to live in a small Midwestern town. Folks in such towns just don’t talk that way. I saw a post on Facebook recently that claimed that New Yorkers use the SGV like a comma. Perhaps—but folks in small Midwestern towns generally don’t. So the profanity in “Three Billboards,” far from lending the movie realistic “true grit,” completely undercut any sense of realism. Not everybody swears like a sailor. (Speaking of sailors…the first movie I remember seeing that was filled with profanity was “The Last Detail” with Jack Nicholson... a very good movie about sailors! Mr. Krabs once told SpongeBob SquarePants that there are seven obscene words—“nine if you’re a sailor!” Funny line. But I have to say…a fine sailor film about the Mersk Alabama highjacking, “Captain Phillips,” had almost no profanity in it! So it’s actually possible to make a film about sailors without non-stop profanity!)
God gives us a commandment about speech in the Bible—“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” This prohibits us from using the name of God or Christ as a curse. There’s a story about a little girl who came to Sunday school for the first time around Christmas. And she heard the Christmas story. And the little girl gasped when she heard that Mary “named the baby Jesus.” The little girl cried out, “Why would they name a little baby after a swear word?” God’s commandment forbids any use of the Divine Names for swearing. (We don’t want to get too obsessive about this–over the years I’ve heard way too many sermons about how “gosh” and “darn” and “golly-gee” are violations of this commandment. Rank legalism! I think we all know what phrases violate this commandment, and “gee willickers!” is not one of them). The commandment protects God’s name, and the precious Name of the One who died for us, Jesus the Lord… but does not cover other types of profanity. St. Paul does write in the New Testament: “But now you must rid yourselves of these: anger, rage, slander, malice and filthy language from your lips.” (Colossians 3:8). Some might, of course, argue that a person can say really filthy things without using actual profanity...and that profanity often acts as (in Mister Krabs’ words) a “sentence enhancer” rather than a communicator of filth. In our speaking, we should be guided by this truth: It was God who gave us the ability to speak. As God said to Moses at the burning bush, “Who has made man’s mouth? Have not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). Of all the creatures in the visible world, we alone have the ability to speak. This is a wonderful gift–a privilege to be treasured. It enables us to pray; it enables us to worship God. We use this incredible ability to sing to God’s glory! We use this ability to tell other people about Jesus. The ability to speak—again, something unique to humans—is part of God’s image in us! It is something incredibly holy and awesome! So it is sad when we give it over to non-stop profanity. St. James once remarked in the Bible: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with the tongue we curse men, who have been made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth come blessing and SERVING IN THE LORD’S HOUSE THIS cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10). I can’t definitively say that the use of words like SGV is a sin…but it is using one of God’s greatest gifts in an inferior way. It is trivializing something precious. It is turning gold into lead. Let’s use our ability to speak to give God glory! That’s why he gave it to us! Our tongue and mouth were not made to rattle off endless SGVs…they were created to sing the praise of God!
God loves you and so do I!