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The Apostle Paul made it clear that coarse talk coming from our mouths is not the mark of a follower of Christ.   In Ephesians 5 he freely intermingles this with warnings against sexual immorality, greed (which he pegs as idolatry), and foolish joking.  Alas, I suspect that we all struggle with these things even if we tend to pay more attention to the sexuality part than the greed and coarse talking part.  Or at least we don’t generally threaten to toss greedy people with a propensity to tell improper jokes out of the church.  But I digress . . .

Our ability to resist coarse talk has perhaps never been easy but in my observation of our society, it has gotten much more difficult in the last half-dozen or so years.  There is no one reason for this and certainly no one person at fault, though as I have written before, a series of things changed the rhetorical landscape, starting when the nation crossed a line when candidate Donald Trump overtly bragged about the size of his manhood at a presidential debate.  Of course, I blame Marco Rubio for goading him into that so bad on him too.  Then there was the Access Hollywood recording.

But not so long ago publications like the New York Times would never print most foul language or cursing.  It would put in #*!^ and such to avoid printing an entire dirty word or swear word in a quote, and some things like the f-bomb might not even get that much air time.   When I served as an editor for Perspectives / The Reformed Journal, upon occasion we would get an article that used one such word for various reasons.  But I always argued we could not print that and often cited the NY Times as a reason: if a secular paper would not print such language, a Reformed and Christian magazine/blog surely must not.

The same was true of television news.  What could be bleeped in interviews usually was and you could rely on the fact that on-air anchors and journalists would not repeat such language either.

But not now.  Just the other day former AG William Barr was interviewed about his take on the former president’s defense of the documents at Mar-a-Lago and Barr called it “a crock of s&%t” except the NY Times in its article did not cover up the word as they once would have.  The January 6 hearings this past summer revealed that behind the scenes everyone from the President to his Chief-of-Staff to seemingly just plain everyone dropped the f-bomb all the time—some of the reported dialogue sounded like a mob movie.  This got reported and played in the hearings and next thing you knew even the news anchors on cable TV were repeating some of the more shocking quotes without any attempt to not say certain words on the air.  (George Carlin would have to alter his famous routine were he still alive.)

It is not as though I am so naïve as to think people in power talking this way behind closed doors is new.  Just listen to the Nixon Oval Office tapes.  Or phone calls involving LBJ.  Although they were generally models of decorous public speech, no doubt people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had their share of expletives in private meetings too.  And President Biden has been known to cuss as well. But somehow that never quite made it out into the light of day until more recent times.  Reporters who might have heard such things generally did not report it and anchors and TV personalities did not repeat or propagate such speech either. 

But not now.  Again, there is a sense in which no one is to blame and everyone is to blame.

A few days ago while waiting in the drive-thru lane of a Burger King, I witnessed a twenty-something year old man standing near the restaurant door with his cellphone on speaker talking—actually he was shouting—at someone on the other end of the call and was using the vilest, coarsest language about sexual matters that you can imagine.  It was genuinely foul and utterly public.  Had I had young children with me, I would have risked this guy’s wrath by telling him to be quiet.  As I observed him, though, I could think only one thing: you are emblematic of so much of what is wrong with society now.  People have lost that secondary process we are all supposed to learn that keeps us from saying every fool thing that comes into our heads.  Many of us were raised never to say certain things “in polite company” but such company seems no longer to exist.

There are lots of things one could point to today to indicate the moral slippage of culture and society.  Language is one indicator.  But just behind this willingness to engage in crude speech is also a slippage of kindness, of consideration, of gentleness and goodness and actually most of the Fruit of the Spirit.  I cannot say how or whether this has affected the church.  Certainly I know of no examples of church leaders or preachers engaging in such talk in public or in worship (though some of what I heard Mark Driscoll say in the audio clips used in “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast came close to a kind of coarse crudity).

There are, however, some indicators that the language of cultural warfare has seeped into our ecclesiastical discourse whether at a synod or on a podcast or on certain videos.  The words may not be vile but the sentiments are frequently unkind and hurtful as people dismissively categorize some in the church as “the elites” as opposed to all the non-elites who, I guess, are to be deemed the better part of the Body of Christ.  There is more than one way for our rhetoric to get coarsened.  Here is hoping and praying we can find ways to resist this so that, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 5, we can gush forth thanksgiving from our mouths as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

9 Comments

  • David Hoekema says:

    Gosh darn, Scott, your observations ring true.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    The words are not just hurtful, they are usually quite violent.

  • So, when does CTS kick you out?

    Once again, I barely recognize the place I graduated from in 1985.

    Not that I want them to. You are a breath of fresh air.

    Blessings,
    Steve

  • Ken Boonstra says:

    The only time I can recall intentional coarseness used to great effect in preaching is the well-known Tony Campolo comments about world hunger. “30,000 (or something like that) children have died from hunger today and you don’t give a ‘d#%n.’ And what’s worse, you’re more upset that I said ‘d#%n’ than that 30,000 children died.” I thought in that circumstance his coarseness was appropriate.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    Prof. Nydam used to say that vulgar language was data- evidence of underlying emotion that the individual doesn’t know how to name or process. That seems to ring true, and I wonder if that is the general state of more and more people today, given what I hear.

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      Back in another lifetime, teaching h.s. English, I had the opportunity/privilege to teach “Track Two” sophomores, with a good portion of class time using read-alouds. One of our literature offerings was John Steinbeck’s _Of Mice and Men; the text doesn’t get very far before the first profanity is dropped, so we stopped everything on Day 1 for a philosophical discussion on profanity and its cheap cousin, vulgarity. As you said, Amy, quoting Nydam, we observed in our discussion (why do people swear? what do the words mean?) that the characters Lenny and George and the others engaged in profanity during times of deep stress, frustration, emotion, pain, and fear, the unsophisticated characters unable to express themselves otherwise, not knowing “how to name or process” their deep emotion in the story’s situation. A profane curse, in the context of their situation, was in a sense a desperate prayer . . .

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    The droppings of small minds.

  • Kirk says:

    If being called an “elite” is too harsh, Scott, I wonder what you think of your colleague James Bratt’s “coup boyz”, “theobros”, “Trumpian” and other such creative labels?

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