I was stopped in my tracks recently whilst browsing the book review section of UK based Christianity magazine. The book being reviewed was Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic which is effectively an angry but nonetheless thought provoking rant against the ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens although you could add names like Ricky Gervais to that (funny he may be but his atheistic proclamations can be quite cutting). For those who feel frustrated by the constant militant atheistic tirades against Christians, Spufford hits back with something of a tirade of his own, frequently taking something of a ‘baseball bat’ approach, taking swing at atheism with some of the vehemence which which atheists attack Christians at times.
What grabbed my attention, not to say bewilderment, was when the reviewer explained that “this book shouts a big ‘**** you’ to militant atheists”. The asterisks were part of the review but you don’t need to be a genius to work out the missing word. The reviewer goes on to say “swearing is frequent” in the book.
What troubled me was that there didn’t seem to be any great concern expressed about the use of swearing in the book other than highlighting its presence. In fairness, I’ve only read a Kindle sample of the actual book but even in that the f-word is used a couple times and a few other expletives too. Other reviewers have noted swearing throughout the book.
Is it just me, or has swearing become ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ in some areas of Christian conversation? Spufford’s swearing detracted from the sample of the book I read, which was a shame as his argument was mostly good, hard hitting and necessary, if theologically questionable at times. But the swearing made me want to put the book down. Why?
First, because I found it off putting and totally unnecessary. The Bible teaches that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). I felt the Spirit within me ‘uncomfortable’ with what I read, with the language used.
Second, because, as a Christian, I was deeply uncomfortable reading a ‘Christian’ book with a theological message that resorted to swearing as part of that message. To my mind, if a Christian resorts to swearing to make his/her point, then the argument is already lost.
Third, from my understanding, the Bible teaches against swearing. We are to guard against “unwholesome talk” (Eph. 4:29). We are also taught not to conform to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2).
As I read of other Christians who didn’t seem to find swearing problematic, I asked myself if I was overreacting? Was I ‘out of touch’ with modern evangelistic and exegetical techniques that now incorporate expletives?
As I seek to take my instruction from God’s Word, I don’t believe I’m overreacting. I accept that at times Christians lapse in behaviour (I have a daily check list to bring to God for forgiveness), I accept sometimes in the context of anger an expletive might ‘slip out’ unintentionally. But I worry when swearing becomes habitual and nothing is deemed wrong with this. Indeed, in some Christian circles it seems to have become an evangelistic tool to help show non-Christians that Christians are ‘just human too’.
It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the alien presence of swearing in the Christian vocabulary. I remember being at Bible College and being surprised (to say the least) by the somewhat industrial language a few students used. Not many, but some. I’m also aware that some Christian leaders, Mark Driscoll in America, for instance, believe expletives can be used to be dramatic and gain attention for the message, and while many agree with him (a quick Google search will show numerous supporters), I disagree entirely. For me the Bible is crystal clear in its prohibition of “unwholesome” language (Eph. 4:29) and I can’t see that this is in any way a grey area.
The reviewer of Unapologetic further says that while “swearing is frequent” the book is “passionate about Christ”. Maybe it’s just me who sees a contradiction there? James 3:10-11 is crystal clear,
“Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh and salt water flow from the same spring?”
I admit that if I hear a Christian swearing (more often than for it to be ‘accidental’) then, for me, it detracts from any passion they have shown for Christ. If I heard a Christian leader or minister swearing from the preaching platform, it would put me off listening to them again. I may even consider walking out. Are we really to believe that swearing is a ‘fruit of the Spirit’?
While some feel it is a legitimate method for spreading the gospel to a world that ‘understands that language’, for me, it is detrimental to the very gospel message that’s being conveyed. The reviewer in the magazine may be simply stating that there is swearing in the book and leaving people to make up their own minds. What I find disappointing is that Spufford seems to believe it is a useful tool in presenting his message.
What I found equally alarming when I read reviews of the book, both by ‘ordinary’ readers and newspaper reviewers, was the lack of serious questioning of this language. Several Christian reviewers had views along the lines of ‘Yes, there’s swearing but it a strong message and well worth reading’.
Is it excusable? Should Christians ‘put up with’ or even embrace swearing for the sake of ‘shocking’ people into hearing the gospel? I admit I was drawn along by the passion in Spufford’s words and although his arguments aren’t always orthodox, his is still a message which would be worth listening to and a useful tool in the Christian armoury against the onslaught of resurgent atheism propagated by its modern day prophets. But for me, the swearing takes away from the argument because it betrays a lack of Christian character and an acceptance of a method which I cannot see accepted in the Bible.
The Christian is to stand out from the world, in it but not of it, to be an example, to ‘march to the beat of a different drum’. My experience is that non-Christians are surprised to hear Christians swearing and expect better and, frankly, I think they’re right. I cannot, in all honesty, see Jesus using an expletive as an evangelistic tool to convey His message.
Stephen Cherry, Canon of Durham Cathedral, gives his thoughts on Spufford’s swearing,
“Yes, it’s sweary and on the whole we try to do theology without swearing. But careful swearing, if I can put it that way, can be a way of pointing to the known inadequacy of my words in the face of what I am trying to communicate. There is self-exasperation in swearing, as well as indignation.” (emphasis mine)
Try reading that quote again as though said by Jesus or Isaiah or Paul. I tried…and failed.
Are we really to believe that we can’t point to the inadequacy of words, and we can’t communicate exasperation and indignation, without swearing? Throughout the Bible, God’s people expressed some very harsh and indignation feelings without resorting to swearing.
What is disturbing is that of the reviews I’ve read, some Christians mention the strong language ‘in passing’ just to let you know it’s there but then go on to heap praise on the book. Others don’t even mention it, it doesn’t even register on their ‘spiritual radar’.
Liam Thatcher wrote on Think Theology website,
“Spufford can swear. He really can. Often with great effect… (it) jars a little at first, since it’s not what you might expect in a book arguing for Christian faith, yet it gets to the heart of the matter effectively”
Thatcher, while at least highlighting the unexpectedness of finding swearing in a Christian book, still argues for accepting it because “it gets to the heart of the matter effectively”. Once again, this appears to be advocating a use of language that the Bible actively opposes, in order to ‘effectively’ proclaim the message.
For Bible believing Christians, our methodology, as well as our message, must be drawn from and infused with the Bible’s teaching and we must guard against false teachings which infiltrate Christian language under the guise of being an ‘effective method’ of reaching people.
Galatians 5:22-23 lists nine fruits of the Spirit…expletives aren’t one of them!
I’ll leave you with a question. Are there some things which can be accepted under the argument that ‘they get the message across’, even if unorthodox and clearly against the Bible’s teaching?
The reader can decide if ‘Christian swearing’ is one.