Defusing the F-Bomb

Re-post 2013 [edited edition]

In September of 2012 I posted this piece on vulgarity and its relationship to a distinctively Christian vantage. Thanks to newadvent.org, my daily readership shot up from ~60 to nearly 9000 in a 3 days. I wrote it as a reflection on the f-word, which I believe is especially disgusting as it specifically degrades the beauty of the marital act.

After writing the post, I picked up a (non-religious) book on the topic — Swearing: The Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, Profanity in English, by Geoffrey Hughes. Hughes’ book makes clear that swearing has, of course, always been around. What I found most intriguing was the remarkable creativity in the universal human search for shock-value language that irreveres reverence, speaks the unspeakable, publicizes the private, ridicules the serious, profanes the sacred and the undresses modesty. What has changed in the last 50 or so years, Hughes argues, is that there has been an explosive growth of sexual profanity, while blasphemy (waning under secularism’s waxing) is on the decline. In addition, the social boundaries that contain profanity have progressively dissolved, ever more democratizing vulgar culture. I will not explore blasphemy much here, but see the Catechism’s discussion.

If you’re interested, here are my wandering thoughts for your own reflective consideration.

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The Vulgate on vulgarity

Today I want to try thinking about the f-bomb with the mind of Christ. Let me reflect on a few relevant biblical texts.

James 3 is a mini Gospel of the Tongue, decrying the use of language unbecoming creatures created to sound forth blessing. For example:

If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies…
In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.

The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

Matthew 12:34-37 offers Jesus’ approach to language:

…from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

In Colossians 3:8, St. Paul reminds the Colossians of their prior pagan manner of life:

…in this way you too once conducted yourselves, when you lived in that way. But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths.

The Scottish Biblical scholar William Barclay (who was Venerable Fulton Sheen’s favorite biblical scholar) made this comment on the above Colossians text:

There can never have been a time in history when so much filthy language is used as it is today. And the tragedy is that today there are many people who have become so habituated to unclean talk that they are unaware that they are using it.

Revealing Language

The Jewish view of language expressed in the first two chapters of Genesis sees human language as a premier sign of God’s image. For Christians, human language is also seen as an icon of God’s eternal Word who became flesh and spoke among us (cf. John 1:1-14) to reveal the true majesty of Godlike language. The vocation of the Christian united to the Word in Baptism is to, as St. Paul says so succinctly in Romans 12:14, “bless and do not curse.”

After reading Fr. Brendan Purcell’s book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, I was left breathless by the thought of the billions of years of cosmic history preceded the sudden appearance of human language (especially pp. 225-39). The immensity of the time-space backdrop to the emergence of human beings, and of language, for me lends serious gravitas to the meaning and purpose of our existence. It made me think of my grandmother’s scolding words to me when I would, as a child, scarf down her homemade meals: “Tommy, slow down and appreciate your food! Do you know how many hours of work and how much love went into making that?”

Humanity, as the crown of God’s vast creation, lends creation words to bless the Father of the life-creating Word. Humanity thus conceived can best be described by the word eucharistēsas, as one “having given thanks” (Luke 22:19). Which is why the Eucharist is the most natural habitat for human language. As “priests of nature” (per St. Maximus), our vocation is to speak to the Creator in the name of every creature, and as prophets to speak to every creature in the name of the Creator. This is why I have always found such beauty in The Canticle of the Three Youth in Daniel 3:57-88, or the line in the preface of Eucharistic Prayer IV which reminds us, as we sing the Sanctus, that in the Mass we are “giving voice to every creature under heaven.”

A person of faith here must ask: is the f-bomb consonant with my vocation?

“You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20)

In Baptism, our bodies become Temples of the holy Trinity.

Temples, as in naos, the word for the inner sanctuary of the Jewish Temple, the Holy of holies (1 Corinthians 6:19).

A friend of mine, who works in construction, expressed this very vividly to me once. After undergoing a dramatic conversion back to the Catholic faith, he said to me one day, “I can’t even cuss any more, cuz now I know the Holy Spirit’s inside me listening!”

You might say that the antithesis of divine indwelling is demonic possession. I recall a number of years ago speaking with a priest who was a seasoned exorcist, who said:

One universal characteristic of exorcisms is that the inhabiting demons know how to curse and blaspheme in all languages; blasphemy, vulgarity and profanity are their native tongue. Jesus said when the Devil lies, he’s being true to himself [John 8:44]. The same is true for their abuse of language against the design of the Creator.

Why? Because they’re in the business of concealing, not revealing God.

One last thought

I remember in July of 1987, about 5 months after my “conversion experience” to a living faith, I was working in a factory in the machine shop. The men there were good and hard working men, many of them had been there for decades. And they cussed all the time.

After coming to faith, I made the decision to never swear again. Prior to that I was very foul mouthed.

One day during our lunch break we were talking shop, which I always enjoyed. Profanities were flying. I thought to myself, “I can’t take this holier-than-thou facade any more.” So I jubilantly threw into the conversation the f-bomb. They all stopped dead in the middle of the conversation. It was supremely awkward. The bearded elder of the group said, “Nope. That ain’t who you are, Neal. Don’t lower yourself.” As they continued on with their vulgar chorus, I made an inner resolution to be myself.

Taken from brandonacox.com

18 comments on “Defusing the F-Bomb

  1. Susan Kehoe says:

    My husband and favorite deacon has always worked with production workers. They tend to temper their salty language around him. This was true long before he had a conversion experience and before his ordination. Now if he says hell in a moment of frustration, people are shocked. Heh

  2. Tim Roach says:

    Good post, Tom, I hear the “saltiest” language in the schools where I work. It’s not just the students, its the teachers also!!!!

  3. Jonathan says:

    Awesome to hear this coming from a fellow Roman Catholic. I don’t want to use any rash generalizations, but personal experience along with the stories of others has showed me that quite often Catholics are looser with their language. It tends to reflect a looser way of living in those who use colorful language, such as partying and drinking to great excess, and in general living a very unspiritual life far removed from God.

    The sad thing is that converts often see this and adopt it because they think the difference is not one of being a lax Christian in general, but rather a Protestant vs. Catholic thing. I know, I am a convert, and I’ve been tempted to myself.

  4. SirYert says:

    Thank you for this post. It reminded me that I’ve started to slip into some bad habits again, and since I profess my mouth belongs to Christ, I ought not to speak like it is connected to the refuse of Hell.

  5. […] in a newsroom, it’s as much a part of the vocabulary as “rewrite”—I appreciated this posting from Dr. Thomas J. Neal, via New Advent: I was astounded by the staggering mystery of the origins of […]

  6. Thank you so much for this post. As a Catholic high-school teacher the F-bomb and its companions are a daily litany. Your words give new direction and inspiration in how to gently reform our language towards the greater glory of God.

    • Robert, thank you for your comment. YOU are the reason I write, and your place in the Catholic school world is precisely where the changes need to begin if the Young Church is to be the Future Church. Thank you.

  7. Anthony Bennett says:

    Great article, Tom. Since our son was born we’ve both been trying to watch how we speak around him. Yet another way he’s making us holier! 🙂

    On the topic of language, I thoroughly enjoyed “Through the Language Glass”. Have you read it?

    http://www.amazon.com/Through-Language-Glass-Different-Languages/dp/0312610491

    • ANthony!
      So good to hear from you!!
      How true it is that our children teach us holiness as we begin to see ourselves as imitable models.
      No, I have not read it, though it looks awesome; and seems to be a bio-extension of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s
      early 20th century revolution in philosophy that placed language at the center of thought, and disallowed
      the abstracting of truth from language. Many a theologian has found fruitful interchange between
      Wittgenstein and John 1:1.
      Thanks for the reference!!
      My love to your beautiful bride.
      God bless,
      Tom

  8. tracye1 says:

    My dear friend, Amanda sent me this as a reminder for HER to watch her tongue…however, I know that in my two-faced life I need to watch my own (and I told her I could read between the lines). Our friend, Julie remarked that in her line of work (writing) it was associative and she had begun to pick back up some bad habits in her language. Socially endemic!!

    In this, I realized 2 things:
    1. I’m a hypocrite. I watch my words around my family (trying to set the example and all), and then I let it rip at work and realized it’s so UNnecessary, so I’ve added a filter. That filter needs work, but it’s in progress!
    2. I don’t use that language in my blogging, however, the blogs that DO are wildly popular and I find it so bizarre. If, at some point, my children read my blogs, how could I explain myself? It’s just not me.

    Great article, as always!! Great blog! Blessings!!

  9. Br Patrick says:

    I was literally thinking of your blog on America’s famous four letter word this morning, and when I went down to check my email to take a look at your blog, here was a repost and reflection on it! Wow! Barclay’s comment, I think, really holds true. Living in the midst of college students and hearing them on the bus and around campus, I wonder how culpable they really are. Praying that we as a culture, have a renewal of mind (Rm 12:2). It seems to me that what often pops in our mind comes out our mouth!

    • I love coincidences like that (i.e. divine providence’s playful side)! That’s absolutely right, Br. Patrick. As is the case in so many areas, when sin becomes habitual, or becomes inculturated, there is no reflective awareness — which is why if Christians present no effective, attractive and compelling alternative, we will remain a people “with unclean lips.” May your work bring about Rom 12:2 as it has everywhere I have seen the BH at work!

  10. Ona says:

    A huge challenge for me, having spent decades in a culture where f-bombs were just salt and pepper to make your stories funnier, your point more emphatic, etc. It becomes very painful once one is awakened to the sacredness and dignity of life. But for me, at least, it is nonetheless a very hard habit to overcome.

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