I have never been one to cuss.* That’s a lie. In fifth grade I had the mouth of a sailor. Yeah, that’s right parents, almost everyone in my class of 11 year old’s dropped four letter words like they were Goro (the boss in Mortal Kombat for those of you who are not males born in the 80s). But after fifth grade, I resolved to be a better Christian. Sadly, now, looking back, I knew the first thing that had to go was those four letter words.
If there was one thing that marked “Christian” from “heathen” as an 11-year old, before the introduction of drinking, drugs, and sex, it was cuss words. So, in my new found zeal to be a “good witness,” I slapped on my WWJD bracelet (<— anachronism for dramatic effect, they weren’t out yet) and replaced the usual words with “dangit” and “crap.” And I kept this up through high school. Even in the midst of my days of debauchery, heavy drinking, and drugs, I always carried a Bible in my pocket and I never cussed (there was, surprisingly, only one night of exception).
But when I was in college I did something very dangerous, I asked a question: “Why is cussing wrong?” As I leafed through the Bible, I found that the Bible never speaks about why “damn” is wrong but “dang” is okay, why “shit” is wrong and why “crap” is okay. And as I began to learn about the philosophy of language, it turns out those words are just arbitrary and their acceptability depends on your culture. By the way, as a side note, if you are a Christian and say “see, our culture says it’s wrong, so we shouldn’t do it” then you are being inconsistent since most Christians will say out of the other side of their mouth “Our culture is corrupt.” So, which is it? Also, our culture doesn’t say “it’s wrong” they say “It’s appropriate in some contexts (in rap songs, at bars, and among friends) but not in others (Presidential address, elementary school teachers).” So, while I would love to hear other arguments for why it’s inappropriate and I’m wrong, just make sure it’s consistent.
And what became even more apparent is that focusing on “explicit” words takes our eyes off the ball. In the church, you can gossip all day and no one bats an eye. You can emotionally manipulate and abuse someone until the cows come home without any repercussions. But say “damn it” and your salvation is questioned.
So then a second dangerous question popped into my head: what if the opposite of what I thought as a kid were true? That is, what if my not cussing was keeping people from the faith? What if being a “good witness” meant learning to use the language of my culture and using it appropriately? What if I was creating unnecessary barriers for people to come to Jesus by creating the “ideal Christian” based on cultural baggage?
That is, what if people weren’t introducing themselves to Jesus because they thought he only hung out with the “no rated R movies – no beer drinking – no Jay-Z listening” crowd? What if “Christian” had been too narrowly defined by a certain Christian sub-culture?
This thought scared me. And still does. It actually motivates a lot of my thinking, writing, speaking, and living.* And so, for me, learning to say shit became a way to introduce people to Jesus. And believe me, with the baggage I had, it took a lot of practice (like literally, I cussed to myself in my car for weeks before I was courageous enough to say it with another person present).
But I knew that this would often lead to a dilemma. Do I risk offending “mature” Christians in my attempt to strip Jesus of his cultural baggage? Do I risk being considered a “heathen” and risk being labeled one who has “gotten into bed with the world” to reach people with the good news of Jesus?*
It wasn’t really a dilemma. I follow the One about whom the religious of his day said “Look! a glutton and a drunk a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
*As an important side note, this is not a “trick.” I am not interested in salesman evangelism. I am passionate about people being introduced to Jesus (not American Evangelical version of Jesus) but I think the best way to do this is simply to be an authentic friend. As one acquaintance recently said, rather profoundly, “A lot of Christianity is really just learning to be a better friend.”