One Easter, I was the guest of a family from my congregation for lunch. I was helping in the kitchen with the father/grandfather when he remarked, “Do you mean now that we have a minister here I have to watch my language?”
I replied, “Hell yes!”
I wouldn’t have said it like that, however, if we were among kids.
It’s not as though I feared I would be teaching the youngsters a word they hadn’t already heard.
My concern was something else.
I was raised Roman-Catholic, attending a parochial grade school from kindergarten to 8th Grade. All during those years, the Third Commandment was drilled into us. “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
We were taught that cussing using God or Jesus was dangerous. Our souls would be imperiled by such a sin. (The threat of punishment didn’t seem to matter, however, to the adults in our lives, especially when they got carried away watching our grade-school basketball team.)
I myself carried the fear of displeasing the Almighty for the longest time. It wasn’t until I was a student in seminary that I realized how laughable it was — what the nuns taught us. God is keeping score, and marks a check next to our name every time we take the divine Name in vain?! The concept faded along with the Medieval portrayal of God the way Michelangelo painted a burly man with a white beard aloft on clouds.
Indeed, the stronger I felt my faith to be, the more confidence I had in the graciousness of God — the more I believed that cussing didn’t matter to the Supreme Being. God understood a person in pain, and if you hit your shin on the coffee table, and “Jesus!” is what comes out — God understands pain.
Secondly, I came to understand more deeply the meaning of taking a name “in vain.” In grade school, we were taught that any profanity using “God” or “Jesus” was taking the name “in vain.”
“Vain” in this sense means using something in a way that is idle, worthless, a throw-away. The background is that in ancient times, people believed that the name of a god was powerful. The Hebrew people would not even dare utter the name composed by the four letters YHWH. Today we assume the pronunciation is “Yahweh.” But in biblical times, nobody would dare try. So the pronunciation of this name of God is unknown. It is referred to respectfully merely as “The Four Letters” (in Greek, the Tetragrammaton). Even today in some Jewish congregations, if God appears in print, it is abbreviated as G – d, rather than daring to write out the entire holy Name.
This fear of the power of a god’s name was common to barbaric peoples. Such was the environment influencing the writers of the Scriptures. Thus, they portrayed God as being angry if the divine Name were tossed around casually.
Indeed, the penalty would be — death! The hilarious scene in The Life of Brian of a man about to be stoned to death who dared say Jehovah out loud was in reality no joke in the days of the Bible. In those days, people identified themselves not as individuals but primarily as members of a nation — the Hebrew race. Each male had participated in ratifying a covenant with God. The contract to be faithful was between God and the entire people, not simply between God and individuals. Thus, when one person offended God, the punishment was portrayed not as a misdeed by that one person — but as a breaking of the covenant. The punishment could threaten the entire people or, at minimum, the person’s entire family. In Numbers 16, three men try to rally resentment against the leadership of Moses. The three men and their entire families are made to stand in front of their tents — the earth opens up and swallows them all — wives, kids, infants, everybody.
Thus, the punishment of an individual mis-using the name of God was severe — because the misdeed threatened not just that lone individual but others in the community.
Such a mis-use of God’s Name is said to be “vain,” doing something carelessly — a throwaway with a Name that is dynamite to play with.
Today, I don’t take it that exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” at a 4th of July fireworks or blurting “God!” when having sex is going to result in divine retaliation. A more mature understanding of God is not “Wait ’til your father gets home.” Indeed, the very idea of God as punishing is meant for people who are too immature to understand behavior & consequences. Whatever we do in life, the behavior itself carries its own consequences. A father who cusses freely gets upset when the kids do it.
Rather, the deeper understanding of the Third Commandment is the same as all of the other commandments — they are meant not merely for individual discipline, but for keeping peace in the community. Stealing, lying, murdering — these are things that break up a community. Likewise, trust within a community is fractured when someone employs the Name of God to deceive.
In Bull Durham, the catcher Crash Davis wants to trick a batter into thinking that the pitcher does not have control of his fastball. Crash goes out to the mound and tells the pitcher, “Hit the mascot with your next pitch.” Somebody dressed in a Durham Bull costume standing near the on-deck circle gets beaned. Crash laughs and says to the batter, “This mother-fucker is crazy. I wouldn’t dig in if I were you. I don’t know where the next pitch is going — swear to God.”
Using “swear to God” to trick somebody — that is the deeper meaning of the Third Commandment.
Okay — so the concern over breaking the Third Commandment that applies in our modern understanding of God is not about the personal peril of punishment in the next lifetime; it’s about using God’s Name to deceive others. It’s a mis-use of God’s name — and it’s a mis-use of language itself. Every commandment is broader than it’s mere headline: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; don’t lie…The broader understanding of these commandments is — care over the use of language. Learning language is not for the purpose of deceiving.
Language also is not meant for debasing. This gets back to why I wouldn’t say “hell” in front of kids. It isn’t that I worried I’d be teaching them a word they hadn’t heard. There is a concern about a minister setting a good example. But the deeper concern that I have about setting a good example is the hope that I have in setting an example in the use of language.
One time, in my second congregation, I did a children’s sermon about my dogs, and to set up a scene, I said, “My one dog had already gone outside to take a crap.”
A day or so later, an older man of the congregation stepped into my office and demanded, “You owe the congregation an apology!” He engaged in catastrophism, blaming me for kids having foul mouths.
I told him I would talk to the parents of the kids who were at the children’s sermon to see if they had a problem. I did check with the moms — they didn’t have a problem.
But I knew the case wasn’t my finest moment with language.
I delight in how language can be used. Just the same, I feel dejected when skills are poor. It’s getting that so many young people — and their elders — can barely express themselves. When I pastored my first congregation near Madison, Wisconsin, I used to take a class each semester at the University of Wisconsin. I would be amazed at how inarticulate the students were! “It’s like, like, like…I mean, it’s like, like, like…” And if they aren’t using “It’s like…” or “awesome,” they’re using shit and fuck every other word, assuming that the listener will understand the elasticity of these words to cover any meaning and every topic.
What’s happening to the art of speaking?
I must have seen the film Jeremiah Johnson at least five times, and I will watch it again any time it shows on TV. The reason is: to watch the character named Bearclaw. The trapper who lives like a hermit takes on Jeremiah Johnson as a student, teaching him survival skills. I’m amazed at the way Bearclaw speaks. Here is somebody who has had nobody to talk to for years at a stretch. And yet whenever he does have somebody to talk to, his speech is perfect: fluent and articulate and efficient. Not a single word is wasted.
He even gets the grammar right on a difficult sentence. Towards the end of the movie, he meets again with Jeremiah, who has become a successful hunter in the wild, and Bearclaw asks, “Were it worth the trouble?” He didn’t say “WAS it worth the trouble?” because the sentence is subjunctive. He properly uses “were” instead of “was” (as when Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof sings not “If I WAS a rich man,” but — in the subjunctive — “If I WERE a rich man”).
I always make up in my own mind why Bearclaw is perfect in his speaking. I guess it’s because he has had time to think. At the end of the story, in parting, he says to Jeremiah, who was nearly scalped a couple of times, “You’ve done well to keep so much hair when so many is after it.” Try coming up with something like that on the fly!
Have you noticed that the movies which people hold most dearly almost always have a lengthy, articulate speech near the end:
*The Verdict with Paul Newman’s summation in court on behalf of a woman who went into a coma because of a physician’s neglect
*Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino’s defense of his besieged student helper at a school assembly
*To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s courtroom defense of a framed black man
*Stalag 17 with William Holden as a barracks lawyer accusing a fellow GI of being a German plant.
Language is art — at least it can be. We have to value it in order to use it well. In the next-to-last film of the Harry Potter movies, Dumbledore talks about what advantage the witches and wizards may have through the use of magic. He says, it’s no superiority at all! Because the best magic they have is what everybody else has — even those of us who can’t do magic. It’s language! Dumbledore says, “Words are — in my not-so-humble opinion — our most inexhaustible source of magic: capable of inflicting injury and remedying it.”
We love language when we realize it is an art — or can be. And art — any art — makes human beings take flight. “Ah, music,” Dumbledore sighed one time, “a magic beyond all we do here.”
Language, too. No shit.