catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 19 :: 2005.10.21 — 2005.11.03


Redeeming our shock words

Whenever we consider inviting an artist to perform at Calvin, we
evaluate several aspects of that musician's merit. Is the artist's work
culturally significant? Will it stand the test of time? Is the music
itself of high quality? Does the artist have something meaningful to
say in her songs?

And then, the final arbiter of whether or not the musician will
eventually appear on our stage: does this artist use strong language in
abundance? If so, he or she is usually dropped from our list.

But should this be the Christian response to what we refer to
obliquely as "strong language?" In my occupation as someone who almost
constantly listens to music and watches films and television, this
question weighs heavy on my mind. I have often considered what it might
take to develop a comprehensive understanding of four-letter words in

The traditional response, of course, is that understanding is beside
the point: swear words are always inappropriate for Christians to say
and hear, end of discussion. But media supersaturation has made
avoiding such language nigh impossible, and Christians have discovered
that the issue is more complex than simply citing scripture verses
about "unclean talk." Many evangelical mainstays have also recognized
this and set about constructing a smart, theological aesthetic for
engaging with and discerning mainstream popular culture. Still,
confusion and legalism continue to cloud the issue.

The first order of business is narrowing down what we're talking
about when we refer to "strong language." The Anglo-Saxon tongue has as
many terms to classify the vernacular as it has bawdy words themselves,
and we use those terms interchangeably. In addition to "strong
language" and "four-letter words," we refer to profanity, obscenity,
vulgarity, swearing, cussing, colorful language (alternately, off-color
language), expletives, and talking a blue streak, among countless
others. Not all of these mean the same thing; profanity, for instance,
refers to the misuse of sacred words and divine names, yet we tend to
make it an umbrella term for any and all words we consider offensive.
Sorting out the various meanings of our descriptors and using them
properly is a good place to start when speaking on this topic.

It may at first seem nitpicky, but a commitment to evaluating the
nuances of strong language reflects a moral motivation, a deep respect
for the complex purposes and meanings of linguistics. The latter is
something Christians engaged with popular culture ought to pursue when
considering the presence and purposes of strong language in art. Above
all, we want to recognize that these words, like all others, are meant
to communicate, to convey specific meanings in specific ways. They are,
as Oxford American Dictionary editor Erin McKean writes, "a fascinating
part of our language," and thus ought to be treated with care and

Practically speaking, what does being a good steward of strong
language look like? How do we Christians learn to honor some of our
most powerful and descriptive tools of communication? Is there anything
wrong with saying "shit" when shit happens, as it inevitably does this
side of the holy city? Is there even, perhaps, virtue in it?

Earlier this year, in the thick of examining these questions, I met
with Calvin Seerveld. Little known outside Reformed academic circles,
his brilliant, compassionate scholarship has informed Christian
approaches to art and aesthetics for decades. Seerveld defends the
positive place of strong language, particularly in art. For one thing,
he says, the rules of art are different; words or images are
deliberately chosen to make a nuanced point within an imagined but
representative world. From an aesthetic standpoint, Seerveld argues
that "the ugly and the grotesque have a place in art." There is a
necessary honesty in its inclusion which often serves a revelatory role
in music and film—sparking what cultural critic David Dark would call
an apocalypse, an unexpected "a-ha" moment that replaces our complacent
half-truths with the shocking fullness of reality.

A prime example of this sort of gritty honesty is a Cincinnati band
called Over the Rhine, whose husband and wife duo, Linford Detweiler
and Karin Bergquist, are Christians. Last year, Detweiler and Bergquist
released a critically acclaimed double album called Ohio.
The album's thematic centerpiece is a song called "Changes Come," which
acknowledges in painful detail the agonizing uncertainty of being

I wanna have our baby
But some days I think that maybe
This ol' world's too fucked up
For any firstborn son.

Strong language? Oh, yes. But Bergquist explains that
she simply could not find another word that communicated what she
wanted to express as accurately as this one did. This lyric is the best
argument I know for the kind of language art can accommodate—it is
deadly serious, the word carefully chosen in the context of the song,
the spirit of it extraordinarily honest and heartbreaking and organic
to the whole album's redemptive narrative. Yet, this verse got Over the
Rhine banned from the yearly top ten list
at Christianity Today's music website, a testament to the fact that
much of the evangelical community is still incapable of recognizing
redemption when it's shouting in their face—if it's shouting so-called
dirty words.

In Christian artistic expression, we need to recreate a sacred space for lyrics like this, for the ugly and the jarring. In A Circle of Quiet,
writer Madeleine L'Engle sums up the reasons for learning to revere our
words. She laments the modern-day glut of strong language and
simultaneously names the danger we face when we do away with these
words all together. "What have we done to our good, bawdy, Anglo-Saxon
four-letter words? We have not done violence to them; we have done the
opposite. We have blunted them so with overuse that they no longer have
any real meaning for us," she writes. "When will we be able to redeem
our shock words? They have been turned to marshmallows. They need
violence done to them again; they need to be wrested from banality;
saved for the crucial moment. We no longer have anything to cry in time
of crisis."


Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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