The Bible itself is offensive and uses offensive language, in ways many Christians may not realize. How do we reconcile this with calls to be pure in speech? And how should Christian storytellers approach the use of strong language?
First, the matter of definitions is in order. What exactly do I mean when I say that the Bible has offensive language in it? When I say “offensive,” I mostly mean language your Christian grandmother would berate you for using in a church building. Of course, we all know of the many innuendos present in Song of Solomon – a friend once told me, laughing, that he’d been forbidden to read it at a young age by his Christian parents. But Scripture contains other uses of harsh language, as well – language we wouldn’t want to be caught using in front of our mothers.
A perfect example of this is Ezekiel 23. In this chapter, the prophet gives an extended illustration of two sisters, with the sister Oholibah representing God’s people. Initially a mistreated and abandoned child, God nurtures her back to health and marries her, but she becomes an unfaithful prostitute. That’s the PG version. What’s the uncensored version? Much more explicit. Take, for instance, this statement from Preston Sprinkle:
“Ezekiel would have been grounded for several months if he was raised in my house. He talks about huge penises, female genital fluid produced at sexual arousal, and large quantities of semen being “poured out” on Israel—God’s wayward whore (Ezekiel 16:26, 36, 37; 23:20-21). Instead of grounding the prophet, modern translators edit out the vulgarity so that Ezekiel can be read in church.”
In the same article, Sprinkle makes the point that Paul’s statement in Phil. 3:8 (I count all things rubbish that I may gain Christ) censors his choice of word, which while not an outright vulgarity, was more offensive than saying “crap,” and certainly stronger than a synonym for trash.
So what are we to make of all this? After all, the Bible also condemns “unwholesome speech” in Ephesians 4. But the phrasing of this passage has always seemed strange to me. If the purpose is mainly to tell us not to use vulgar words (which is the way I heard it preached growing up), then why the phrase “unwholesome?” That seems rather broad. It’s that broad on purpose. Because it’s about more than just the words themselves – it’s about their intention and their impact.
Look back to the Ezekiel 23 passage. What was the intent? Was it to incite lust? Well clearly not, given who it was coming from. The use of harsh words was to use a type of shock value to wake the people up from their sin. Paul’s statement in Philippians, while less offensive, also serves an important purpose – to get as close to showing the immeasurable value by comparison of life with Christ. In both cases, the use had a redemptive purpose. It is not to flaunt a libertine interpretation of “Christian liberty,” but to communicate important truths regarding the relationship between God and His people in a way that softer, less offensive language would not have accomplished.
This is, we should note, a very different scenario from someone who says “Where in the Bible does say I can’t yell ‘Oh, sh**!’?” This fills no redemptive purpose, and instead uses harsh language flippantly and carelessly (Mt. 12:36) in spite of the hearers. Scripture, by contrast, uses strong language, sparingly and intentionally, for the benefit of the hearers (Eph. 4:29). This relates back to the philosophy of Scripture, which is not about a list of banned words, but about intentional, other-focused speech. This is a very different kind of standard, because not only is flippant swearing inconsistent with scripture, but so is gossip and destructive sarcasm (1 Timothy 5:13).
How does all of this answer the original question? In private and public life, Christians should always be intentional and other-focused in their language. Much if the time that means biting our tongue, but in some cases, it means putting things as directly and even harshly as they ought to be put. When it comes to story, this is equally applicable. Christian storytellers have an extra dose of the call not to speak carelessly, because like the teachers that James cautions to be aware of their stricter judgment, storytellers have a larger audience. But not unlike in private life, the call is to be intentional and other-focused. Sometimes that means being harsh, being critical, and portraying evil in unflinching terms, even if that might make certain cultural sensibilities cringe.
But above all, the takeaway is this: speak intentionally, and with a focus on other people.