One Christian Minister’s Thoughts on Harsh Language
One Christian Minister’s Thoughts on Harsh Language
By James Riley
I’ve been asked by several friends recently about my participation in the play Good People (not to be confused with a much different movie of the same name), and I’ve heard from others that they have had similar conversations about this play. Is there going to be bad language? Do you have to use it? (My response: “No, I get to.”). What is the Christian position on participating in or attending a show like that?
Let me start by saying I am a Jesus follower and much of what I have to write is directed at those who identify as Christian but also at those who, for other reasons, object to harsh language. And I have a confession that you may not like: I think the whole concept of curse words, foul language, expletives, etc. is silly. They are just words that we have taught ourselves to get upset at. And as long as we choose to let them upset us, they can be used as weapons against us by those who seek to offend or disturb us. I intentionally decided long ago not to be offended by these words and instead to focus on WHAT a person is communicating, regardless of how they say it.
Next, there is no “Christian position.” There are Christians on nearly all sides of any issue. I grew up in a church in the 70s that faced such divisive and momentous issues as long hair on a boy, short hair on women, women wearing pants to church, tattoos, men wearing earrings, people getting pierced in places other than the ears, going to R-rated movies, watching TV, etc., etc.
God prepared us in many ways for these differences in opinion, but I want to focus on two: do not to violate your conscience (1 Corinthians 8) and do not judge those who come to a different conclusion (Romans 14). So one Christian may decide that it would be wrong for them to attend a play or movie or read a book that contains harsh language, no matter what the story is. But the same believer is instructed by God to refrain from judging any believer who makes a different choice. So, don’t violate your conscience, and don’t condemn others who do not share your conscience’s view. Do you see the wisdom of God in that? He allows us to be individuals and provides a way for us to live at peace with each other and with God.
So, should everyone see the play Good People? Yes! As long as it does not cause you to violate your conscience, and, for young people, you believe they are prepared to hear harsh language and have a discussion about it, if necessary. Why should everyone come? It is a GREAT story. I love a good story, and I really love great stories, and this one is great. For me, a great story is one that leads me to see my life and other people and my relationships and even my faith in a new light. Can a play with swearing in it do that? Yes it can, and it did for me. These characters are very human and they make good and bad choices and they suffer the consequences and reap the rewards.
All stories take place in a setting. The setting for this play, Boston, is the hometown of the author, David Lindsay-Abaire. The characters come from a neighborhood called Southie. No one in Southie is offended by what we call swearing; it is just part of their language, their relationships, their culture, and their life. This location is paramount to the story being told, and to take out the language would be to take out the heart and soul of the characters and their struggle against poverty, their struggle to control their lives and protect themselves and their friends. It is a harsh struggle and it comes with harsh language.
Cursing is cultural, not scriptural. Can we find a list of banned words in the Bible? No, we cannot. There are many teachings about the use of language, but it is a stretch to think any Bible authors had in mind our current list of curse words. Besides, each culture has its own list of impolite words. We don’t get hung up on their words, and we can choose to do the same with ours.
I am also impressed with the fact that there are stories in the Bible that contain much worse behavior than just using harsh language. There are passages I never read to my kids until they were practically teens, and there were still some that I never did directly read to them. (“Here son, here’s a good commentary on the Song of Solomon to read along with it.”) But those stories have a purpose. To teach, instruct, and enlighten. I believe modern stories with broken humans who have imperfect language and behaviors, just like me, can do the same thing.
I believe every story has a purpose. And every story finds its origin in God. And we humans mess them up sometimes; okay, maybe all the time. But the stories of the good and bad choices that humans make are good for us to see, hear, read, and discuss. And to miss out on a great story that may inspire and instruct in one way or another just because it contains harsh language is sad to me.
I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I do ask fellow believers to do two things: don’t judge me for participating and don’t use shaming or judgmental language to keep others away. I sincerely hope you choose to come and let these characters teach you the harsh realities of poverty, the consequences of choice, the joy of friendship and giving a helping hand, the dangers of selfishness. You won’t be sorry, because it is a great story.