Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Just Words

Film makers, studios and especially marketers decide what their films will be rated. You might say the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America decides the ratings (‘G’ - All Ages Admitted, ‘PG’ – Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children, ‘PG – 13’ – Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13, ‘R’ – Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Guardian, or ‘NC-17’ No One 17 and Under Admitted.) But the film makers know the rules on the ratings and they can tailor the film to earn a particular rating.
One of the factors that affects a films rating is the language.
I doubt it’s in theaters as you read this newsletter, but I recently saw a delightful little comedy called Ghost Town. Starring Ricky Gervais (of the British Office fame), it tells the story of a very selfish man who learns, through supernatural encounters, the importance of caring for others. As one would expect in a movie with ghosts, it would not be the place to look for sound Christian theology about the afterlife, but the filmmakers don’t expect the viewer to take that aspect of the film seriously anyway.
It is a sweet film and though there is some crude humor, it could easily have had a film rating of ‘PG’. But a decision was made, probably by marketers, that the film would sell better if it was rated ‘PG-13’. So they included two uses of the ‘F’ word (and no, I don’t mean when Gervais was called ‘fat’). When the ‘F’ word is used in figurative sense, a maximum of two times, the film receives a minimum of a ‘PG-13’. If the ‘F’ word is used in a literal sense, or more than twice, the film will receive an ‘R’ rating.
This got me thinking about the words we call swear words, curse words or “you say that again and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap” words.
What’s the big deal with them?
These words certainly are common in the world today. Many of us are in jobs where we hear them frequently in the work place. Students can’t avoid hearing them frequently in public school (or many Christian schools). And even if you don’t go tostay away from movies, listen only to Chopin Concertos and shun the internet, you can’t avoid these words on other people’s t-shirts and bumper stickers.
Let’s begin by dividing these words into two categories: blasphemy and obscenity.
Blasphemy is misusing God’s name. Not much room for argument here, ; it’s one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:7). There is no reason to use the name of our Lord Jesus when we slam our finger in the door unless we really are praying. When people say “Oh God” and aren’t talking to Him, they are breaking this commandment (which, by the sayway, is the first commandment that promises punishment).
In a related sense, ‘ “hell’ hell” and “‘damn’” take the serious issue of eternal separation from God and turn these grave concepts into exclamations for flat tires and bad quiz results.
This is the language we must avoid using and perhaps we should avoid ‘entertainments’ that take God and the truth of eternity lightly. (I would like to point to one film that uses such blasphemy freely but in a unique way. John Huston adapted Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood, the story of a young man, Hazel Motes, who tries to flee from God. But the common blasphemy kept him from forgetting the name of Jesus.)
Now obscenity is something else. These are words for body parts, expelling waste and sexual intercourse. Why do some people (like television and radio broadcasters) consider these words off limits?
I think these words say something about who we are. In a similar context, C. S. Lewis wondered about why people tell dirty jokes and determined that it’s. It is because we are a unique mix of spiritual and physical beings. Animals aren’t embarrassed about their body parts or functions. But we know deep down that there is more to us than just our bodies.
So should we be ashamed of what we are? No. But some words degrade who we are and what we do.
For instance, the “‘F’” word. Won’t spell it out, not appropriate. But originally it was a vulgar term to describe sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse was created by God to be not just a physical act to reproduce but also as a spiritual act. A united union of two people into one. In fact, in Scripture it is often in Scripture a representation of God’s love for His people.
But something holy is commonly used as a meaningless noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Or an insult.
It is true that languages evolve over time. In some circles a hundred years ago, it was considered improper to use words for body parts such as ‘arm’ or ‘leg’. A gentleman or lady would refer only to limbs.
But if certain words are banned by secular broadcasters, if we wouldn’t use these words in front of our parents or pastors or prospective bosses on a job interview, should we then make them a part of our everyday conversation?
The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 5:4 “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”
As we approach the celebration of Thanksgiving, let’s try to make our words ones that glorify God and His creation, rather then make use of language that coarsens the Sacred.

( Other Scripture to consider for our conversation: Matthew 12:36, Ephesians 4: 29, Colossians 3:8)

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