Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price recently cut loose on a five-minute rant so laden with F-bombs that it might have rivaled The Wolf of Wall Street for sheer rate of delivery. Most observers reacted with an amused “tsk, tsk,” something I found more alarming than the tirade itself. Beyond mere tolerance of the words, it suggests a willingness to accept a deeply negative undercurrent at the heart of cultural discourse.
I admit that I had a pretty foul mouth for a Christian kid even before I enlisted in the United States Navy, where profanity is a pillar of the culture. As a submariner, I learned to ratchet that up a notch. Submariners elevated cursing to an art form; some old bubbleheads could turn such an eloquently profane phrase that you had to admire it as poetry. (In comparison, Price’s tirade significantly lacked artistry.) Absent only from official communication, profanity spiced the cultural dialogue and punctuated the institutional commentary. And I blithely played along.
About a decade after leaving active duty, I recommitted my life to Christ. Immediately, my foul mouth felt completely out of place. I also realized that this cultural attribute of the Navy might actually be a weakness. Billed by many as a way to relieve stress, I started to see it as a reflection of a fundamentally pessimistic worldview. The parlance framed sailors’ perspectives in jarringly negative terms, revealing a distressed state of the heart.
Billed by many as a way to relieve stress, I started to see profanity as a reflection of a fundamentally pessimistic worldview.
I found myself confronted by an apparently spiritual instinct to avoid foul language. Perhaps it was the “law of nature” at work, as described by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Lewis argues that in our heart of hearts we recognize a rock-bottom reality set down by a Creator intensely interested in selflessness and honesty. We know instinctively what good looks like. The sin nature strives against this recognition and makes excuses for rebellion. I agreed. How could I let such speech punctuate my thoughts when I am always in the presence of that Creator?
In the blaze of my renewed love for Jesus, I decided to clean up my language. I took Paul seriously in Colossians 3, where he wrote that Christ’s disciples should rid themselves of filthy language. I had “taken off the old self” and put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of my Creator. It struck me that what our society regarded as the mildest profanity - misusing God’s name - is in fact the worst. Paul goes on to describe that one must “put on” what is good as a new creation in Christ. Ever since, I've battled the ghosts of profanity that lurk beyond the edge of my consciousness, threatening to escape off my unguarded tongue.
Profanity once influenced my worldview in negative and cynical terms. The general reaction to Price’s outburst seems to wink at the indiscretion and concede that this is just the way some people express themselves. But even taking note of it in this way shines light on what a dark thing profanity actually is, by revealing the shadow it casts over the heart of the culture. As a follower of Christ, I’m not going with the cultural flow. My personal battle with my old self - the “rebel,” Lewis might say - is itself a sign of victory. When the echoes of my old self ring through my head, or when I let fly with something awful, I see who I once was. But I also see more clearly the man Christ is making.