Pastor, Must You Say *&^%?

Jason Micheli —  July 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

The f dash dash dash wordYou’ve seen the movie:

Mother: All right. Now, are you ready to tell me where you heard that word?

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. But, I chickened out and said the first name that came to mind.

Ralphie: Schwartz!

A question I get if not often then at least as many times as TNT plays A Christmas Story:

‘Pastor, must your language be so vulgar?’

While I’m not Ralphie’s Dad, when it comes to vulgarity I’m at least a Bob Ross: I dabble every day and often in it but to no lasting consequence. PBS Remix-Happy Painter

Sometimes, it’s a function of going off-script and allowing my inner monologue to take the reins.

Other times, it’s intentional. Me being me in an effort to peel away the pretense of propriety that plies to piety.

This past weekend for the Au Contraire sermon at 9:45 (which you can listen to on the sidebar on the blog here) I mentioned how I choose to say whatever is on my mind, no matter who it might offend, because I think it’s important to resist the veneer of religiousity that Christians often adopt to avoid authenticity.

Warts and all, I want people to see in me a normal, run-of-the-mill person trying to follow Jesus in this f*^&%$- up world.

228958_10150729303960096_564145095_20288493_4614542_nStanley Hauerwas is not only my theological muse he’s also known for being the Andrew Dice Clay of the tight-sphinctered world of academic theology. On his own coarse tongue, Hauerwas observes:

“I work hard at fighting the way that when people start talking religious, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, ‘language goes on a holiday’ – it just doesn’t do any work. People say, ‘Oh yes, now we’re talking about God. Let’s get pious.’

“That shunts God off into a specialized realm that we know doesn’t matter about a God damn thing. I work very hard to make theological speech work as common discourse.”

In other words, off-color words shouldn’t be taboo if they insure that the rest of our words might be not just truthful but genuine.

Here’s the rest of the interview with Hauerwas. It’s worth the read:

This could be titled the theology of cursing – or how it’s okay to swear and still be Christian.

A thoroughly charming, totally maddening, outrageously tough-talking Texan sashayed into town recently with trouble in mind.

Stanley Hauerwas, an esteemed professor of theological ethics at Duke University Divinity School, carries with him some fancy scholastic six-shooters with which he plugs holes in ideologies of the left, right and centre.

That’s why both evangelicals and mainline Christians phoned up to make sure I’d interview him about his lectures at the Vancouver School of Theology. This laid-back, loud-laughing theologian has written 10 books. In ethics circles, within Christianity and beyond, he’s big time.

But he also peppers his erudite arguments with an abundance of profanity. While I didn’t want to trivialize him, the $% cents *& cents swearing was a hard target to resist.

Since I come from a family background in which profanity was not exactly unknown, and since I work in a newsroom of hard-bitten types where we engage in frequent outbreaks of cursing, and since I’m the father of children I hope will not become overly foul-mouthed, I had to ask him right off:

How, professor, do you justify swearing so %$**& much?

“I don’t mind addressing that. I get a lot of grief about it,” Hauerwas said, sprawled out in a panelled boardroom-with-a-view at VST.

“I was raised a bricklayer. My father was a bricklayer. I was taken out to the job when I was eight and started laboring. And if you live around bricklayers a long time, you know they don’t exactly say, ‘Pass me a brick.’ “

He laughed a luxurious, liberated cackle.

Cursing simply became part of his speech. “It’s also a class matter. I come from the lower classes. And I’ve found myself in university in fundamentally upper-middle-class culture. I hate the constant ignoring of what it means to come from the lower classes.”

He doesn’t want to be phoney – swearing to make a point. But he has never found reason to cut it out.

“I also work hard at fighting the way that when people start talking religious, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, ‘language goes on a holiday’ – it just doesn’t do any work. People say, ‘Oh yes, now we’re talking about God. Let’s get pious.’

“That shunts God off into a specialized realm that we know doesn’t matter about a God damn thing. I work very hard to make theological speech work as common discourse.”

He gazed out the window at an eagle perched high on a tree poking out of the forest around VST. After being raised a Mennonite, teaching theology at Catholic Notre Dame University and now finding himself working among United Methodists (who are kind of like a U.S. version of the United Church of Canada), Hauerwas has come to the conclusion, he says, that Methodists have one major conviction: God is nice.

“I mean, God is dying of niceness. It is just awful. One of the reasons I don’t think much about whether I curse is I’m just not interested in being nice.”

He goes on to say he avoids developing too much of a thesis about cursing. He doesn’t want the pressure of being known as (he cackles) The Nasty-Mouthed Theologian.

“I don’t want to be put in the situation of having to say ‘f—’ when I don’t want to say it.”

Ahem. Well, he’s got a point. Enough of profanity.

Let’s get on to more orthodox matters of theology and ethics. Then again, the words orthodox and Hauerwas don’t fit too neatly.

Hauerwas is known in philosophical realms as a post-liberal, although he rejects the label, referring to himself only as a Christian.

When he rides into town, liberals dig in. He’s anything but a blue-suit establishment conservative, however, as shown by the howling, un-uptight style. More important, he is a vehement pacifist, easy-going about homosexuality and tough on what he considers evangelicals’ deification of the family.

There probably isn’t anybody he fails to tick off. As VST ethics professor Terry Anderson said, getting into a Hauerwas mood: “He’s a real s— disturber.” And one gets the distinct impression the drawling American enjoys his role.

Here are a few shots, peppered with bursts of laughter, from this foremost ethicist:

* Liberals (and left-wingers) are inconsistent and their compassion is faulty. They don’t realize liberalism is merely capitalist individualism in action. Ironically, liberals support laissez-faire individualism in their personal lives – teaching that abortion and euthanasia are individual choices. But they don’t think individualism should be supreme in the marketplace, which they say should follow communitarian values.

* Neo-conservatives make the opposite mistake. They hail every-person-for-himself individualism in economics. But in their personal lives they oppose free choice, whether the topic is abortion, sex or, for that matter, swearing. Christian neo-conservatives say the Bible’s communal teaching should be enforced around the home – and the family unit is ultimate (which Hauerwas says would have been a surprise to Jesus, a bachelor).

* Christians should actively seek converts for their faith. But so should Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. Secular-atheist teachers, as well, should make sure every student walks out of their class “thinking Christianity is just bull—-.”

* People of each faith, each world view, should start their own schools. How can public schools teach common ethics when conservative parents don’t want the Wizard of Oz used in school because it portrays a witch, and liberal parents don’t want Shakespeare’s Macbeth read because it’s too patriarchal? You can only teach values when people agree on them. Tolerance is over-rated.

He cackles again.

But seriously.

There is a crucial difference between post-liberals such as Hauerwas and so-called revisionist theologians, such as noted American David Tracy. Revisionists defend Christian convictions according to publicly acceptable criteria of truth – making their case with philosophy, history, ethics, even science.

Post-liberals take a leap of faith. They focus on the internal logic of Christian faith, not worrying about justifying it to outsiders. As a result, post-liberals have been criticized for not adequately explaining why Christian beliefs are really true.

The head of the University of B.C.’s Centre for Applied Ethics, Michael McDonald, who responded to one of Hauerwas’s lectures, said the Duke professor is in danger of promoting sectarianism – shutting down understanding among different peoples. And Hauerwas admits he’s been called a tribalist.

McDonald has sympathy for Hauerwas’s challenge of contemporary relativism – the notion that the truth of one person is just as right as that of anyone else. But if everyone withdraws into different camps, McDonald says, we’ll fail to recognize how important it is, in an increasingly pluralistic world, to get along.

“Isn’t compassion and tolerance important for sharing the world together?” McDonald asks. A good question.

But Hauerwas has heard such sentiment before. And he‘s determined to ride his own trail. Christians ought to be different, he says. They ought to be a little more reviled – shocking society by praying for enemies, identifying with the poor and committing themselves to the radical demands of Jesus.

What’s wrong with being viewed as strange, he says? It’s beats being so @#$*% pleasant all the time.

Jason Micheli

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