Cri de Coeur: On Swearing and Godtalk

I probably spend too much time swearing.  And thinking about swearing.  And appreciating particularly clever or inventive swearing.  I mean, I am a seminarian and we are, supposedly, not supposed to swear.  Or curse.  Or say bad words.
That must be in some parallel Universe.   Or just in a different denomination.

As I have written about elsewhere, I raised my kids with rules about swearing. They were not the old-fashioned wash-your-mouth-out kind, and neither were they the shaming-slash-guilt inducing kind.  They were two simple ones: don’t swear at someone (too aggressive and disrespectful).  Don’t swear at school (within listening distance of teachers or staff).

Swearing is far-too-far of a creative element of language to forgo completely.

I just learned that when Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson got together in 1958 to record an album of sacred music, there was a moment when, as the liner notes say, that Ms. Jackson “got secular with her Lord.”

I love that phrase.  Got secular with.  Ever since I read it, even though I’m not a big fan of the Lord (except this Lorde), I kinda want to get all secular with Him, too.

mahaliajacksonThis is to say, Ms. Jackson took the lord’s name in vain.  She spoke it like it was a swear.  Something wasn’t going so well and in frustration, she can be heard (on the outtake included in the CD) to say, “Oh, Jesus.”

Not: oh, Jesus, thank you.  Not: oh, Jesus, what have I done?  Not: oh, Jesus, I surrender to your loving care.

But: oh, shit.  For realz?  Na-uh.

I just finished watching the Robert Redford film, All is Lost.  It’s about (*spoiler alert*) a solitary man on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean whose vessel is damaged by a rogue packing container floating menacingly-free, bleeding its cargo into the open waters.  Our guy’s boat eventually sinks and he faces his destiny alone on the sea.  Aside from a brief bit of monologue at the very beginning when Redford narrates a good-bye note, the whole film is without dialogue.

Save one word.

One economic, exquisitely-chosen word.  It is not, “Oh, Jesus.”  Not even, “Oh, God.”  It is…


(Actually, it is both hands hold either side of head, head thrown back to the heavens, posture of surrender, and a throaty, long, “ffffffuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkk!”)

This guy is alone and I guess you could say that he’s talking to himself.  I mean, who else is listening?  But then I read this remark, from Peter VanKatwyck of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary,

“God-talk then is theological self-talk. As self-referential God-talk, finite and flawed human existence reaches out to what is unconditional and infinite,”

and I think that sometimes when we are talking to ourselves, we just might be talking into a vaster reality beyond ourselves.  Certainly, when we are facing our defeat, or taxed beyond what we think we have inside ourselves, or are coming to grips with death, I think the words we say — even the swears we utter — are sent outward and inward, which is to say, they are sent to that divine source some call god.

I don’t think the utterance from the movie — or even what Ms. Jackson — said counts as a swear.  Either that, or we need to expand our understanding of some swearing.

…rather than “secular,” the cry “Oh Jesus” can be heard as a religious cri de coeur, transcending a finite moment of distress, appealing to all that is sacred—a cry overwhelmed by the heart’s emotions. Such swearing encapsulates a moment of speaking theologically from the heart.

In both these cases, these individuals just might be speaking to god and not necessarily in some disrespectful, “secular” way.

So I am willing to acknowledge that not all swearing is godtalk, if the rest of you will give me a “Hell, yeah!” when I say that some of it is.
can-i-get-a-hell-yeah-box-sign* These thoughts were inspired by, and quotes were taken from, the article, “Godtalk in Therapeutic Conversations,” written by Peter VanKatwyck, published in the The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Spring-Summer 2008, Vol. 62.


10 thoughts on “Cri de Coeur: On Swearing and Godtalk

  1. As someone who believes that there is no such thing as a bad word but only contexts within which a word is more (or less) helpful or hurtful or humorous or disrespectful or aggressive or peaceful or pious or blasphemous or some complex congregation of these and more, Hell yeah!

    I grew up in a home where heck and shucks and shoot and darn, and such were considered just as transgressive as the words for which they stood in. Anything that was not explicitly pious was by definition impious. So it was very freeing as an adult to discover that words are just masses of sound that, divorced from a context that privileges some over others and makes them do certain jobs at some times and other jobs at other times, vibrate in our throats and make music in our interactions. How freeing to learn that “bad words” were largely distinguished from “good words” that meant essentially the same thing by their relative historical place of origin in less privileged communities. And so, their use in publicly transgressive ways is inherently political. And so, if used against an unjust system, swearing is an unambiguous if imperfect tool to use in building the “Kingdom of God.”

    1. Paul, I like that you brought in subversive uses of “swears” which is a very important aspect of what makes swearing powerful, particularly in certain contexts and by certain roles, including clergy-folk. Peace to you and this world. ~ Karen

  2. My dad always taught us that “swears are how you tell what is important to a culture”. Like, for a while the swears were religious. Then in the war, they were things like “bloody”. Now they are all body bits and functions… not sure what that says about us. So then a group of us decided to make regionally appropriate socially conscious swear words. Frac you looked like it might catch on, for a bit, but then it didn’t. Sigh.

    1. It’s an interesting cultural take on swearing. If enough of us start saying “frac you” it might catch on. Maybe we can get Matt Damon to start it off > perhaps on twitter…

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