F-bombs, poets, and church. Or, “When church goes intentionally awry!”

First, I blogged about Blake Bergstrom and his hilarious attempt to have Lot say “pitch his tents.” Then we had John Ortberg entreating: “Let everything that has breasts, praise the Lord,” along with William Willimon’s story of an evangelist unintentionally preaching the shorts off a church-skipper.

On the time-worn religious use of the word F—

The obscenity f— is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, “Flen flyys,” from the first words of its opening line, “Flen, flyys, and freris,” that is, “fleas, flies, and friars.” The line that contains fuck reads “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.” The Latin words “Non sunt in coeli, quia,” mean “they [the friars] are not in heaven, since.” The code “gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields “fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli.” The whole thus reads in translation: “They are not in heaven because they f— wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].”

From: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Now we have an F-bomb. On purpose. Yeah. You know the word. You’re thinking it right now. Are you sinning?

Over at CTI’s new Out of Ur blog, Leadership associate editor Sky Jethani (assistant teaching pastor at Blanchard Road Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois) writes the story of what happens when the F-bomb is dropped at the ecclesiastical ground zero: at church on the eve of baby Jesus’ birthday, no less.

Sares pastors an unconventional church—made clear by the name: Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, Colorado. Out of Ur relates:

Scum calls itself “a church for the right brained and the left out.” They embrace authenticity, creativity, and those who are on the margins of society.

That’s nice. But for a clearer picture of this church’s intentional iconoclastic culture, see the church’s site:

We really want to connect with people who have no interest in “church” by society’s definition. There are plenty of churches for “normal people” and we think we have a unique calling to reach out to our otherwise unreached friends. Our name is integral to that process. Whether outcast by society (e.g., punks, skaters, ravers, homeless people…) or by the church itself, many who come can identify with the name “Scum of the Earth” since they have been previously treated as such.

So, let’s dispense with the background now, and get to the story. (“What about the F-word, Rich? Tell us about the F-word!”)

Find the whole, well-written, suspenseful, enchilada over at the Out of Ur blog—which I’ll link to shortly—patience, gentle Readers!—but here’s the short version. A few days before Christmas, an associate pastor called on Sares. Poet Mary Kate Makkai, coming out of a long, prodigal-daughter struggle with her faith, wanted to read her poem during the Christmas Eve service.

One problem—well—sixteen: the poem had at least that many F-words in it.

The poem recounted Makkai’s spiritual journey back to God, and the incendiary language came from other’s mouths, describing encounters in her faith struggle. It’s a non-fictional account of what drove Makkai back to God. The emotions are raw, authentic, and powerful (allegedly—I’ve not seen the piece).

After internal debate, advice from ministry supporters, calls to two other pastors—even a consultation with Denver Seminary professor Dr. Craig Blomberg—Sares green-lighted the thermonuclear worship experience.

Predictably, the fallout went both ways. Some were deeply moved and encouraged in their faith. Some were offended and deeply hurt. Some withheld money—the most terrible cut of all. (To many pastors, anyhow.)

Read the two-part story here:

The comments are worth the read–especially Craig Blomberg’s comment on the first post.

Update: But wait, there’s more! Part Three: The F-Bomb Poet Responds, and Part Four: The F-Bomb Pastor Responds.

With that out of the way—if you’ve returned—I now get to play blow-hard commentator.

I don’t believe in taboo words.

Yes, I’m a Christian. I’m Evangelical. I’m Pentecostal, even. But maybe I’m a little scummy and unconventional, too. There are no, in my mind, inherently evil or taboo words, in and of themselves.

But words can be rude, insensitive, aggressive, harmful, offensive, blasphemous, trivial, humorous, thoughtful, edifying, and on, and on, and on. It all depends on context, intent, effect, and culture.

I’m deeply indebted to James, the brother of Jesus, who clued-me-in that it’s not the words you use that set your life on fire with the flames of Hell, but content of your language (James 3:1-12). I’m indebted to Christ to learn what comes out of your mouth doesn’t defile you, but the content of your speech (Matthew 15:10-12). Christ also taught me that speech reveals internal affairs (Luke 6:43-45). Paul warns me to keep my conversations gracious and salty—but not in the salty-fisherman kind of way—in the seasoned, purified kind of way (Colossians 4:6). Paul warns me through Timothy, a young minister, that I must set an example for believers in his speech (1 Timothy 4:12).

But in all these passages (and there are more) we don’t have examples of specific banned language (except to not take the Lord’s name in vain—but then we have not a taboo word, but a taboo usage with trivializing effect). We have instruction about how speech reveals the heart, how speech changes our attitudes, how speech effects others.

I conclude there’s nothing wrong with Makkai’s poem in itself (with the caveat that I haven’t read it, and I don’t know her). I would have stayed to listen—but I would’ve checked to see that my four-year old son wasn’t in the sanctuary sitting with the kids contingent.

But if I were the pastor? At the church I attend, I couldn’t allow it (note: I’m not a pastor). Our church culture is not intentionally iconoclastic, like Scum’s is. We have too many seniors, too many adolescents, too many newly saved, too many spiritually unformed in our services, too many modern Midwesterners. (And maybe not enough unsaved—who wouldn’t bat an eye at this poem.) They didn’t sign up for this, and their culture and expectations are much different. The shock-and-awe fallout would so far outweigh any positive benefits of the reading that it would prove too detrimental. And I think this is true for most non-Emergent churches in America.

Romans 14:1-23 bears heavily here, and it guides my thought.

In most church gatherings, in our American church culture, the F-Bomb would not edify—no matter the literary context. Most people are far too sensitive for this, and it would simply not edify. Plus, for some new believers who are learning to sanctify their speech, a large part of their growing process is just cleaning up the expletives—which serve no good purpose and only detract from positive, moral, edifying talk. To introduce a so-called “acceptable” use of the F-word to them—in a church setting, no less—might contribute to cognitive dissonance and moral confusion over appropriate conversation. Also, children simply need to have models of speech unencumbered by culturally taboo terms. They get enough bad language at school, at home, and on TV—why confuse them with the F-word from church leaders and from the pulpit. Finally, the senior members of the congregation are quite simply not as culturally flexible in their views on what constitutes a taboo and what does not. Circuits wold be blown, and you’d have paramedics called in. The whole point of the poem would be lost.

It would, at least, be exciting. But excitement does not equal edification. That’s why most churches don’t have mosh pits and bungee jumps in the sanctuary.

I’m all for using raw, powerful language in appropriate circumstances with the correct people for the right purposes. Paul did it. When debating circumcision, he wished that the Judaizers “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). (The word here, apokopsontai, literally means “would amputate themselves,” which has a double meaning. The act Paul wishes would not only deprive these men of a precious organ, but would also excommunicate them—cut themselves off—from fellowship in accordance with their legalistic views (Deuteronomy 23:1).

In Philippians 3:8, Paul considers his accomplishments to be equivalent to dung compared to what he gained in Christ. Yes, dung. You know—the S-word. (The Greek here is skubala, but it could also be simply rendered as “refuse.” Some commentators like the word “crap.”)

But in all these usages (and they are admittedly rare in scripture), the point of the language is godly, the intent is instructive, and the usage is appropriate to the culture.

So, in the end. Hurray for Scum of the Earth. But not in my church, please. Not yet. And not on my blog.

But I’d love to read the poem. Anyone have a copy?

Related posts:

[tags]BlogRodent, pentecostal, Evangelical, religion, church, postmodern, post-modern, emergent, emergent-church, scum-of-the-earth, Sky-Jethani, Mike-Sares, Mary-Kate-Makkaim, poetry, Denver, f-word, controversy, Christmas, language, taboo, cussing[/tags]

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2 Responses to F-bombs, poets, and church. Or, “When church goes intentionally awry!”

  1. Nathan says:

    I ran across your site while looking for the poem online after reading parts 1 and 2 of the Out Of Ur blog.

    I don’t know if you saw parts 3 and 4, but part 4 included a link to her reading the poem.

    PG: [audio:lost_and_found_PG_rated.mp3]

    R: [audio:lost_and_found_R_rated.mp3]

    The PG version has the f-words bleeped (and in my opinion really messes with the flow of the poem).

    Enjoy.

  2. Rich says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Nathan. Yes, I was delighted to find Leadership had gotten Mary Kate to respond and provided a link to her MP3 file. Thanks for providing the R-Rated link too, for the more hardy among us.

    I remain convinced that the poem can be appropriate–with the right audience, the right setting, the right context, the right motivation, and the right spirit. Perhaps it was the right call for Scum to allow this reading. It certainly had a dramatic, positive effect. However, playing it for my in-laws over Thanksgiving didn’t exactly bring da house down. Not in the good way, anyhow!

    I tend to agree with you: the language is critical to the structure and integrity of the poem and its author. However, I won’t be reciting the poem myself. A good part of the power of the poem is in the reading by the author. I don’t know how many others could read that poem with the passion that Mary Kate did, and that goes a long way toward communicating the subtext and putting the right context for the language itself.

    Regards,

    Rich

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