Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why Sh*t is Bad and Rubbish Ain’t

More and more, cuss words (curse words, bad words, taboo words) are losing their shock value and becoming common place. Should we perpetuate a list of words as out of bounds for decent people? Or should we embrace the movement toward viewing them as "just words"? Is it legalistic to feel good about ourselves for managing to say darn instead of damn, shoot instead of shit, fudge instead of fuck? Should we just give up the pretense?*

Heck no!

I believe language is important because it reinforces our values. Teaching children to say please, thank you, or sir reinforces the value of humility, thankfulness and respect (respectively). They are just words, but words have meaning.

So what value does a list of taboo words provide? Let's consider it together.

My 9 year old informed me the other day that there was a bad word scribbled inside a rock tunnel at the park we were heading to. “I think it started with an s, maybe s-c something.” My 6 year old piped in helpfully, “Was it stupid? ‘Cause stupid is a bad word.” After a long pause the 9 year old said, “I think it was scat. You know, like, Go on scat! Get outta here!

I never did find out what word was written with such secretive and malicious intent, but while my kids played I did wonder, what makes a word bad?

Some have suggested that when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi,
“For his [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8b ESV)
rubbish could be adequately translated with the same word I suspect was scrawled at the park.** If it is okay for Saint Paul to use the word, why can’t we? What makes rubbish an acceptable word to put in the Bible?

I am not concerned with the historical/social events that lead particular words being labeled bad/naughty words or with the FCC rules about words not allowed to be broadcast on public airwaves.

My question is more basic. Can a word be bad at allIf so, on what basis? To answer the questions, let's first rule out some obviously false answers.

Clearly words are not bad because of their sound combinations. There is nothing inherently wicked about an appeal for quiet (Shhhh) followed by a pronoun (it). And no two languages have the same list of bad sounds.

Words are not bad because of their written symbol combinations. If the waves had washed sticks and seaweed onto the beach in the following shapes F U C K, I would not think that the ocean had done something naughty.

Words are not bad because of their material makeup. If I saw a teenager wearing a shirt with the same shapes as the waves washed up on the shore, I would take offense.*** What makes the two different? Why would I find it offensive on a polo or a billboard, but not on the beach? It has nothing to do with the material composing the symbols, but everything to do with the intent behind the symbols.

Words are not bad because of their referents. Consider these examples as alternatives to common taboo words:
  • fornicate, coitus, sleep with
  • excrement, poop, number two
  • donkey, rectum, rear end
  • sin, bad, devil (there is no bad word counterpart here, just words that refer to bad things)
The acts referred to by bad words are not necessarily bad themselves, but somehow bad words portray these acts in a bad way.

Bad words are disrespectful. They express ideas in ways that intentionally disrespect the things or ideas they represent. Look again at the list in the previous point. What makes these words distinct from their bad word counterparts? The acceptable words are counted as more precise or as euphemisms. They are either more scientific, or extra polite. They either treat the ideas with respect by treating them as a fact or by treating them with the most palatable imagery possible. The acceptable words are not intended to degrade.

When I am out in public with my kids and a group (usually of men) linger nearby talking in profanity laced slang, I find I am most offended by their lack of respect. Don’t they realize there are kids present and that kids should be shielded from certain realities?
For the same reason bad language is considered unprofessional and generally taboo at work. It conveys lack of respect.

Having a list of taboo words reminds us that it's not  appropriate to talk in certain ways about certain things. For example, it is not okay for child to speak to an adult in the same way an adult would speak to an adult. He has not earned that right and does not have the maturity or wisdom to do so. Those in public office avoid cussing (at least in public) out of respect for the dignity of the office they represent.****

Proverbs 10:20 summarizes well:
The tongue of the righteous is pure silver; the heart of the wicked is of little value. (HCSB)
Notice the righteous person has pure speech, but the wicked person has wrong motives. What is implied is that the righteous person also has a pure heart—he says the right thing for the right reasons—and that the wicked person’s worthless heart also results in worthless speech. Bad words, over time, have become associated with a bad attitude, or a bad motive (this is where society and history come in).

As Paul also writes,
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear… Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph. 4:29, 5:4 ESV)
Good speech is about much more than avoiding certain words. It's about treating with respect those things that should be respected, speaking honestly about even unseemly realities. It's about using words appropriate to the subject and the audience. It's about avoiding foolishness and being thankful for the good things and treating them with due dignity. It's about recognizing that some things are holy. Some things are to be set apart from the mundane, the base, the common, the vulgar.

On the other hand, sometimes the most appropriate and effective word is a "bad" one. By not using them casually, you reserve them to use to great effect when necessary. If the taboo words are used indiscriminately in every day dialog with little to no meaning, there are no words left to pull out when you’re really mad, disgusted, or need your co-worker’s attention NOW! Paul new this well, and we find he used rubbish only the one time in the New Testament.

Maybe we shouldn't call them bad words anymore, but corrupting and foolish talkThen we might remember to carefully choose our words. Then we might remember to choose words that reinforce good values, that teach respect, that encourage self-control, that make room for thanksgiving.

* Don't mistake my use of cuss words in this blog as an endorsement of them. I believe grownups can have a mature conversation about words while actually using the words we wish to maturely talk about.
**The word translated is σκύβαλον and means refuse, rubbish, garbage, scraps or crud, it was not a taboo word as are modern day curse words. It was a crude, maybe even vulgar, but it served well to show the severity of his commitment to Christ.
***Even if it was a clever clothing brand acronym for the French Connection United Kingdom (FCUK).
****Admittedly, it is hard to come up with many venerated institutions anymore that adults universally hold in high regard (e.g. the presidency, the priesthood, heaven, etc.). Somethings should be discussed or addressed using only the most respectful terms. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Selling Karma

Instant karma

Perhaps he was too young to pull off “Help a Vet” or “Hungry Kids”. Perhaps he had lost too much faith for “God Bless You”.  Or perhaps he just thought it was unique enough, clever enough, and guilt inducing enough that it just might work. I saw a beggar today holding a sign with the words “Selling Karma” neatly (but not too neatly) blacked in. His appeal to conscience, inked on a random scrap of cardboard (or was it the back of a campaign sign), like any entrepreneurial endeavor, was aimed at giving his customers what they want. Good feelings.

Karma is the politically correct version of “you reap what you sow” or better yet of Galatians 6:8-9. It appeals to the general sense of fairness we all share. But it avoids the uncomfortable implications that there is some personal, wise, and powerful being out there who will ensure that the impatient lady at the store who threw a tantrum when the clerk wouldn’t help her fast enough gets her just deserts. She’s gonna get hers, we sooth ourselves.  Karma’s a bitch, right? Instead of God, we have Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes.

Yep. Karma’s a bitch.

It makes us feel better about the injustices in the world. It assures us the universe has a self balancing principle built in. It’ll auto correct. Karma. It’s a platitude we whisper to ourselves so we can process all the evil in the world without really facing it.

Karma poses several problems for Christians. Let me illustrate.

A few weeks ago I was being shuttled on a bus from the Oregon Zoo back to the overflow parking area. Two seats ahead, just behind the bus driver, was a young adult male with a little school age girl talking to two women, neither of whom were apparently mother to the child. As we approached the parking area, their conversation settled on their collective concern that a van that had parked too close to their own vehicle might have damaged it. One of the women chided the father for a threatening, albeit good natured, threat he made against the owner of the van.* He was going to incur bad Karma. He shrugged off the idea and gave two reasons for his lack of concern.

First, he had good Karma to spare. Three specific actions apparently led to this Karmic surplus.

  1. He doesn’t litter.
  2. He drives an electric car.
  3. He eats organic foods.

Really? Those are the things that made the list? Nothing about remembering his mom on Mother’s Day, or giving a glass of cool water to a thirsty child, or working to end human trafficking or tweeting to Islamist terrorists in a noble effort to shame them ‘till they #bringbackourgirls. None of that. Apparently, for this young man, good Karma has only to do with his efforts to not defile the environment. When Mother Nature’s happy, everybody’s happy. Treat her well and she’ll return the favor. Karma.

Second, the young man volunteered himself to become a bad Karma enforcer. He wanted to be Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes. Key their car. It’s Karma, baby. My evils are justified retribution. Your evils need payback.

The problems with Karma are, 1) What counts as good or bad Karma? And, 2) who or what enforces justice or universal balance?

Who determines that the beggar and self-proclaimed dispenser of good Karma really represents an opportunity to earn good Karma? What makes this guy Karma-worthy of my dollar? Did he do a bunch of good deeds and has extra Karma stored up he’s just waiting to pass around? And what exactly counts as a good deed? Furthermore, how do I know he isn’t down on his luck as some Karmic payback for a past evil? Maybe instead I should be an agent of Karmic retribution (i.e. justice). I could drive by and yell an insensitive slur and glibly conclude Karma’s a bitch.

When bad things happen, what justifies our moral indignation? What makes it wrong for a person to steal a parking space or damage another person’s vehicle? And who is going to make sure all the evils are rightly dealt with? If it’s just a feature built into the universe, who put it there?

That’s why I prefer the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. It reminds us that there are things that by their nature are good or bad. Some deeds are good seeds that over time will become good crop. Bad seeds grow bad crops. It reminds us that there should be a direct connection between the evil deed and the just punishment. Stubbing my toe on a rock is not the natural or appropriate punishment for littering. But under the Karma scheme, I never know what I’m paying for when I suffer. The imagery of sowing and reaping are also more concrete and remind us that the principles of good and evil and justice are part of the real, created order. They are not something mystical or ethereal. I cannot randomly volunteer to be the good or bad thing that you must reap anymore than I can volunteer to be the corn stalk you just planted.

So next time, instead of nodding along knowingly when you hear someone tsk tsk and chide, Karma’s gonna get him, offer up the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. Then thank God that He is just. Then ask Him to be merciful.

* Perhaps I should start selling Karma credits. This is by far a better gig than selling carbon credits. It’s almost up there with selling indulgences. Give me a dollar and you’ll have good Karma for a week.

** My wife and I secretly feared it was our van.

Take This How You Want. But It’s My Way or the Highway, Bub!

It makes me both happy and indignant when people make self-refuting claims. Happy because it’s so much easier to show they are wrong when when all I have to do is point to their own statement. Indignant because I’m a person and people should be smarter than that. Take for example the simple claim:


This is self refuting. If I’m around to say it, my presence proves it’s not true (at least at the moment it’s spoken).*


Really? Everything? Everything is relative? I assume this includes your claim that everything is relative. Or is the claim “everything is relative” the exception? Is it always true regardless of one’s perspective that “everything is relative”? If the statement is independently true, then it is not relative and there is at least something that is not relative. If its truth is relative, then sometimes or in some ways it may not be true that all is relative and I must admit that at least some things are possibly not relative.

Try this one from the oral post script to the author’s reading of Lord of the Flies. These are William Golding’s (the author’s) words in his own voice.

There have been so many interpretations of the story. I’m not going to chose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher’s, not your professor’s, not mine, not a critic’s, not some authority’s. The only thing that matters is first the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like, if it’s yours, then that’s the right one. Because what’s in a book is not what an author thought he put into it. It’s what the reader gets out of it.***

Seriously?!? Does he not see how this is self-refuting? Let’s simplify his statement.


How does Mr. Golding want me to interpret his claim that any interpretation is the right one? Maybe my interpretation is that I should completely disregard what the author means (except of course, his urging me to ignore what he means) and use his book as kindling or for leveling tables or as wall décor. Maybe I should use his writings as propaganda to further my own psychotic ends, twisting and corkscrewing his words until I can use them to open champagne for my bubble bath.

What if we parented that way?

“Now little Johnny, I’m only going to tell you this once (but it means what your personal experience dictates it means to you). You shouldn't hit your sister with that stick!” Little Johnny might decide you mean he should only hit other people’s sisters with sticks. Or maybe he sees your words as only expressing your feelings, not conveying transcendent truth. He concludes, Hitting Sister with a stick makes Mommy unhappy. Next time I will hide it when I hit Sister. Then Mommy won’t be unhappy.

It’s totally unlivable. I cannot seriously urge you to take seriously my urging you to not take seriously anything I say. How does this kind of nonsense**** make it to print? How does it become widely accepted as learned and mature thinking?

First, like with all big lies, it’s built around a nugget of truth. It’s true that a book should be experienced. The story needs to be heard. The reader needs to experience the story vicariously through the characters. The meaning of a story is carried in the story. In this way it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the meaning of the story from the story. Telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not the same as saying, “Treat everyone you encounter as you would want to be treated. Then you will be a good neighbor to all mankind.” The meaning is conveyed by the medium. Experience, even second hand experience, is a unique an unparalleled teacher. The Cliff Notes (or Wikipedia entry, or any other authoritative summary) are no substitute for actually reading the work. The power is in the prose. However, this only explains how the reader comes to the point the author is trying to make. It is not the point itself.

Second, the author has succumbed to the same fate as the hapless boys on the island. He has accepted the lie (at least on some level) that there is no ultimate authority. Right and wrong is personal, subjective, experiential, social. The author is not even an adequate authority over his own work. The similarity between the words author and authority is not accidental. They are intimately connected. The author retains the rights of the creator, the right to define and limit his work. In a sense, he can establish right and wrong, set boundaries, when it comes to his work. This is what I meant, and not that. This is how I intended my creation to be used.

Of course there is nothing to force the audience or consumer to abide by the author’s authority.

I can use your rice cooker as a bomb, or your designer scarf as a diaper.

But I do not have the right to claim you meant the rice cooker as bomb or the scarf as a diaper. William Golding should not invite his readers to decide what he meant. He should instead acknowledge that each person brings their own past experiences to their immersion in his plot and that they will likely be affected by it in different ways. This is part of his intention for the work and so by reading it this way, we are actually agreeing with the author’s interpretation. If he really means for the audience to understand it however they like without the author stepping into referee the opinions, he should never have said so. His act of saying this is his intention undermines the intention. Now, when people take it how they please, they are taking at as the author pleases in direct contradiction to his stated desires.

Interestingly, just one paragraph earlier, Mr. Golding offers the following comment before he goes on to blatantly contradict it.

The most important thing said in the book is when Jack says, “Bullocks to the rules… why should we bother about the rules?” And Ralph says, “Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got.” That really is, I suppose you could say, what the book is about. If you don’t have rules, that is to say if you don’t have law, then you’re lost, you’re finished, you’re gone.

I agree whole heartedly. One rule we cannot do without is the ruling authority of the author over his creation. Call it personal property rights. Call it natural law. Call it the law of non-contradiction. Whatever you call it, it is inescapably the way things really are. To claim otherwise is self-refuting. And being self-refuting is dumb.

* A self-affirming statement is “I exist”. This is the basis of Descartes infamous cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am.” Of course, I could be mistaken about who the “I” refers to. I could have a confused concept of myself and so can’t concluded anything more profound than something exists.

** For those of you who were like me from two weeks ago and have never read this modern classic, here’s a good summary.

*** Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Listening Library, 2006. OverDrive Mp3. Originally recorded in 1976. 

**** Self-refuting statements literally make no sense. They convey no real meaning, because they undermine the very facts needed to make sense of them.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What is Love? It Is Opposite Both Hate and Apathy

I once proudly said, “The opposite of love is apathy, not hate.” I thought myself profound. I have come to realize love is opposed to both.

To see how this works, consider the following questions.

Is zero the opposite of infinity? Or is the opposite of infinity negative infinity? Is having nothing the opposite of being rich? Or is the opposite of rich being in great debt?

Great debt and great wealth are similar in that they both speak of vast quantities. Yet they are opposites because the one relates to my bank account in a positive way and the other in a negative way. On the other hand, great wealth and abject poverty are similar in that they both consider positive quantities. Yet they are opposites because one speaks of much and the other of little (or nothing). So, both abject poverty and great debt are opposites of great wealth, but in different ways.

So also, love is opposite and similar to hatred in a way that apathy is not. And love is opposite and similar to apathy in a way that hatred is not.

Apathy is literally to be unmoved or to have a lack of passion (from Greek α + παθος a + pathos). It is seeing the distress of the orphan and not caring. It is watching your spouse drift farther and farther away and not being moved to draw her close.

Hatred is a passion to see the ruin of an object. It rejects and flees from its object. It desires and wills evil for that on which it sets its sights. It says that my good and the object’s good are opposed to each other. It is the act of road rage. It is the burning cross illuminating the visage of a white hooded figure.

From its opposites, we can see that love involves at least two aspects: passion and good intention.

The first is passion, or being moved to act. Love is moved to act because the lover is drawn to the beloved, is moved by it, finds it compelling and valuable. It is by lacking this passion that apathy is love’s opposite. However, this is the very thing love has in common with hatred.

The second aspect of love is good intention. I do not mean by this what is commonly meant by good intentions – a lack of malice – but I mean by good intention to have the will set on that which is truly good. It is by having evil intention that hatred is love’s opposite. Love pursues that which is appropriate and good for the beloved. The lover knows the beloved and seeks to lead the beloved to its proper end, to fulfillment. Apathy may have good intentions as well, but is not moved to act on them.

Perhaps an illustration will help to summarize.. 


Love is the apex of desire and good. Hate is the apex of desire and evil. Apathy is the apex of both good intention and evil intention, but without being moved to either, and thus indifferent to both.

Thus, we can say that love is:

  • To will (or desire) the good of the beloved, and
  • To will (or desire) to be in union with the beloved

Apathy is the opposite of love because it fails to will.

Hate is the opposite of love because it wills evil and disunity.

Both desire and a good intention are needed for love. The good of the beloved becomes the good sought by the lover. And unity is the product of the two coming together in the pursuit of one good.

Practically, of course, apathy is the more likely foil to love. For love to fail, it need not substitute as its object's end pain for pleasure, failure for success, evil for good. It need only stop seeking its object's good. It need only become inactive. Love is an action. Hatred is an equal but opposite action. Apathy is friction that immobilizes both. If love is a cup of cool water for the parched soul, apathy is an empty vessel and hatred a vial of poison. Both are equally fatal.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Should I Vote for a Mormon Over a Nominal Christian?

Vote your values.

Photo courtesy of USA Today
Are you pro-life? Pro-choice? Do you think government is society’s knight in shining armor ready to win the war on poverty and discrimination? Do you, like Governor Rick Perry, think government should be made as inconsequential in your life as possible? Do you think it’s better to have a professing, if nominal, Christian in the Whitehouse or cult1 member? Do you think religion is so personal that it is inconsequential?

I have a confession to make. I have already voted for Mitt Romney, three times. Not only am I going to vote for Romney on November 6th (my early ballot is already filled out), but I have already voted for him twice in the last two Republican primaries. Yes, I picked him over John McCain and Mike Huckabee .

But Mitt is ….. a Mormon!! 

Am I not concerned that electing a Mormon as president will bring greater respect to a cult that is opposed to traditional Christianity? Yes I am. I am fully committed to exposing the false teachings of Joseph Smith's followers.

But on election day other things concern me more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What to Think When Christians Fall, Hard!

What should we think when a highly influential, public, outspoken defender of the faith fails to live up to the faith he professes? Should we rally behind him? Should we decry his behavior as quickly as possible? Should we distance ourselves from him?

If you’re like me, your first reaction is to face-palm. After which you begin fearing their failure will undermine your message. Finally, you start plotting to ensure you never ever wind up in their shoes. But if you’re like me, I would like to remind us both of a couple things.

Monday, October 1, 2012

National Solutions to Local Problems


“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”

                                              -- from the Parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:33-34

Why has there been such an astounding growth in the size, power, and influence of the federal government over the last 60 years?

In short, it’s the media. But not for the reasons you think. It’s not just the alphabet channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, HBO, NPR, etc.). It’s also talk radio, FOX news, You Tube and the rest of the Internet. I’m not trying to blame any liberal-big-government bias, though I believe it exists; I’m blaming the nationalization of local news, the coast-to-coast concern for small-town stories.

We have become increasingly aware of the state of the whole country and become personally involved in injustices unaddressed 2,000 miles away. We are no longer concerned merely with our local sphere of influence, with our local community. We are no longer concerned simply with the neighbors we encounter at the local store, or the school our kids attend, or the condition of the roads we happen to travel. We have become aware of the injustices visited upon Floridians, Minnesotans, Californians, Georgians (both the state and the country), Germans, Ethiopians, Iranians, etc.   We have become disconcerted at the state of the US educational system in totality, not just our kid’s school. We have become incensed about bridges in Minnesota, and bridges to nowhere.

With problems this big, we feel like we need a big force to deal with it. We the people are too little to fix the national crises of poverty or texting while driving or teen pregnancy. Even if we have never met a homosexual couple wanting to get married, we are aware of the national struggle to redefine marriage in favor of those who feel left out. Even if our taxes seem to be about right and we don’t generally run into greedy rich people not doing their part, we are aware of a story here or there from across the country that reinforces the stereotype. Our opinions are shaped by the stories that captivate the news cycle and by experts that have conducted national studies on the topic. We begin to feel inadequate not only to deal with the problems, but even to form an opinion about them based on our own little, local, limited experience. We need a bigger, better equipped force.

The big force is inevitably the federal government.

But almost all problems are local problems. Gangs and ineffective schools, drugs and greedy rich people, blight and homelessness, are all problems that belong to a particular community. These communities are made up of families and individuals that all have the power to make a difference.

And don’t trust the “experts” more than other sources of wisdom in your life. In the words of Dennis Prager,

In much of the West, the well educated have been taught to believe that they can know nothing and that they can draw no independent conclusions about truth, unless they cite a study and experts have affirmed it. Studies show is to the modern secular college graduate what Scripture says is to the religious fundamentalist.                                                                       

The difference is made locally. The difference is made by you, acting in the way you see best fit to the problem most accessible to you. The national news can make the task feel too daunting to undertake. But if we will wrest our lives from the false assurance that big brother has it handled, and if we will set our sites on making a difference where we live, we can be the change we all admit is needed.

“and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him…”

Our neighbors need us to see them, have compassion on them and go to them. No expert opinion or government decree can make up for a lack in neighborly good deeds.