Christian Curse Words
A lot of people are very bothered by curse words, cuss words, or whatever you’d like to call them. Sometimes they bother me, other times they don’t. However, I think the concept could be somewhat useful for the current Church — the idea that certain words are either inappropriate for most contexts or entirely inappropriate for much use at all. In fact, there are a couple words in the American Christian vernacular that I think would be best relegated to this category of “Christian Curse Words.” Here are a few examples:
The Word: Biblical — this word has become one of my least favorite in the entire English language
The Original Definition: The word originates in a seventeenth century theological text referring to anything relating to or contained in the Bible. Strictly speaking, all the word means is what might be in the Bible. Seems innocuous, right?
The New Definition: The Word now means something akin to “whatever I think is right.” For example, “My way of spending money, shopping, watching movies, handling healthcare, and voting is biblical.” Or again, “My understanding of politics, academics, science, and marriage is biblical.”
Why to Get Rid of It: Because we do not mean that what we think comes from the Bible or is contained therein. We certainly allege that most of the time, but what we really mean is that our view is right and his/her/your/their view is wrong. “Biblical” no longer has much to do with the Bible at all but only with our own preconceptions, assumptions, and positions. To say something is (or is not) “biblical” is to circumvent argument, discussion, and cooperation.
The Word: Believer
The Original Definition: In English, it crops up in the late Middle Ages to refer to Christians, and it originates in the Greek of the New Testament for our purposes. The word simply refers to people who believe a certain set of tenants.
The New Definition: Now, the word seems to refer less as a designator of who does and does not adhere to a certain set of beliefs but to where one spends eternity. For example, if you are a “believer,” you’re “going to heaven” and if you’re an “unbeliever” you’re “going to hell.” Belief has become associated with a binary understanding of the afterlife.
Why to Get Rid of It: The word “believer” being used instead of something like “Christian” suggests that all Christianity is about is doctrine. It suggests that “salvation” depends upon having a set of knowledge that others may or may not be privy to. Perhaps this knowledge is even a secret to be uncovered and disclosed to others so that they might have this knowledge (or gnosis) and receive salvation. Such an understanding of religious belief is closer to Gnosticism than Christianity.
The Word: Saved
The Original Definition: For our purposes, the idea of God “saving” comes from the Old Testament. It’s specifically prominent in the prophets and speaks of God saving an entire people, his people. He’s saving them from the violence of oppressive powers around them. Primarily it has to do with a future hope of salvation.
The New Definition: Now, being “saved” has two essential components. First, it has less to do with a whole “people” and more of individual people. Second, it happens in your life at a specific moment and time when you cross from a state deserving of hell to being in a state of being able to go to heaven.
Why to Get Rid of It: Our understanding of the word “saved” has more to do with nineteenth and twentieth century notions of revival than the prophetic notion from the Scriptures. Our current use causes us to misunderstand — grossly — the Gospels and their central message. We probably don’t need to get rid of it, but it needs redefinition (see Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel or N.T. Wright’s recent books for more information).
The Word: Inerrancy
The Original Definition: This one has always meant the same thing: without error. In my opinion, it’s always been a bad word.
The New Definition: Yes, it still has the same definition. In case you were wondering, it originates in 1818 when T.H. Horne said of the Holy Scriptures, “Absolute inerrancy is impracticable in any printed book.”
Why to Get Rid of It: Why do we need to get rid of it? Well, let’s do a little history lesson. After the word originated in 1818, it became immensely popular in the twentieth century. The word “inerrancy” has torn apart (or nearly torn apart) almost every Christian tradition in the United States in the past one hundred years. For example, the word does not even appear in Southern Baptist encyclopedias before the 1960s, but it led to a great fragmentation of the denomination in the decades to come. One side fought for the word “inerrancy” claiming that it was the (wait for it) “biblical” position. No good came of it.
For a second point, take a walk through the New Testament (this is also possible with the Old Testament, but these passages are more memorable for most people). If “inerrancy” is true, how do we treat 1 Corinthians 7:12 where Paul says, “To the rest I say — I and not the Lord …” We have a whole paragraph in the Pauline epistles that Paul himself says is not inspired, let alone inerrant. Is that statement inerrant? If so, then the whole Bible isn’t inerrant and the premise is invalidated by its own conclusion.
But that’s a little pedantic. Let’s try another.
How does the Gospel of Mark end? (a) the women flee the tomb and don’t tell anyone Jesus was there, (b) the women tell Peter and the company; they go evangelize the world, or (c) Jesus appears again to Mary Magdalene, to two disciples, and then he commissions the disciples before ascending to heaven? The answer, of course is (d) all of the above. You see, we have many early manuscripts of Mark and many of them have different endings. One involves snake-handling. Which one is inerrant?
John 8 is another complicated example involving manuscripts and Paul’s use of pagan literature provides other snags when trying to talk about the Bible as “inerrant.”
All that to say … it’s just not a good word.
The Word: Rapture
The Original Definition: The noun originally refers to a state of ecstasy until a few decades later when it first used to denote being taken to heaven (that’s in 1609, by the way).
The New Definition: The modern definition that deals with Christians disappearing out of thin air into heaven before (or after) a great tribulation befalls the whole earth is not the original interpretation of the word (or the book of Revelation). That concept originates at the earliest in the eighteenth century.
Why to Get Rid of It: The idea of “rapture” has many problematic implications. First, it denies the idea that the kingdom of God is about things being the same “on earth as it is in heaven.” Second, the idea promotes a soul-flesh binary more common to Greek philosophy than the Bible. Third, it suggests that we don’t have to care about the earth because it’s all going to burn up anyway. A lot of people get nervous when you start talking about “rapture” that way because it has become so ingrained in the American Christian consciousness. Millennialism, the theological term that encompasses most current understandings of the “rapture,” didn’t come around until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I don’t think you’re going to hell for getting rid of a theological concept that’s only a few hundred years old. There are better hopes.
Those are my Christian cuss words. If we redefined or even stopped using some of them entirely, I would be a happy man. Most of these words (and others not on this list) surround three trends in American Christianity that I find extremely detrimental: (1) intolerance, (2) individualism, (3) gnosticism. None of those concepts is particularly good for the Church.
What are your Christian curse words? What should we stop saying or redefine?
Posted on 3 June 2012, in Church and tagged Bad Words, Belief, Believer, Bible, Biblical, Christian, Church, Curse Words, Cuss Words, Definition, Dualism, Eschatology. Hope, Gnostic, Gnosticism, God, Gospel, Greek, Individualism, Inerrancy, Intolerance, Jesus, Middle Ages, Millennialism, N. T. Wright, New Testament, Nineteenth Century, Old Testament, Paul, Philosophy, Rapture, salvation, Save, Saved, Scot McKnight, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.