If nothing is sacred, nothing can be profaned.
This line has been haunting me for a few months. The video of the fellow tweeting during his wedding brought it back to mind.
As one commenter on put it in response to the video, “It seems to me the issue–an all-too common one these days–is a lack of understanding of the sacred.”
Sacred space, sacred speech, sacred behavior–our emphasis on intentionality and the universalizing aspect of the Holy Spirit’s presence make adopting such categories…difficult. ”Don’t judge the heart, which is the important part. I can worship God anywhere. Don’t limit him to a building. There’s nothing intrinsic to the words themselves.” Focus too much on externals, and someone will accuse you of adding law to the Gospel–without acknowledging the possibility that as humans, we are changed not only from the inside out, but from the outside in.
This is why profanity still matters. The sacred implies an element of mystery–which Paul calls marriage in Ephesians 5. To profane is to seize the mystery and lay it bare for everyone to see–to throw it out of the temple, as it were. What this means, though, is that only within communities where such mysteries have meaning can profanity have power. If there are no mysteries, nothing can be profaned.
I don’t wish to be crass, but most common swear words seem to have as their primary referents some action or thing that has historically been done or kept in secret. The chief exception to this rule is He who is the greatest mystery of all, our Lord Jesus himself. As such mysteries lose their force, so will (ironically) the force of the words associated with them. That many of us young evangelicals do not think seriously about the particular aspects of the words we deploy suggests our reverence for what originally made them profanities is on the wane.
I have no intention of restarting the wars over whether profanity is permissible or not. My interest is the conditions that make it possible, conditions that sadly seem to be increasingly rare.
Update: Two interesting addenda to note. First, from G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics:
A critic once remonstrated with me saying, with an air of indignant reasonableness, “If you must make jokes, at least you need not make them on such serious subjects.” I replied with a natural simplicity and wonder, “About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?” It is quite useless to talk about profane jesting. All jesting is in its nature profane, in the sense that it must be the sudden realization that something which thinks itself solemn is not so very solemn after all. If a joke is not a joke about religion or morals, it is a joke about police-magistrates or scientific professors or undergraduates dressed up as Queen Victoria. And people joke about the police-magistrate more than they joke about the Pope, not because the police-magistrate is a more frivolous subject, but, on the contrary, because the police-magistrate is a more serious subject than the Pope. The Bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England; whereas the police-magistrate may bring his solemnity to bear quite suddenly upon us. Men make jokes about old scientific professors, even more than they make them about bishops–not because science is lighter than religion, but because science is always by its nature more solemn and austere than religion. It is not I; it is not even a particular class of journalists or jesters who make jokes about the matters which are of most awful import; it is the whole human race. If there is one thing more than another which any one will admit who has the smallest knowledge of the world, it is that men are always speaking gravely and earnestly and with the utmost possible care about the things that are not important, but always talking frivolously about the things that are. Men talk for hours with the faces of a college of cardinals about things like golf, or tobacco, or waistcoats, or party politics. But all the most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest jokes in the world–being married; being hanged.
Second, an “obscenity” is, literally, that which happens off stage.