Jason and I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April. He very graciously invited me to come and speak about writing to his students in Colorado this past weekend, and in a stroke of crazy timing, his de(tale) just happened to coincide with my trip. I spent this weekend with Jason and his wife. It was lovely to get to know him better and get a peek into his world.
I hope you enjoy his de(tale), today.
It’s tough to portray with complete accuracy just how much swearing was frowned upon during my childhood. Our pastor at First Baptist Church, my schoolteachers at First Baptist Elementary, my friends’ parents, my own parents—everyone in our small, stringent subset of rural fundamentalist Christianity decried it as the Devil’s language and vigilantly avoided it. My earliest memory of curse words involves my elementary school principle delivering a school-wide lecture on the topic when I was in first grade. He said a few words like “damn” and “hell” and explained that he was only saying them so that we would know exactly which words we should always avoid using. Fast forward a few years, and my fifth-grade teacher was taking time during our afternoon Bible lesson to explain how we should always avoid words like “darn” and “heck” because they were what he called “euphemisms,” a term none of us understood until he explained that it meant a softer way of saying the same exact thing. Christians didn’t use these words, he and every other adult told us. Only non-believers did.
The most hallowed of all words was the Lord’s name. We all knew the commandment by heart—“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Elizabethan English in the King James Bible—the only Bible we were allowed to use—gave the command extra weight, and the combination of the command itself and the formality of the language used to convey it made me tremble at the prospect of speaking it—or even the euphemism for it—in even the most indirect or unintentional way. I remember lying in bed at night, terrified that I would accidentally think of a time I’d heard a character on television say it, worrying that my mere thought of someone else’s utterance, the words momentarily crossing my mind, would be offensive enough for the Almighty to immediately mete out a swift and terrible judgment.
The crusade against cursing didn’t stop when I got older, either. When I was in my teens, some of my parents’ church friends gifted us a “Curse Free TV” box. They explained how, by hooking it up to our VCR, we could filter out the cursing in whatever movie we watched. Unfortunately for its self-censoring users, instead of allowing them to avoid the swearing in Hollywood’s latest offerings, it only ended up highlighting each instance of a “dirty” word by muting the sound and displaying an often-nonsensical replacement word or phrase via closed captioning. “Wow you!” popped up a lot during R-rated films.
Somehow, despite the deep-seated resistance to all things First Baptist I’d developed by high school, this idea—a set of forbidden words, written in stone somewhere, should be avoided at all costs—managed to burrow into my psyche and take up a more or less permanent residence. By the time I left for college, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d cursed. Even during my first couple of years away from home, I avoided not only swearing but also people who did.
But then something happened. It’s difficult to say exactly when, but somewhere along the line, I started to realize that this crusade, so tirelessly led by almost everyone I’d known growing up, was a years-long exercise in missing the point, the promotion of a mindset devoid of understanding rhetorical contexts or even basic motives behind speech. I should have caught it earlier, how it functioned as a microcosm of their overarching beliefs. Polish up the outside, the health of the heart be damned.
Now, many years removed from those influences, I must admit that I sometimes swear like a sailor, skipping over the small-bore ammunition and going straight for the heavy artillery. Not often, and not in front of people whom I know I might offend, but I do—at myself, at left-lane slowpokes during my daily commute, at my wife in the midst of an argument (although I’ve recently managed to cut that out). I’m not proud of it, but I also no longer feel the deep-seated sense of shame that First Baptist’s authority figures wanted me to feel over using “bad” words. I suppose I’ve fallen somewhere in between—a place I plan to stay.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. I still do not—cannot—take the Lord’s name in vain. Not even the euphemism.
Jason A. Ney works as an English professor at Colorado Christian University. He is married to a wonderful woman and has a dog. He is not on Twitter.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.