Had an interesting chat with Chris Tilling and Lucy Peppiat in a pub at the airport in Baltimore on the vexed/non (delete as appropriate) issue of Christians swearing. Chris told us the typically Tillingian tale of how he gave himself swearing therapy in a Christian bookshop to get over his aversion to dropping the F-bomb. Only the Tilling would do such things!
There was a recent incident in the news of a parishoner in the UK complaining that her vicar had a car sticker that said WTFWJD. This, said the lady, was blasphemy! The vicar begged to differ. She said that there was a big difference between blasphemy and vulgarity. The F-bomb is vulgar but it is certainly not blasphemous. Amen.
I know loads of Christians who are more shocked when they hear "F-ing this" and "F-ing that" than when they hear actual blasphemy. Film censors take the same approach. Drop two or more F-bombs in a movie and you get a R rating (though you are welcome to have plenty of gratuitous violence and graphic, promiscuous sex) but you can avoid that if your actors just say, "Oh Jesus Christ!" instead.
This reminds me of an evangelical Religious Studies teacher I met in Oxford back in 1990. One of the pupils in his lesson said, 'Oh Jesus!" in a less than prayerful way. The teacher replied, "Don't let me ever fucking hear you take the Lord's name in vain again!" That response worked amazingly! Many may think the teacher's reply more offensive than the pupil's exclamation, but perhaps that simply shows how much our sensitivities about bad language are shaped by cultural factors other than Christian faith.
As Chris Tilling pointed out in our conversation, when the NT tells Christians to speak in wholesome ways its target is matters such as gossip, slander, lying, and the like. Using swear words is not inherently sinful (although it may certainly be sinful depending on the context in which one does it).
A few years back I hosted a gathering in Worcester of evangelical OT scholars interested in feminist hermeneutics (the superb book that came from that gathering can be found here). We had a fascinating discussion on some of the vulgar language used by OT authors that translators would never dare to try to find contemporary equivalents to (or their Bible translations would never be used in church!).
My beef is not with those who use the F-word but with those who devalue its power by using it all the time as the equivalent of "urm"—a filler until your brain can catch up. This sucks the life out of it by making it invisible by its sheer ubiquity. The F-bomb works best when used sparingly.
But WWJD? He would never drop the F-bomb, surely!
Actually, the Jesus I read about in the Gospels is someone who I could very easily believe would do precisely that if the word had been available in first century Aramaic. Jesus was not meek and mild, he was meek but wild. He knew how to fire verbal rockets at injustice and hypocrisy.
The moral of this story — swear by all means but do so sparingly and do so well.
Develop the Christian virtue of holy vulgarity.
Perhaps I ought to get me one of those bumper stickers . . .