That's (What's?) Obscene!

Reminder: this is the second blog that will deal with language, and it will deal with how we have inappropriately called some language obscene, and some language that ought to be obscene we have made acceptable.  So there will be R-Rated language – some of it obscene and some not. Proceed accordingly.

Obscene language, silly talk, or vulgar jokes aren't acceptable for believers. Instead, there should be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4, CEB translation)

In my previous blog on curse words, I argued that we have arbitrarily designated random words as “curse” words, when biblically the only consistent curse word is damn, and certainly G-d d—n.  Other words might be considered curse words if they are used to wish harm on another human being.  We looked at James 3 to understand how the tongue sets our actions and is used to curse humans who are made in God’s likeness, which is tantamount to both cursing God and committing murder.

I want now to dig into this passage from Ephesians to help us understand what constitutes obscene language.  I think we have to keep in mind the language about curses, though, to understand the fullness of what is being criticized here, because I think what is at the heart of this instruction is honoring God, and as James taught us, we honor God by respecting our fellow human beings, others made in the image of God.

I want to look at a larger chunk of this passage from Ephesians 5, because I rail against proof-texting all the time, and because I think the words around and in verse 4 are instructive. I am also giving you the Greek transliterations (basically a formal word for spelling it how it sounds) in brackets for some of these words.   There is going to be some nerd-level breaking down of Greek in here, so hold on.

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God. Sexual immorality [porneia], and any kind of impurity [akatharsia] or greed, shouldn't even be mentioned among you, which is right for holy persons. Obscene language, silly talk [morologia], or vulgar jokes aren't acceptable for believers. Instead, there should be thanksgiving [eucharistia].  Because you know for sure that persons who are sexually immoral [pornos], impure [akathartos], or greedy-- which happens when things become gods-- those persons won't inherit the kingdom of Christ and God. Nobody should deceive you with stupid ideas [kenois logois]. God's anger comes down on those who are disobedient because of this kind of thing. So you shouldn't have anything to do with them.  You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light.  Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. Therefore, test everything to see what's pleasing to the Lord, and don't participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. (Ephesians 5:1-11, CEB translation)

We can tell from this passage that three central things seem to be in contrast with living a life like Jesus: porneia, akatharsia, and greed.  I leave greed untranslated because its Greek form doesn’t particularly add to our understanding.  I did search how this word for greed shows up in the New Testament, and it consistently shows up in contexts where someone is satisfying his own selfish desires. In other words, a greedy person is only concerned with how she might benefit, even at the cost of others. As for the word that gets translated as sexual immorality, or sometimes fornication, porneia does not mean having sex outside of marriage.  In fact, Kyle Harper argues persuasively that in the era when Jesus lived and the New Testament was written, porneia had a broad context of meaning any socially unacceptable sexual practice.[i]  People don’t like that definition, though, because that means society is deciding what is acceptable.  For me, however, it is part of that mystery of God that placed in our text room to breathe, room to grow.  Room to be inclusive of perspectives that in the past may have been marginalized or demonized.  So, we can now say that sexually assaulting a woman, even one of lower social status than you, is unacceptable.  We can classify that as sexual immorality.  And certainly we can say that the objectification of bodies, particularly for the perpetuation of unequal status and abusive practices, is unacceptable (porneia is the same root as the word pornography, after all). We can also affirm adult relationships where both parties are respected and honored as being acceptable, and thus not immoral.

As for akatharsia, which is here translated as impurity, some of you may be familiar with its etymological opposite – catharsis. (Quick little Greek lesson – put “a” in front of a word and that is the equivalent to saying “not”).  I am going to ask you to go back to high school or college lit where you (hopefully) learned about catharsis.  We always talked about it when we studied Oedipus Rex, but it works also with something like Romeo and Juliet, or even right now in The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.  Catharsis is the experience of watching someone else go through a tragedy or terrifying experience, often of epic proportions, but you feel that anxiety right along with the character as they go through it. You feel what the character feels.  When their situation is resolved, you have a sense of feeling cleansed.  You feel cleansed, because on some level you connected with the character.  The character helped you recognize that life sucks sometimes, but we are in it together. We are cleansed by experiencing empathy and/or sympathy with someone else.  If we can’t do that, however, if we can’t walk alongside someone and recognize her humanity, we are unclean. Impure.

And so we come to the point of understanding what constitutes obscene language.  Put in the context of this passage, obscene language is language that objectifies other humans. It is language that refuses to recognize our common humanity.  And it is language that privileges our own perspective, making us into little gods.  So it is obscene to talk about women as if they are body parts – T & A or cu—s. It is obscene to denigrate someone because they are a different race, to consider them less than human.  And it is definitely obscene to think you are superior to someone else and to talk about yourself in such terms.  You are not God, and when you think you are better than someone else, you aren’t even trying to be a follower of Jesus, to imitate the one “who loved us and gave himself for us.”  You are trying to make yourself a god instead.

White supremacy, or crude “locker talk”, or slurs that denigrate someone due to difference – those are all obscene.  Saying something like “white supremacy is fucked up” is not obscene but is rather in line with a God who seeks goodness and justice and truth.  Believing you are better than those who are created in the image of God is tantamount to saying you are better than God, and is the worst form of idolatry and evil.  It is empty talk [kenois logois], vain words that will bring the anger of God down on you.  It is the language of morologia, which breaks down literally into moronic words.  So you can be on the side of God, or you can be on the side of stupidity.

So when it comes to language, test and see if it is pleasing to the Lord, and that which is pleasing are words of thanksgiving (eucharistia). Words that allow us to give thanks for Jesus and the life he gave us to live, and that allow us to give thanks for all the people he gave us to live alongside.  Words that show love to God and to others. Just love. Plain and simple, but apparently too difficult for some. 

Love. Real, cleansing, equal, unselfish love.  That’s the shit. Anything less is just obscene.


[i] Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” JBL 131, no. 2 (2011): 363-383.

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