“Modern Family,” the “F-bomb,” and Rise of Language in the Evangelical Sub-Culture.

In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t watch Modern Family.  I’ve seen it twice, and honestly, I just didn’t find it to be all that funny.  And if a comedy wants my attention for 30 minutes every single week, it needs to do more than make me snicker.  I want at least three good chuckles and maybe even – dare to dream! – some full-on, all-out, belly laughter.  What can I say?  The early years of the The Simpsons set an awfully high bar.

But today, I want to talk about a recent episode of Modern Family that first aired during “prime time” on January 18th.  It was called “Little Bo Bleep,” and near the start of the show, 2-year-old Lily, daughter of Mitchell and Cameron, unexpectedly blurts out the “F-bomb,” which was bleeped out for the telecast.[1]  The rest of the scripted show revolved around her parents humorously attempting to clean up her language before attending a church wedding.  Needless to say, their damage control is unsuccessful, and the wedding is colorful, to say the least.

Now this brings me to the point of this article.  Prior to the airing of last night’s episode, the Parents Television Council entered the fray by issuing the following public statement:

“It’s not suitable language for a child that young in the real world, and it’s not suitable language for a child that young on television, either … It is certainly in poor taste … The more we see and hear this kind of language on television, the more acceptable and common it will become in the real world.  Since television is constantly adding to the likelihood that children will be exposed to this kind of language, we will naturally see more and more children eventually emulate that behavior.”[2]

My point here today is not to debate whether a 2-year old swearing is appropriate or even funny.  And my point is not to debate the role of Christian watchdog groups trying to censor or shape broadcast media.  I just want to know who the Parents Television Council believes itself to be representing.  In other words, I just want to know whether there is any sense of consensus amongst modern evangelical Christians as to what the Apostle James means when he says:

“If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile.”[3]

To get you started on the discussion, let me introduce you to some research conducted by Dave Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons back in 2007.  At that time, they published an excellent new book entitled UnChristian, which sought to explore the behaviors and attitudes of those within the church as compared to those outside.  When it came to using “profane” language, they discovered that only 17% of older born again Christians[4] claimed to use profanity, while almost two-fifths of the younger Christian generation[5] claimed the same.  So clearly, there is an emerging trend within the church that seems to think that the use of “profane” language is acceptable.  But what I found to be really curious about their study relates to how both groups view the use of the word “fuck” on television. When asked to give their opinion on the subject, both young and old Christians alike almost universally rejected the notion that this would be acceptable.[6]  So while the younger generation appears to be more comfortable using “profane” language in their day-to-day life, they still believe in erecting certain barriers around certain words in certain contexts.

To me, this is absolutely fascinating, and I would love to hear more from those that read this blog regarding how they interpret that passage and how they try to live it out.  As for me, I don’t tend to use profane language in my day-to-day life.[7]  But that statement may not mean the same thing to you that it does to me.  You may be reading this blog and say to yourself, “I just saw you use the word ‘fuck!’”  And to that, I would say that I stand in partial agreement with the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, who believed that words have power and that we neuter that power and even sanitize the concepts that lay underneath the harsh language when we opt for polite euphemisms.  So while I would not say “Fuck you!” to anyone around me, I also don’t feel that we gain anything by typing “f—” instead of the word that we are actually quoting.  For in doing so, I think we white wash the culture around us, and somehow fail to bear witness to it by refusing to reflect it back to itself.

But enough about me and what I think.  What do you think? Do you think there is any sense of concensus on what is acceptable language?  How do you use language?  Do you agree with me?  Do you not?  Seriously, I am really curious to know more.


[1] Producers report that Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, who is actually 4, was asked to say the word “fudge” during the taping.

[3] James 1:26.

[4] Older Christians are defined as those older than 41 years of age.

[5] Younger Christians were defined as those between the ages of 23 and 41.

[6] 93% of young Christians and 94% of older Christians were against it.

[7] Again, in the interest of full disclosure, that is not to say that I do not, on rare occasion, use language that I do not believe to be appropriate or in line with God’s call upon my life.  Interestingly enough, of all the things that I had to leave behind when I became a Christian, language was the hardest thing for me to bring under control.

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30 Responses to “Modern Family,” the “F-bomb,” and Rise of Language in the Evangelical Sub-Culture.

  1. Josh The Younger says:

    Honestly, the only language that I could with certainty say is explicitly forbidden by the Bible is taking the Lord’s name in vain. Still, there’s obviously something to be said for showing restraint and not descending into vulgar and/or offensive language. I can say with a good deal of certainty that if I began using language, it’d start coming out in anger or in inappropriate times/places. Teenagers aren’t known for their levelheadedness, after all. 😉

    • Morning Josh,

      I’m tracking with you on your first statement, and I’m presuming that you are basing that on Exodus 20. Now here’s my follow-up question. Why show “restraint?” What does “restraint” offer in terms of Christian witness and holiness? Let me give you an example. A few years ago, Tony Compolo (a well-known, left-leaning evangelical Christian) is giving a talk on poverty to a group of presumably middle-class to wealthy evangelicals. He began by saying something to this effect: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” In that context, do you think that his use of language highlights his “righteous anger?”

      • Josh The Younger says:

        Yeah, I can absolutely see that. Practicing restraint doesn’t mean there aren’t times when it’s appropriate. If I ate candy as much as I wanted, I’d have dentures by now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eat any. If I played as many video games as I wanted, I’d have no life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t break them out in my free time. Obviously, using language is a different urge than eating candy, but there is a correlation to a certain extent. If I used language whenever I was angry, sad, disappointed, etc. people would think I was vulgar and almost certainly become offended by me at some point. As I think has been mentioned several times in this blog and the comments, words have power, and swear words are universally negative in their connotation. But, in a case like the one you mentioned, I can see a reason for using it. I don’t know what I would do in that situation, but I don’t think badly at all of Mr. Compolo for doing it.

  2. clair strohl says:

    Language has always been a pet peeve of mine within school. Teachers love to hold a golden standard to proper speech, and yet, they don’t insist we use “thy,” or “thus,” or spell the letter “S” like a curly “f”. They hold onto tradition until society mocks them and forces the next generation to accept “slang” and that becomes proper and acceptable. I was docked a letter grade in junior highschool for using the word “got.” It was not in the dictionary. My retort was that it was on the license plate of every Pennsylvania car with the quote “you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” Still I was docked the letter grade. 40 or so years ago, showing someone pregnant was considered wrong by watch groups. 80 years ago or so; calling someone pregnant was horrible. To get to the point faster rather than listing a plethora of examples is: language changes. What is wrong today is acceptable tomorrow.
    My best understanding on “Profane” language is the intent in the heart. To say 2 people were fucking is different than saying you are a fucking jerk. Same word, different intent. I would also argue, saying someone is a jerk can be as profane as calling them a fucking jerk. The heart and mind know the intent of the language. You are gay can be happy, neutral, or hurtful. It all depends on the heart and intent of the use of the word and how it is taken by the person. Shit happens should be very neutral. Stuff happens is not bad to say. Is the word shit so horrible? Maybe we could put the word “stuff” in the profane language category as well. Fucking hilarious,” means more about being incredibly hilarious than than being negative and profane.
    Words, they have as much meaning as we want. “YOU GALL DARN FARFEGNUGEN SON OF A MOTHERLESS GOAT.” Completely acceptable on TV and the media, and yet, we know it to be exactly the kind of language Paul warns us about.

    • Chip … Great comments, friend! To your first point about the way that language is culturally conditioned. I know that many people will simply argue that this is a sign of society growing increasingly crass. And, to be fair, I think they may have a very valid point. A few years ago, while living in Amersterdam Holland, some friends and I were playing a game of risk in the snack shop of the Christian Hostel in which we were working. My Dutch friend Ewien, a very solid Christian, drops the word “shit” when the dice didn’t go her way. The Americans at the table, including myself, all looked up in shock. What followed was a really interesting conversation about the way in which different cultures view different words. In Holland, using the English word “shit” was similar to the way an American says “crap.” But in Holland, they would never use the word “damn,” which we feel free to use in “prime time” television. Same words. Same root language. Different cultural contexts injecting them with different degrees of acceptability.

      I also really loved your point about the work “jerk.” I have often wondered about the evangelical tendency to be perfectly okay with calling someone a “jerk,” even though everything about that word is clearly meant to be degrading.

      Thanks for commenting. I really appreciated your thoughts.

  3. Debra says:

    Clair, I am still chuckling over your farfegnugen comment. Perfect example!!

    I do believe the diversity of opinions makes this a quagmire. Your research on ‘fuck’ is right on. It is only that which is a globally accepted opinion that these groups could support without loosing credibility. Once you get us infighting about what position to take, we are laughable to the media and those who blatantly disagree.

    I had the mouth of a degenerate truck driver in college and before I was saved, so when I hear things today, like ‘suck’ and ‘screw’, I have a visceral reaction. Yes, they have lighter meanings than that which turns my stomach, but if it inspires a bad taste or picture for any who hear, I would opt against it’s use. I know I would be in the minority and would weaken the apparent strength of the ‘consumer/values’ group.

    I am sure they have learned through the school of hard knocks just when to raise their hand and try to slow the moment of the culture, but as you and your commenters have stated, it’s inevitable.

    • Debra,

      I had to laugh when I saw you compare yourself to a “degenerate truck drive.” When describing my own tendencies in the past, I always go with “drunken sailor.” You gotta wonder what truck drivers and sailors ever did to deserve this reputation. 🙂

      P.S. I just saw that you “subscribed” to the site; and wanted to say “thank you.” I love great discussion within community, and look forward to hearing more from you.

  4. Nick Doherty says:

    Language is what people make it, so it’s hypocritical to say that you can say “dang” but not “fuck”. In my personal opinion, the vulgar language that the Bible talks about people using is only taking God’s name in vain. If you take offense to certain words, then that’s your personal opinion. Obviously some of these words convey heavy meaning, but that’s all it is. Meaning. Taking God’s name in vain is directly offensive to God because He is perfect and we are sinners. So called “swearing”, in my opinion, is just some people’s preference.

    • Morning Nick,

      You seem to be lining up with many of the other commentators this morning. But here’s my question. If “language is what people make it,” what happens if people make it “bad?” Do you see what I’m asking? While it may be growing more and more common, it still has negative connotations in society. And if that is true, should Christians be participating in it usage? Or, does our call to holiness require something different from us?

  5. beth says:

    This reminds me of a conversation Tim and I had when we were watching the revamp of Battlestar Gallactica. This show made popular the term “frack”. And it was a substitute for the other f-bomb. But since it was a made up word, even though everyone knew exactly what they were saying, the censors had nothing to say and it became pretty popular outside of the show. But really, if you say “frack” or “sugar” but mean the others, then really, what’s the difference. Just own the profanity that you’re thinking, and say the word, rather than glossing it over with something pretty.

    As for there being a consensus on acceptable language, I’d say no, there really isn’t. Now, there may be a few standards based on your world view – but for the culture at large? No. I have worked in offices where if you didn’t swear every other word you weren’t taken seriously. In that corporate culture, profanity was a badge of honor that people threw around to prove they were important. I’ve worked in other offices where a whispered “damn” would get you looks as if you’d just blasphemed in church.

    For Christians, I would say there is a consensus, and it’s best summarized by a paraphrase of Paul (cause I’m too lazy to go look it up exactly): everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Can Christians swear? Sure. Just like they can eat meat sacrificed to idols. BUT – and this is where we need to be vigilant – if our swearing causes another to stumble, or keeps someone from seeing Christ – then just because we can swear and not jeopardize our own faith, we need to hold off. To take it further, then, since we don’t always know who is going to overhear us, we’re probably better taking the side of not swearing, that way we don’t go around tripping people up for something as silly as an expression of exasperation.

    • Beth,

      Word for the future. Any time you can work in a good “Battlestar” reference, you go right ahead! What a fantastic show! And you know, it’s funny, but I remember watching the recent re-boot and thinking back to the original show broadcast during the 70s. Back then, they used the word “frack” in “prime time,” and no one blinked. Given that the re-boot aired on the SciFi (I refuse to call it SyFy) channel, I was really surprised that “frack” wasn’t “de-euphemised.”

  6. iholdtheline says:

    Before I continue, let me first say that I don’t swear and, when I have, every time was a time I remember and a time I regret. Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth means, don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth. The Bible also plainly commands us to love our neighbors. That includes not offending them. Swear words are universally offensive. Even if people aren’t actually offended by them, they recognize that the words are offensive. This being the case, swearing is 99% of the time unwholesome.

    HOWEVER, the Bible itself is also a highly offensive text to the rest of the world, so does that mean we shouldn’t evangelize because people MIGHT take offense to it? Well, of course not. The difference is, however, one is wholesome regardless if someone wants to hear it or not. Swear words, on the other hand, don’t provide anything in and of themselves. It’s saying “oh my God.” Just saying it, by itself, is completely wrong. Words have meaning and weight and not using them wisely brings guilt and curse on the person that does so. I believe that, in certain – and very rare – circumstances, swear words, very strong language, can be used in some instances to provide strength and attention-grabbers to arguments. Just like we can say “oh my God” (a very powerful phrase) in certain instances, we can also use strong language in certain instances.

    If you’re going to either call on God’s name or “swear,” however, both must be used in the proper place and proper time. I think I made that pretty clear, though.

  7. Morning Caleb,

    Two quick thoughts. One, I think your example of “Oh my God” is a great case argument. I know so many Christians who drop that phrase on a daily basis with little thought, but they would never use other “profane” language. And it always strikes me as beyond bizarre that the one thing they will say is the one thing that is explicitly prohibited in Exodus 20.

    Second thought: can you help understand what the “proper place” and the “proper time” might look like? I know this is a very Western question, but how do we draw the lines? If you would, take a look at the example I gave in my reply to Josh the Younger. Would you argue that Compolo is right or wrong?

    • iholdtheline says:

      Those with discernment know when the proper time and place is to use strong language. If you’re going to use strong language, you need to know your audience, your topic, and your place. I think that, in the instance of Compolo, his effort was clear, but I don’t think his use of that word was completely necessary, just like it wasn’t necessary for me to use it in this sentence.

      • So here’s the thing, Caleb. “Those with discernment” is a very loose operational definition. And that gets to the very heart of what I’m talking about in this post. There seems to be a genuine lack of consensus amongst evangelicals. Where as some see a “lack of discernment,” others are saying “you don’t know my audience.”

  8. lamehousewife says:

    One of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has a character that uses a foul language in an attempt to get his mule to move, but after someone wants to condemn him, another character points out that he didn’t mean the curse, he just wanted the right action to occur. Unfortunately, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, so I can’t remember which one. The main point for that character was about the will behind the language (good or ill). I can also say that I’ve met some extremely generous people who are not refined in common language courtesy. They are willing to die for you and me. That’s where the heart should be.

    • Good morning Lame Housewife,

      Before I respond, let me just say that I stopped by your blog and read the article on why you named it as you did. Very cool piece.

      So here’s my question to you. You concluded your comment by suggesting that if someone is willing to die for us, that reveals a heart that is where we should all be at. And to some extent, I agree with you. But what about the call for Christians to be holy and set apart? Is there value in our lives looking markedly different even in how we use language?

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know how you found this site, but I’m really glad that you did; and I’m really glad that you took the time to comment. These are the sorts of discussions I am really hoping to foster. Blessings.

      • lamehousewife says:

        Absolutely…to not be walking or trying to walk the path of holiness is a Christian abnormality. All Christians are called to holiness because that is love! However, external qualities can be misleading. Another example I have comes from my Grandpa. He wasn’t too good about keeping language appropriate (not suggestive in joke and nonsense, mind you, but he spouted once in awhile since he was very expressive), but he was always the first to respond when someone was in need. Many of those who talked “purely” reacted slowly, if at all. They hardly seemed alive…hearts not beating??? Is this the case for everybody? By no means. Some people who resort to that kind of language are manifesting where their hearts really are, but others…? Don’t get me wrong, I want my own boys to try to avoid the rated “f” expressions, but there are far more serious things, like adultery, abortion, etc., that are higher on my priority list on what I am teaching them to avoid because those kill the heart even faster, deeper, and longer. There are many optimistic, smiling people who are doing some really rotten things. The Modern Family has deeper issues than language that they are showing.

        • Interesting that you mention “Modern Family” have “deeper issues than language.” Given the disposition of the parents, I was surprised that the watchdog group chose to highlight the issue of language.

  9. Caroline Zak says:

    Swear words, in general, just really really bother me. This post, however, made me wonder why. I guess it’s because they make me feel offended. Hearing people swear is almost the same as feeling like they’re chucking rocks at me. I think that swear words also just tend to have a violent ring to them, and like many have been saying, they just have alot of power. (Proverbs 12:18- reckless words are like a sword.)
    So I would say that 99% of the time…it’s better to hold your tongue. Maybe, however, there’s a time and a place for their power, such as your example to Josh above. Sure seems hard to draw that line though!!

    • Morning Caroline,

      Honest question for you: does swearing necessarily fall under the category of “reckless words?” Like I said in my post, when I quote somebody or when I quote a phrase that is commonly used in society, I do not do without thought as the word “reckless” implies. I am making a distinct choice to reflect society back to itself and I am making a choice to have Christians face the culture in which they reside. How many movies have you seen with all sorts of swearing in it? Probably hundreds at your age. And most of us, at this point, are so numb to it that we don’t really think about it. But all of a sudden, when I actually type the word “fuck” in a post, ears ring. It makes people stop and think. And that’s really the point. What makes that point even sharper is the fact that I don’t use that sort of language in my day to day life. So when I do use it in a quote, it stands out because it is in contrast to my normal behavior. In some ways, it can be a very effective tool.

      So what do you think? Honest question. Am I being “reckless?”

      • Caroline Zak says:

        I see what you’re saying.
        “Reckless” words would seem to be words that are thrown around carelessly, as if you don’t know the weight of what you’re saying. But if someone is quoting a swear word or using one because they acknowledge its power, maybe that’s not reckless anymore.
        So to answer your question I would say you aren’t being reckless.
        Hmm…..ok. good distinction.
        To answer your other question, I, (after my “oh” moment,) think that swearing doesn’t necessarily fall under the category of reckless words, but they are usually USED recklessly. Would you agree?

        • I believe almost ALL language is used “recklessly.” I think ours is a society that gives very little thought to the power of words. We tell our kids that everything they do is “great.” We describe a movie as “awesome.” We turn up our nose at brussel sprouts and say, “I ‘hate’ vegetables.” It’s the artificial inflation of language leaving us with almost nothing to use when faced with truly extraordinary circumstances. As for “profane” language, I think almost all of it is reckless and artificially inflated.

  10. Bob Bryant says:

    I hear language all day long and every day where I work. Quite frankly, I don’t even blink at hearing someone say “fuck you” or any other way that the word gets worked into the sentence. My point is, when language gets overused and saturates conversation, much like it does with the young people I work with, it looses its power and meaning. It really reflects more of a general laziness and lack of education than anything else. I believe however, that there is great value in cleaning up one’s language, as it is a larger reflection of what lies in the soul. In regards to holiness of one’s language however, I think that the topic is much bigger than just the buzz swear words in our culture. We are created in the image of God to create and build up life, and when we destroy and tear down with the words from our mouth, we take life away and are living contrary to the image of our creator. This can be in gossip, stereotyping, crass jokes, etc, and not just in a few one syllable favorites.

  11. I agree with what Caleb said. Sure, the Bible specifically tells us not to use the Lord’s name in vain, but it did say not to let “any unwholesome words come out of your mouth.” I personally qualify swear words in that category. Well, name calling in general. Most people naturally think that calling someone a “bitch” is worse than calling someone a “jerk.” Sure, the person called a “bitch” would be more offended than the person called a “jerk”, but really I think name callings equally unwholesome no matter how it’s spelled. (idiot, loser, freak, etc. same negative content.)

    As much as I shudder when typing this out, I VERY colorful vocabulary a few years ago. Very. (still shuddering). It was normal to me, and yet I still felt guilty. And always wondered if any of my other “friends” felt that way.

    So…recently, my youth group had a little chat about language. After the talk, I had some deep conversations with a few girlfriends, who swear on a regular basis, how they felt after a swear word came out of their mouths. And they said they always feel guilty, but it’s such a hard habit to get out of….seriously it really is!! (but that’s no excuse). So i believe most people know, in the back of their minds, its wrong.

    I also refer to swearing as “colorful-lazy-talk.”

    Going onto Compolo’s quote, sure it brought out a good point and it makes a really think, but I didn’t really think it was necessarily for him to say that. He could have given other examples to prove the point. Very risky man. 🙂

  12. Cal says:

    Late to this conversation (and new to the blog) but I like talking about language:

    One thing which is interesting is what we call ‘profane’ which literally means common. When Scripture talks about not using ‘profane’ language, it’s saying don’t disrespect the Name of the Lord. A lot of the folks here said the same, but to a Hebrew, letting go a ‘shit’ is nothing compared to saying ‘O my God’! You just threw His name in the mud. Gosh don’t cut it.

    I use to cuss like a sailor (and was going to be marine until I was saved by the grace of the Lord) and I stopped soon after when I became regenerate. Now the Mosaic law is complete, but why disgrace King Jesus by treating Him as common when He has redeemed you by His blood shed on the cross?

    I’m a little more picky because I don’t want to treat as common things to be treasured. ‘Fuck’ takes sexuality and makes it bestial, but yeah, when someone says ‘Screw you’ there ain’t a difference in the world between the two, only a little more shock. But as followers of the Christ, why would we do either?

    One of my buds was over playing video games and he was caught in a bad situation and started saying ‘Poop, poop, poop’. I never had the conversation about it, but I thought it a bit comical. If I said ‘Shit, shit, shit’ he would may be taken a back a bit, but there isn’t difference.

    Quitting cussing has helped my vocabulary and show loving kindness, but I don’t make a distinct. I still make mistakes ( I even started writing ‘screw up’), but it’s taking that effort to walk as Jesus did which means keeping oneself from the world and treasuring Messiah.

    My 2 cents,
    Cal

  13. Cal says:

    Also:

    Ain’t it funny we call it ‘swearing’ and many avoid it like a plague, but when it comes to actually swearing (oaths and such) the same many may conveniently forget that Jesus forbid it and told our yes to be yes.

    • Welcome to the site, Cal. Don’t know how you found your way here, but I do appreciate you taking the time to join the conversation.

      In terms of “swearing an oath,” I have often wondered about that myself. If my “yes” is to mean “yes,” than that should be sufficient for you to know that I stand by what I am saying. But perhaps, publicly sworn oaths are nothing more than a reflection of the reality that our society does not live by this principle. And so we need a way of saying: “Do you really mean it?!”

      Again, thanks for taking the time to respond. Hope to see you around.

      • Cal says:

        “But perhaps, publicly sworn oaths are nothing more than a reflection of the reality that our society does not live by this principle. And so we need a way of saying: “Do you really mean it?!””

        One of the ways followers of Christ Jesus are a peculiar people 🙂 (ideally)

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