Over the past three years, I have studied Scripture in a way that I only pretended to before. Such a project has yielded quite a few surprises. Prophecy does not work the way I thought it would. The narrative has a finer point, and a more singular theme, than I assumed. And the content is not as family friendly as expected.
It is a cliché today that if the Bible was made into a movie, it would at least be rated R. We say that mostly because of episodes of violence such as most of the book of Joshua. We may even mean hints of sexual immorality in characters like Judah and David. It is well known that some graphic episodes are recorded.
This is not what I am talking about. What I mean is the words of men, speaking on behalf of God, saying things that would get them an "explicit content" warning if they put it on a CD, or a “banned” status in a church library. Not that you have noticed these things, because the English translators tend to protect our tender ears. Three passages have stood out to me, that when I have studied them more closely have shocked me at their actual content, none of which comes across in modern English translations, like say, in the ESV or NIV.
The legitimate question arises: to what degree does a Christian have the right to shock with their language and in what way? What may be helpful is to see how the Bible does so, assuming of course that the Bible is not to be condemned for its language. The point is to see what the Bible does in its language as a pattern for our own limits of speech, not to look at “naughty” parts in the Bible for shock or “giggle” effect.
We'll start off tame.
First is a familiar verse.
Php 3:8 ESV - "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."
THE IMAGE: The word translated as “rubbish” is much more specific. The word “σκύβαλον” or skubalon refers to, according to the NET note, “a vulgar term for fecal matter.” Wycliffe chose the word “turds” for his medieval English translation. A closer translation would be, (as privately explained by a Greek expert) a harsher term than crap, closer to “sh*t.” Martin Luther used an equivalent in his German translation of the Bible. (and Daniel Wallace concurs in a word study on σκύβαλον)
THE PURPOSE: Paul is using sh*t as an image of what is produced apart from Christ. It has no worth or value. It is considered to be as worthy of honor as feces. Paul does not use this image as a teenager might for the “naughty” or “giggle” factor, but to shock his audience that may be tempted to honor their works. He wants them to know their works are not just worth a little less, but worthless. As worthy as of a place in their trophy case as their excrement.
Isaiah 64:6 ESV - We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
THE IMAGE: The word translated “polluted garment” or in other versions “filthy rags” also is much more specific. The NET, again, is more literal: “all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.” BDB confirms the word translated “filthy” is purposefully mistranslated, instead means “menstrual.” The image is one of a soiled rag used during female menstration. In our modern speech, it would be more understood as “a used tampon.”
THE PURPOSE: Paul learns his explicit language from Isaiah who is using his language in the same way. Isaiah is comparing the best, the “righteousness acts,” of the people of God to something that is valueless. They have the market value of “used tampons.” Not a positive value, but a negative value. Isaiah uses this imagery to shock Israel into a re-evaluation of their own goodness.
Eze 23:19-20 ESV - Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.
THE IMAGE: The ESV extremely sanitizes the image of Ez 23:20 to the point that the translation no longer communicates the message. The translators of the ESV might as well have left the verse in the original Hebrew. Multiple words are archaicly translated or mistranslated to hide the meaning. “paramours” are concubines, prostitutes or as the ESV translates it in other places: whores. “Members” is the word that can be translated "flesh" or here meaning “penis.” And the word “issue” is so opaque as to hide the true definition: “semen discharge.” One can see why the ESV (and most other modern) translators wished to keep it vague. If your child had a book that read, “she lusted after whores, whose penises were like those of donkeys, and whose semen discharge was like that of horses” you probably would freak out a little.
THE PURPOSE: Ezekiel is a strange book to me. Revelation has nothing on it in my mind. This is one image I truly read and wonder what was the purpose. It seems nearly to be shock for the sake of shock. Yet the image does have a striking and powerful point. The point is that Israel had committed idolatry, and an image so disgusting had to be painted in order to show just how offended God was by their behavior. This was not a small matter, a small offense, something God was just supposed to shrug off. The image is of an act of adultery so shocking and vial as to make one completely sure that it was unforgiveable. The grace of God is only shocking, and loved and something to shead tears over in pursuing, and obtaining, when the weight of our own sin is personally felt, disgusting to us, and mourned.
WHY THE LANGUAGE?
In seeing three examples (and there are more in that barely-cracked OT section of your Bible), we see Paul, Isaiah, and Ezekiel using images that are hard to read, and definitely not comforting. They were not meant to be. Which pushes us to a few natural questions:
1)Why do translators protect us from Isaiah, Ezekiel and Paul's offensive language?
Is it to sanitize the Bible so as to make it “family friendly” or to purposeful hide the message? The former is almost certainly so. Modern translators are not conspiring to hide God's truth. They probably wish not to be offense to the reader. But sanitizing the Bible also has another effect. In the American church, sin is not mourned, and when it is, it is rather hated in easily identifyable and foreign terms. It is identified as the acts of those outside the church (read: homosexuality, drug use, etc.) and not as Paul, Isaiah and Ezekiel identify it: as acts of those in the church. The church could use some shocking language of their own sin.
2)To what degree should such explicit language be used by Christians communicating the kerygma?
This is a harder question. Perhaps the most famous of “shock quotes” comes from Tony Campolo who said in a few speeches:
"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 sh*t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said 'sh*t' than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
One of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, used a similar line (“give a sh*t”) in a new song of his. The question is: are Derek Webb and Tony Campolo being like Paul, Isaiah and Ezekiel?
Not exactly. I think the use is more crude with Campolo. Paul uses the word with a direct comparison. Skubala = what you value that came before Christ. For Campolo, the word is merely an explative. Phrases such as “give a sh*t” or “what the f*&$” are merely vulgar without a shocking comparison. The words do not fill in or compare to something that we are offended are being compared to it. The purpose is shock for the sake of shock and showing a comparison of your shock at one offense at another. It is comparing two sins, my vulgarity and your apathy, rather than comparing your sin to something. Perhaps a good rhetorical device, but not exactly on the level of Paul or Isaiah. I don't necessarily condemn it though, as a use in art (Webb's new song) or as a speech to a certain audience (Campolo). However it is a different question than:
Should a preacher use such language? Here, I think my answer must be yes/no. The Campolo use (shock for the sake of shock) is not the job of a preacher. Paul did not say “you don't give a sh*t about the gospel!” or “what the f*%k are you Galatians doing abandoning the gospel?!” Rather, Paul used the word to shock his readers in a comparison of values. What you value is worthless. Worse than worthless, it is feces. So too, with Isaiah. Ezekiel uses his image to show not that he can shock with language, but how shocking the sin of the people of God is, as shocking as an explicit image of adultery. When used this way, when following the text, the preacher should use explicit language to expose the hidden idolatry and shocking sin of his congregation. The Bible does so and the Bible is the text of the preacher's proclamation.
The lesson from looking at this text is not to be shocking for its own sake, at least in the pulpit. Rather, it is to be selectively shocking. The preacher must be careful not to desensitize the audience to explicit and shocking images, but to indeed expound them when presented in Scripture to the end that Scripture demands. Scripture demands we be shocked about our idolatry, sin and misguided affections. Scripture does not merely give us warrant to be shocking from the pulpit for the shear effect. So while I like Derek Webb's music, and he is free to do things in his music a preacher would not do, I would not quote it in the pulpit. Now Isaiah is an entirely different matter...