Profanity and Clichés: Perhaps They’re Cousins

In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle shares a thought-provoking anecdote about a lecture she once gave at a university. In her discourse, she discussed the perils of American consumerism. At one point, L’Engle, who was a committed Christ-follower, planned to state sharply that consumerism has “screwed us over.”

Upon delivery of the sentence, however, L’Engle didn’t get the response she expected. She tells us in her book that no one appeared particularly surprised or moved that she had used what was (in her mind) a pretty crass and blunt way of communicating.

The word was commonplace. It’d lost all meaning and fell flat.

And in my opinion, this is the true crux of the problem we confront as writers, choosing whether to insert a four-letter word or fall back on the hackneyed statements such as “muttered profanities under her breath” or “yelled obscenities unworthy of print here.”

Poets and novelists, of all people, should understand that language wears out. Sentences have a shelf-life. If sentimental statements are used too often, they run the risk of becoming saccharine. And if a cliché is overly sweet, it’s sure to spoil, regardless of the truth it reflected, initially.

In the same way, “bad words” decay over time. We’ve all met individuals that have used “the F-word” as every known part-of-speech. What’s worse is when such words become disfluencies, taking the place of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.”

The net effect of both these examples is a devaluing of language. Writers and orators fall back on old chestnuts, platitudes, and thoughtless cuss words.  Perhaps, in some way, clichés and curse words are kin, both indicating an abuse of language.

If you’ve ever heard a friend whose language was typically very reserved and conservative utter a “curse word,” you’ve probably noticed you go on high alert. Likely, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end as you asked yourself what could’ve affected this person so deeply that caused them to reach for such a potent word.

It’s my belief that as a writer, we should treat unsavory language in a similar way. We ought not to abuse language. Cuss words, at worst, are profane, low-class, and utterly meaningless. But utilized intentionally in the mouths of our characters, these words can serve a purpose—illuminating a character’s inner turmoil or most heartfelt convictions.

Christ-followers would do well to remember that “risqué words” are even present within Scripture. From Saul calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” to the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon to Paul’s use of the Greek word “Σκύβαλον,” (which translates closely to “the s-word,” Source. ) it seems that the Lord didn’t shy away from strong language to prompt an emotional response in readers.

So how do we reconcile this truth with the fact that in James 3:10, we read, “Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.” (HCSB.)

The nucleus of the question comes down to motives. In the context of James letter, he’s admonishing us as believers to not curse fellow humans. Similarly, as writers, we ought to look toward the reasoning behind our own inclusion of such words. Are we attempting shock-value without redemptive purpose? Are we seeking to glorify God through the story arc and development of a particular character?

We worship a God who refuses to white-wash. He does not sentimentalize or use padded language to euphemize the wrongdoings of humans. In Scripture, he didn’t tend to edit or censor the stories of wayward people. Rather, he transformed their souls. With the Lord’s help, may our writing do the same.

Misquoting Augustine

Once, in my college years, a couple friends and I grew tired of the mush they served in our cafeteria and we headed to Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was a golden October day, and we wove through traffic while listening to music with the windows down.

As we drove along, a song came through the car’s stereo that called into question whether God exists or whether He is good. I’d expect to hear a song like this among friends who aren’t disciples of Christ, but on this particular friend’s playlist? I knew that she was a Christ-follower.

“Hey, what’s with this song?” I asked. “It’s pretty dark.”

“Oh, yeah.” She was a little defensive. “It’s a little negative. But it’s how the singer feels, and it’s honest. You know what they say, ‘all truth is God’s truth.’”

This is a prevailing rallying cry for many artists who profess to be Christ-followers. It sure sounds right. If it’s an honest feeling…how can you discard it? Aren’t we as disciples of Jesus supposed to be enamored with genuine, truth-telling art?

It’s worth looking into the origins of the catch-phrase “all truth is God’s truth.”

The popular expression is actually a modernization of a line from St. Augustine. In his treatise, “On Christian Doctrine,” Augustine writes: “Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”

“All truth belongs to God.” It’s a pithy little maxim, and undoubtedly true. But many who hold on to this gem from Augustine tragically miss the context in which he wrote. Indeed, it’s conceivable that many people who use Augustine’s quotation don’t even know that it was him who said it.

Perhaps the most vital statement came in the second half of Augustine’s sentence:

…and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, ‘when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’

Augustine understood that all truth belongs to God. But while deftly invoking the book of Romans, he also pinpointed a common error we can fall into, lest we’re discerning: If we focus wholly on fragmented “truths” without getting around to glorifying God, we’re only exercising our own pride.

So how does that play out in the actual creation of art?

I think as artists who are followers of Christ, we have two great responsibilities: 1.) to glorify God through our craft, by carefully directing others to Christ and not ourselves, and 2.) ensuring the presentation of such a message is artful, beautiful, and meaningful. The latter responsibility is a difficult one, and of paramount significance. But make no mistake, these responsibilities are numbered in order of importance.

In my opinion, falling short of these responsibilities can take on two different forms, both equally dangerous: Some artists lead others astray through their art (a sin of commission) and some artists fail to glorify the Lord through their art (a sin of omission.)

When writers, musicians, or artists dwell on thoughts or philosophies that are not glorifying to God, they commit a grave mistake. I believe this was the case in the instance of the band that was playing through the speakers in my friend’s car. The lyricist who penned that song would do well to remember what became of Job’s friends, who urged him to “curse God and die,” because they thought the Lord was not benevolent.

A good methodology for determining what content we should include in our art is Philippians 4:8, which reads “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (HCSB)

It’s pretty easy to rule out things that aren’t true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable. But the good news is that the things that these attributes do encompass are limitless. Does your 500-page epic sci-fi novel address topics of justice? Put it on paper. Does your painting showcase the pure creativity the Lord has endowed you with? Then paint it. Is your sestina, which reflects on an aspect of human nature, lovely and commendable? Write it down.

If we create something beautiful, but fail to direct others towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ, we’re only giving them part of the truth. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Half the truth is often a great lie.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in the music industry time and again. If a “Christian band” achieves mainstream success, their lyrics are often called into question. Any oblique references to Christ or the gospel seem to be quickly abandoned.

Many musicians stated that they don’t prefer to use the “Christian band” moniker, because they feel it excludes certain audiences, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that belief. However, if artists are unwilling to mention the Lord in their lyrics, interviews, or personal interactions with fans, they are likely not using their music as a vehicle for ministry.

Christ-honoring art needs to contain both compelling, well-crafted, beautiful messages, and point others, in some way, to the glory of God. With the Lord’s help, may we tell the whole truth–God’s truth–through the art we create.

 

A Case for the ‘Numinous’ in Literature

At nine-years-old, I started to fear going to church.

I didn’t mind going to Sunday School or Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather, I was very specifically afraid of entering the sanctuary each Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m., as I’d done countless times before as the son of a preacher.

The feeling was new to me. Being a pastor’s son, I didn’t dare tell a soul. It was an incongruous emotion—why, now, after nine years of worship services, was I feeling trepidation as I sat beside my mother (a Sunday School teacher, herself,) in a hardwood pew?

I knew my locale had something to do with it. A year previous, my dad had accepted his new role as senior pastor at First Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the change of scenery presented me with some elements of worship that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Though this new house of worship was within the same denomination as our previous church, there were still remarkably stark differences. Rather than singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” from slide projectors, we turned in our hymnals to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The worship leader might have mentioned the hymn number, but he didn’t need to; the congregants had already committed it to memory. Dark-stained pews and stained-glass windows lent a sense of reverence to the ambience of the sanctuary.

But over the last year, I’d noticed something deeper, somehow more surreptitious stirring below the surface each Sunday morning.

Why was it that I developed goosebumps on my forearms when the pianist thundered on the keys during “O, Holy Night?” How did the entire congregation know to rise to their feet at the exact moment the last verse of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Händel’s Messiah began?

It seemed instantaneous and involuntary, like when each of the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention on their own accord when you are confronted by the presence of something utterly terrifying.

I continued on with my predicament, unable to talk to anyone about this mysterious fear that plagued me on a weekly basis. I hadn’t a clue what caused it. All I knew was that I could feel the presence of something or someone during the crescendos of certain worship songs, Sunday after Sunday, and it petrified me.

I tried to steel myself against this overwhelming, awe-inspiring emotion, lest my cheeks flush with blood and my knees buckle. I tried my level-best, at nine-years-old to not succumb to the odd, preternatural combination of terror and mystery.

What would happen if I gave in, and allowed myself to ascend over the pinnacle of this rush of emotion? Surely, the air at that peak was too thin and rarified for the lungs of a quavering, scrawny 9-year-old boy. Doubtless, the breath in my lungs would be sucked out and I’d be undone.

 

One Sunday, in what felt like an even split between voluntary and instinctive, I let go, and in my spirit embraced this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the “fearful and fascinating mystery.” I surrendered to a sense of the presence of God in worship, and felt a sense of ecstasy unlike any other emotion I can describe.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling I felt at nine-years-old, the terror and mystery and finally, sublime joy of the moment, was defined almost one hundred years prior by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.

In Otto’s book, which, in English, is titled, The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes an insidious change that came about over the years in relation to the word “holy.” He posits that prior to the idea of the “holy” being defined only in the moral, good vs. evil sense, it also encompassed a feeling of uncanny wonder at something wholly beyond ourselves. What’s more, the earliest people to encounter God in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, knew very little of what God deemed right or wrong because so little of the Law had been given at that time. As such, their understanding of holy perhaps depended more heavily on this sense of ethereal reverence than anything else.

It is good and natural that our definition of “holy” evolved as the progressive revelation of God’s plan became apparent. However, Otto wanted to reclaim this other side of holiness. In order to do so, he needed to coin a new term. He created the word “numinous.”

Otto summarizes his new term in this way: “…it will be useful, at least for the temporary purpose of the investigation, to invent a special term to stand for ‘the holy’ minus its moral factor or ‘moment’, and, as we can now add, minus its ‘rational’ aspect altogether” (Otto 6). In his book, he goes on to describe the feeling of the Wholly Other, in which we as humans experience a sublime emotion that surpasses comprehension and fills us with a sense of wonder.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, a good deal of ink has been spilled on behalf of the numinous—and it has come from the pens of some of our greatest thinkers. C.S. Lewis, the renowned novelist and Christian apologist, wrote about the subject at length in The Problem of Pain. Conversely, referring to his experiences while under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline, Aldous Huxley wrote about a crude approximation of the feeling in The Doors of Perception. Carl Jung applied the same concept to his studies of the role religion plays in psychology.

During the course of my life, I, too, became enamored with the idea of the numinous, even if I hadn’t, at first, known there was a word for it. I delved into literature and found my favorite writers have always toyed with this concept. Scattered across their pages, this all-encompassing, nebulous sense of wonder was nearly ubiquitous.

Curiously, this is true regardless of genre. It can be found in Sci-Fi: among the pages of the novel Childhood’s End or in the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s present in the Fantasy Novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It can be found in the mystical poetry of Rumi, or even “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.

Whatever the form or genre, authors have taken a long, hard look at the intersection between the Divine and the human for centuries. Sometimes, this comes through a scene depicting literal confrontations with God. In other instances, it happens in a more oblique way: through encountering nature, or marveling at the vast infinitude of space. In either case, the concept of the numinous has had a profound effect on human thinking since the start of recorded history.

It is my earnest belief that in terms of emotions, there is no feeling more noble or exultant than the numinous. In Scripture, before Samson, the judge, was born, the Angel of the Lord visited his parents to give them specific instructions regarding the boy’s life. Manoah, Samson’s father, asks the name of the Angel of the Lord. His response is a question in and of itself: “‘Why do you ask my name,’ the Angel of the LORD asked him, ‘since it is wonderful,’” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Judges 13:18). The Hebrew word for “wonderful” here is transliterated as “pili,” which is also rendered as “incomprehensible.” It’s nearly always used with the connotation of a perception that is too lofty for humanity’s grasp.

I believe that this statement by the Angel of the Lord alludes to (among other things) this sense of the numinous—the grandiosity of God which can’t be measured or condensed into a mortal’s understanding. Similarly, it’s mentioned in Solomon’s writings that God “has also put eternity in their hearts,” (Ecc. 3:11). This hints at the sense of yearning for the infinite that humankind is endlessly fixated upon.

And so, I’ve found, that since my first brush with the numinous as a nine-year-old in the pews of the burgundy, brick church, I’ve been preoccupied with the numinous—not just as part of a worship service, but also as a means of approaching God through writing. As I sit down to write, I’m constantly trying to scratch away at a paper-thin wall between myself and my Creator.

What you’ll read in my work is the culmination of that pursuit of God. My hope is that those who read these poems, stories, and essays will encounter a sense of the numinous, just as I, the writer did, while writing them. This feeling is not the destination in and of itself, but rather it serves to point us to a paradoxically intimate and transcendent God.

My hope is that through the written word, you will find yourself grappling with ruminations on what it means to be human, with your relationship with God, and with your interactions with those around you. And perhaps, somewhere along the line, you, too, will glimpse the numinous.

Errant Thoughts: On Art

Anthropology has taught us that societies can’t focus on the arts until the basics for survival are met. It isn’t until one has a roof over his head and a full stomach that he can allow his mind to drift toward leisure.

Psychology agreed, citing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to back the claim.

But Art says this is all fatuous nonsense. Art welcomes the refugees in its hallowed halls.

Flip the Hierarchy on its head, Art says.

She’ll yield to your bidding only when you turn to her before meeting the requirements of existence. Put her first and she will be your muse, in the tradition of Anne Sexton, Vincent Van Gogh, the slaves’ spirituals, Lamentations, the poetry of the Exiles.

Writing Spaces

Writers are often known for their eccentricities. Tics, personal habits and odd rituals of writers and artists have all come under the scrutiny of many a biographer. It seems, at times, the one thing writers might have in common is their idiosyncrasies.

An easy aspect many writers like to control is their work space. Writers’ particular needs in regard to their surroundings can often become the stuff of legend. A rumor once circulated that Ernest Hemingway required 20 perfectly sharpened pencils before beginning writing in the morning. However, when asked about this, he said he doubted he ever owned 20 pencils at one time. He did, however, always begin writing in the morning so he could warm up (both literally and metaphorically) as the sun rose.

For many people, writing spaces reflect a part of their personality. Some people need absolute order if they want to produce their best work. There won’t be a Bic pen out of place. For others, chaos helps get the creative juices flowing.

Many artists prefer their work space to be a sort of sacred ground–surrounding themselves with sentimental mementos, symbolic objects, and photos that invoke their muse.

In my life, my writing space has changed throughout the seasons and circumstances I find myself in. Once, my writing routine was to drink a large cup of Sumatra coffee, pace the living room while listening to music, and then sit at the dining room and write out all my ideas. Another time, I did almost all of my writing in my car in the 30 minutes before and after work.

What about you? What are your writing routines? Do you have a specific setting you require to write well?