Christopher Nolan is keeping a tight lid on his Inception film slated for theatrical release this July. Ellen Page has already advised, “Don’t try to find out about the movie,” and the teaser trailer released last summer is pretty cryptic. The new trailer has a lot more but doesn’t lift many veils… the only thing clear is that it looks good.
I am pleased to announce that Jeremy F. Hultin of Yale Divinity will be discussing his recent book, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, in a video that will be uploaded as a link to this blog. Dr. Hultin is now welcoming questions for this video. If you have read his book, or even my review of it (the book is temporarily out of stock at amazon), please feel free to ask questions or raise concerns in the comments section of this post. Questions should focus on the use of, and perception of, obscene language in the ancient Mediterranean, whether in a pagan or Judeo-Christian context. I will keep this post towards the top of the blog for the next couple of weeks until sending the questions to Jeremy for his video. This should be fun.
Look out everyone, Michael Bird has come out of the closet with his true personality. Jason Staples defends himself too. It’s funny, I’ve never had to be ashamed of my introversion. (Or perhaps occasionally, but didn’t care enough about what others thought to work up the shame.) While the INTJs are rallying under Michael’s banner, INTPs like me are bound to take this business more lightly.
For instance: I much enjoy alternate interpretations of the 16 personality types. According to this one, INTPs like me and Stephen Carlson are Eggheads, while the zillions of INTJs flocking under Michael’s post are Outside Contractors. See the complete listing below. Do we have any Crackpots (ISFPs) in the biblioblogosphere? Surely some Conspiracy Theorists (INFJs)? Jim West would be our National Enquirer Headline (ESFP) in terms of blog persona (though certainly not real life, if his envious diatribes against all sorts of natural sex are an indication). Cult Leaders (ENFJs)? Watch for these folks the next time you scroll through your feed reader.
ENTJ: The Evil Overlord
ENTP: The Mad Scientist
ENFJ: The Cult Leader
ESFJ: The Control Freak
ESTJ: The Bureaucrat
INFJ: The Conspiracy Theorist
INFP: The Idealist
ENFP: The Scientologist
ISTJ: The Thought Police
ESFP: The National Enquirer Headline
INTP: The Egghead
INTJ: The Outside Contractor
ISTP: The Psycho Vigilante
ISFP: The Crackpot
ISFJ: The Martyr
ESTP: The Conman
Yes that sounds offensive, but it’s supposed to, coming from Quentin Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds has been released on DVD, and readers will recall from my review that it’s a masterpiece of absurdist revisionism in which Jewish American soldiers and a Jewish French woman bring down Hitler in a cinematic hell of lead and fire.
I want to talk about my favorite scene: the identity-guessing card game in the basement tavern, La Louisiane. The menacing Major Hellstrom explains the rules. He has joined a table of “German officers” (in reality a group of Ally spies, the “Basterds”) because one of them speaks with a suspiciously sounding accent. Hellstrom feigns camaraderie and suggests they play a game so he can smoke out what’s really going on. It’s the most suspenseful scene of the film (even more, I think, than the opening scene praised by countless critics), but there’s a lot of Tarantino-stuff going on under the surface. When Hellstrom emphasizes that the names people write on their cards can be “real or fictitious, it doesn’t matter”, it’s a sly commentary on the director’s approach to filmmaking. Inglourious Basterds, like all Tarantino films, is preposterous fiction, but it doesn’t matter. Its talons rake into you, affecting as any historical reality.
Back to the game: Each person at the table writes the name of someone famous on his or her card — again, real or fictitious, like Confucius or Fu Manchu. The cards are then placed face down on the table and moved to the person on the right. Each person picks up the new card without looking at it, licks the back, and sticks it on his or her forehead so that everyone at the table can see the name on it. Everyone then takes turns trying to guess the name stuck on their foreheads by asking up to 10 yes/no questions.
Major Hellstrom goes first, and his name is King Kong. He asks the following questions:
1. Am I German? (No)
2. Am I American? (No… you weren’t born in America)
3. Ah… but I visited America? (Yes)
4. Was the visit fortuitous? (No, not for you)
5. My native land, is it what one would call exotic? (Yes)
6. Hmm, that could mean the jungle or the Orient… Am I from the jungle? (Yes)
7. When I went to America, did I go by boat? (Yes)
8. Did I go against my will? (Yes)
9. On this boat ride, was I in chains? (Yes)
10. When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? (Yes)
So: Am I the story of the American Negro? (No!)
Well, then I must be King Kong. (Yes!)
The fact that both answers are equally correct based on the questions posed suggests more inside commentary: fiction being on equal footing with fact. Hellstrom’s first guess is something real, but the “right” answer isn’t, a clever apologia for Tarantino’s directing style. The parallel between Afro-Americans and a mythical beast feared, hunted, and slain — coming from the mouth of a Nazi officer — is also ingenious. And the fact that Hellstrom seems to cheat by guessing twice after using up his ten questions, while no one protests or seems bothered by it, is probably another signature: this is a film director who cheerfully breaks rules in telling his stories, but does it so well that we don’t notice until we stop to think about it.
If there’s one thing I learned from reading Jeremy Hultin’s book, it’s that I would have been a poor recipient of the letter to the Ephesians. I may not be as vulgar as N.T. Wrong in an academic context, but I do enjoy healthy doses of profanity and obscenity in the right company, and the author of Ephesians is austere enough to shun humor in its lightest shade on top of foul language. Clement of Alexandria was pretty cheerless too. But that’s enough by way of editorial preface.
Hultin’s book, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, is an in-depth study of a fascinating subject which I’m surprised hasn’t received more treatment up to this point. There are five chapters, the first surveying foul language in the ancient world: laws against slander in the Greco-Roman world, the use of foul language in religious rites (to engender fertility and ward off malevolent forces), in poetry and comic drama (to entertain and provoke thought), and literary obscenities. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, however, believed that foul speech was lowly and slavish. The second chapter focuses on the Cynics and Stoics, the former of course priding themselves on vulgarity, shitting in public, and other forms of active assault on convention. Stoics took a more abstract approach, initially indifferent to foul language on grounds that getting upset over words was philosophically hollow, but later breaking away from Zeno on this point and teaching that nature demanded a certain modesty in one’s choice of words.
The other chapters take us through the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we’ll look at these more closely. Chapter three covers the Torah, the prophets, wisdom literature, the historical Jesus, the epistle of James, the Didache, and Paul. Chapter four — the book’s argumentative high point — takes on Colossians and Ephesians, the only New Testament authors who directly address foul language. Chapter five concludes with Clement of Alexandria.
Starting with the Torah, Hultin notes that biblical law nowhere addresses the decency of language per se. There are prohibitions against false witnesses (Exod 20:13), false oaths (Lev 6:3), blasphemy (Exod 22:27; Lev 24:10-16), using the Lord’s name in vain (Exod 20:7), and cursing parents (Lev 20:19; cf. Prov 19:20), leaders (Exod 22:27), or the deaf (Lev 19:14) — and that’s pretty much it (p 113). The prophets occasionally criticized how people spoke but focused on sins rather than speaking obscenely. Thus Isaiah declared that God was mad at Israel when every mouth spoke folly (Isa 9:16). While rabbis later explained Isaiah’s “speaking folly” as indecent language, the term originally referred not to obscene speech, but leading people astray with senseless and irreligious language (i.e. “religious errors”) (p 113).
Indeed, the prophets sometimes enjoyed using foul language to lambaste Israelites for idolatry. Isaiah said that the Lord would leave the daughters of Zion with scabs on their heads and their vaginas laid bare (Isa 3:17; 7:20). Ezekiel depicted unfaithful Israel as a loose woman, not merely stating that she was interested in men (as the RSV puts it, “you offered yourself to every passer-by”), but more explicitly, “you spread your legs” (Ezek 23:20). There is the curious question of how to translate a passage like Ezek 8:17. Is Ezekiel saying that Israelites are “putting the branch to their nose” — or, more deliciously, a “phallus” or “fart” to their nose?
Moving to the wisdom literature, Hultin outlines an increased concern for inappropriate speech. Proverbs commends silence, good words, discretion, and then warns against scoffing, babble, deceit, gossip, rashness, and slander. Bad consequences are seen to be in store for those who offend the powerful by speaking in these ways. But as Hultin points out, “given the concern to guard against every slip of the tongue, it is striking that Proverbs nowhere addresses ‘foul language’, which, as we have seen from Greek and Latin sources, clearly had the potential to offend.” (p 121)
Only in the book of Sirach do we finally get a warning against foul language, the first comment on this type of speech from a Jewish author (p 122). After warning against habitual swearing (oath-taking) (Sir 23:7-11), the author condemns “lewd stupidity” and “words of reproach” (Sir 23:12-15), which Hultin sees as referring to vulgar or indecent speech at a banquet (p 126). Sirach says elsewhere that the way fools talk, laugh, and abuse is offensive, sinful, and grievous to the ear (Sir 27:13-15; cf. 20:19), and at a banquet one must be careful of what one says when “the great” are present (Sir 32:9). It is in this area of concern — modesty, propriety, decorum in feasting — that Sirach warns against “lewd abuse”.
Hultin turns then to Jesus, based primarily on texts in Matthew, and it’s not always clear to me that he distinguishes the historical figure from the Matthean one. This Jesus condemns abusive speech in the form of insults: to call someone ῥακά (“empty-headed fool”) is as serious as murder (Mt 5:22) and will send one to Hell (Gehenna). “But although such a teaching would effectively exclude the angry use of the obscene vocabulary, it is obviously not a comment about the offensiveness of foul language per se.” (p 133) Curiously, Hultin has nothing to say about the way Jesus broke his own rule with a vengeance. If the fourfold gospel testimony is remotely reliable, Jesus thrived on foul language in the form of invective. γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν (“brood of vipers”, literally, “snake bastards”) was one of his favorites learned from John the Baptist — to call someone the illegitimate heir of a snake was about as low as you could sink in antiquity, and it further implied that one was a parent-killer (since vipers killed their mother during birth). That doesn’t necessarily make the Matthean dictum of Mt 5:22 unhistorical, I think, because the text speaks of insulting one’s brothers (insiders). In good honor-shame fashion, Jesus heaped vile insults on his rivals and foes, but not his friends and followers.
Jesus’ general lack of concern for defiling speech can be seen in his sweeping prohibition of oaths (Mt 5:33-37), assuming again that the Matthean Jesus can be trusted. Sirach and Philo — who are also appalled at habitual swearing though don’t go so far as to prohibit oath-taking entirely — speak about the impurity of filling one’s speech with swearing (p 131), but Jesus (or at least the Matthean Jesus) isn’t concerned with the potential impurity of swearing.
Hultin points out that nothing in the gospels directly addresses the decency of language (p 128). The infamous passage of Mk 7:15,20/Mt 15:11,18 claims that “what comes out of the mouth defiles”, but the catalogs of “out-of-the-mouth” vices (Mk 7:21-22/Mt 15:19) include sins which have little or nothing to do with what is spoken. As Hultin says, it would have made sense if the gospel writers said something like, “It is not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person — lies, gossip, cursing, slander, perjury, lewd humor” (p 129). The lists of sins speak more to the heart (which Mark and Matthew, of course, try connecting to the mouth, but not too convincingly) and in effect have more to do with what one does than what one says as being defiling.
Turning to the epistle of James, we find an author who had plenty to say about sins of the tongue. Like the Matthean Jesus, he prohibits oaths entirely. But he goes leagues further, claiming that “the tongue is itself a fire, set on fire by Hell itself, a restless evil and deadly poison” (Jas 3:6-8). It’s the one thing on earth remaining untamed by man, unlike the wild animals of God’s creation (?!). “Unlike the rest of creation, the tongue is immune to domestication… Hell uses peoples’ tongues to set creation on fire, and their bodies are defiled as the flame passes through their mouths.” (p 135) While James never mentions obscene language or foul speech, he undoubtedly would have found it offensive in view of the fact that he was appalled by any sort of cursing (Jas 3:9) and laughter (Jas 4:9). As Hultin emphasizes, he is rather unique for making speech a cosmic issue (involving Hell and creation), “placing the tongue at the center of the struggle for religious purity” (p 136) — different from Proverbs, Sirach, or the Didache which emphasize the ethical consequences of inappropriate speech.
Speaking of the Didache… The document addresses perjury, false witnesses, evil speaking, dishonesty, how to speak to slaves, cursing, and foul language. In Hultin’s view, the warning about foul language in Did 3:3 first functioned in the context of Jewish instruction, was later incorporated into the Two Ways, and was then brought into the Didache and other Christian documents (pp 138-139). In Did 3:1-6 we see that anger leads to murder, lust to fornication, obscene language to adultery, omens and astrology to idolatry, lying to theft, and grumbling to slander. So adultery is the inevitable outcome of being foul-mouthed and a “lifter of the eyes” — meaning those who leer or give ogling or seductive winks — which ties speaking lewdly with sending non-verbally lewd cues. The Didache thus represents the first Jewish or Christian warning that foul language actually leads to sexual sins.
What about Paul? The apostle from the seven or eight authentic letters never addresses foul language, and in fact some scholars think he enjoyed using foul speech like the Cynics. (1) Most infamously, he claims that his Jewish heritage is σκύβαλα when compared to the revelation found in Christ (Philip 3:8). Most English bibles translate σκύβαλα as “rubbish”, but it properly means “excrement” (the King James gets it pretty good with “dung”), and some experts believe it had the register of “shit” more than “feces”. Hultin argues this isn’t the case. The word σκύβαλα was frequently used in medical texts and wasn’t perceived as indecent. For Paul to compare his Jewish heritage to excrement was obviously offensive in the extreme, but the word σκύβαλα itself wasn’t offensive. It wasn’t the ancient equivalent of our modern “shit” or “crap” (see pp 150-154). (2) He also hopes fervently that advocates of circumcision would castrate themselves (Gal 5:12) — in the context of North Galatia an allusion to the cult of Cybele, whose priests were castrated. This isn’t foul language per se, though it’s certainly crude and coarse (see pp 148-150). Hultin’s conclusion is that there is little evidence to suppose that Paul had a “foul mouth”, and thus Colossians and Ephesians are doubtfully reacting to Paul in the way later Stoics reacted to their founders Zeno and Chrysippus. “However unpleasant he could be, by the standards of his time, Paul was not lexically indecent” (p 154).
Turning finally to Colossians and Ephesians (written by different Deutero-Paulinists), Hultin addresses the only texts in the New Testament which deal directly with foul language. Here’s the first:
“But now you must get rid of all such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and αἰσχρολογίαν from your mouth… Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Col 3:8, 4:6)
Hultin points out that αἰσχρολογίαν is often translated misleadingly — “filthy language” (NIV), “filthy communication” (KJV), or “obscene talk” (ESV). While it’s true the term could refer to lewd speech, it could also mean “abusive speech” (NAS) or “abusive language” (NRSV), and the context of Colossians favors this. There is no sexual reference in the above passage. The salt reference, moreover, was a synonym for humor or wit. The author of Colossians is thus advocating the use of humor to win people to the gospel, and only condemning abusive speech — aligned perfectly with anger, wrath, malice, and slander, the other vices condemned — not sexually obscene speech.
Hultin’s contrast between Colossians and James helps illuminate the point of view here. In Colossians speech is a thing of the earth (Col 3:2,5), not Hell, with nothing to suggest that the tongue is an unconquerable adversary. Colossians allows for a broad range of positive uses for the tongue, including humor, where James demands silence (Jas 1:19). “Blessing God was the tongue’s proper function, but even reference to that activity just reminds James of the horrible fact that the same tongue also curses (Jas 3:9-12). Where James expresses reservations about teaching (Jas 3:1-2), Colossians commends it without qualification (Col 3:16).” (p 167) So while the deutero-Paulinist condemns foul language, it’s only a particular kind — angry outbursts of slander — and he has far more faith in the tongue than James does, even encouraging wit and humor.
Here’s the passage of Ephesians:
“But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among holy people. Entirely out of place is αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (Eph 5:3-4)
Hultin argues that the best translation of αἰσχρότης is “ugliness”. In and of itself, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to speech, though in a context followed by μωρολογία and εὐτραπελία it probably does refer to “ugly speech”. For μωρολογία is “stupid talk” and εὐτραπελία is “wit”. The author of Ephesians is thus condemning ugly/obscene talk, stupid/drunken talk, and (shockingly) clever wit. On this last, a thorough survey of contemporary writings (Philo, Jospehus, Aristotle, Chrysippus, Plutarch, Plato, Isocrates, Polybius, Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, others) shows that εὐτραπελία was universally understood as an admirable and endearing talent (pp 190-194). Why is Ephesians so hostile to it? To appreciate the way this blanket condemnation would have sounded to the ancients, Hultin draws on the antonyms of εὐτραπελία: “austere”, “inhumane”, “humorless”. Are these really what characterize good Christian living for the deutero-Paulinist?
Hultin tries to play fair ball with Ephesians in translating εὐτραπελία as “facetiousness”. Taken together, αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία might then be a judgment on “obscene, stupid, and facetious wit” (p 195). But as he himself acknowledges, it would have been just as easy (and far more clear) to condemn “obscene and stupid buffonery”, or even to contrast “ugly wit” with “charming wit”. Hultin’s other suggestion is more plausible: Ephesians is “trying to encourage the creation of serious personae, to outdo the Catos and the Pythagorases of the world”, indeed, “aspiring for a community so serious that it will not tolerate any form of drollery at all” (pp 195-196). The deutero-Paulinist doesn’t offer an avenue of positive humor which should take the place of ugly jokes. He presents thanksgiving as an alternative to all joking.
In this sense — and now Hultin is on the right track — Ephesians shares a lot in common with the Essenes. The Rule of the Community also contrasts foul language with thanksgiving (I QS X, 21-23), and also prohibits silly or light talk. Both I QS and Ephesians (2:19-22) imagine God to be present in the community on analogy with the way the Hebrew Bible presents God as present in the temple (see pp 198-206):
“For the author of Ephesians there is no need to explain what foul language might lead to. It is simply out of place. It is not fitting for holy ones. He and his readers might have agreed with Didache 3:3 that lewd talk could result in illicit sex. He and his readers probably knew, along with Sirach 23:12-15 and a host of pagan and Greek moralists, that such talk might lower them in the eyes of others. But Ephesians does not give these reasons any more than Leviticus explains why a priest with a physical defect cannot enter the sanctuary… Foul language [αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία] and even light language [εὐτραπελία] were inconsistent with the believers’ holiness, and were inappropriate in God’s holy presence.” (p 205)
So completely unlike Colossians, we have in Ephesians the vision for a rigidly austere community, devoid of humor.
Hultin’s book ends not with Colossians & Ephesians, however, but Clement of Alexandria, who of course wrote more about foul language than any Christian before him. I could almost blame this guy for our Puritanical heritage in the western world; he makes the bible look pretty moderate (which I suppose most of it in fact is), and this despite his enthusiastic citations of texts which barely support his extreme views. With Hultin I’m astonished that Clement never quotes Didache 3:3, since it is this text which makes the precise point he’s so hell-bent on proving — that foul language leads to sexual immorality. (He cites plenty of other texts from the Didache.) It’s also amusing to see Clement’s fervent opposition to foul language matched by his insistence that there is nothing inherently wrong with it. “Be it from educated pagans or from a free-speaking group of Christians,” opines Hultin, “it is likely that Clement had heard the charge that concern over mere words was irrational. With his philosophical aspirations, Clement was sensitive to this charge and wanted to respond, but had to do so without abandoning his own moral intuition.” (p 229) So Clement was able to have his cake and eat it by aligning himself with the Stoics as much as the biblical authors. Though unlike the author of Ephesians who eschewed foul language (and even light humor) for purposes of sanctity, Clement shunned it for purposes of philosophical dignity, chastity, and self-mastery (p 234).
It’s delightful to read a highly esoteric work on a subject so lowly like vulgarity, and I can’t recommend this book enough. I do wish Hultin had more to say about nasty biblical epithets like “snake bastards” and “dogs who eat their vomit”, but otherwise he’s pretty thorough. I should finish with the funny anecdote in the preface, where the author mentions starting research on foul language after being asked by a friend why he insisted on “so regularly dropping the F-bomb”. Hultin then asked his pastor what he made of Col 3:8 and Eph 5:4, to which Pastor X replied something about the biblical authors’ cultural situation being different than ours — but not before wryly quipping, “Come on, man, don’t be a fucking fundamentalist” (p xvii). Obscene language may be hard for even the religious to get worked up over… but then again, maybe not. At least we know David Ker is on the same page with the author of Ephesians.
I’ve started reading Jeremy Hultin’s The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, really enjoying it, and plan to review it before Christmas. But speaking of offensive speech…
Check out Deane Galbraith’s scatalogical posts, Shitting Christ and Shitlessness in Paradise. The first concerns John Milton’s caricature of the Catholic eucharist: “When Christ’s body has been driven through all the stomach’s filthy channels it shoots it out –- one shudders even to mention it –- into the latrine.” (On Christian Doctrine, 6.560; tr. in Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism). The second is about Artaxerxes II brandishing his enemy’s feces as evidence of the demonic: “Mithridates’ vermin-laden excrement bore graphic witness to the corruption (moral and physical) of his body and the demons resident therein.” (Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire & Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2007: 93.)
Galbraith uses the word “shit” in his blogpost titles, no doubt to ensure readership, which resonated perfectly with something I read just hours before in the first chapter of Hultin’s book. Why are certain words so culturally offensive? Why is “shit” a swear but “feces” not? Linguists like Rom Harre have suggested that offensive language involves displacements so that “the social force of the expressive word is greater the further apart the contexts are from which it was taken and into which it has been inserted”, and thus “the power of bad language comes from the distance of its displacement from the original contexts of use, and in that respect, obscenity and blasphemy are typical metaphors” (Hultin, p 8).
But Hultin points out that (1) only some displaced words have this power. “Poop and shit are both ‘displaced’ when used as expletives; but poop has almost no function as an expletive, and this despite the fact that it begins and ends with a plosive, which might have made it ideal for this purpose” (ibid). Also that (2) the offensiveness of some words is actually diluted when displaced. Words like “cunt” and “fuck” are not only just as offensive when used in the doctor’s office, they can be “even more offensive when used of sex (‘he fucked her’) than when displaced (‘he fucked up’).” (ibid) And why is “Christ!” more blasphemous than “God!” when angrily shouted out in frustration?
Despite the attempts of our best linguists, there’s probably no tidy way of accounting for the evolution of obscene/vulgar/blasphemous speech. Some words are offensive because, well, they just are. It’s fascinating that some languages are completely devoid of obscene vocabulary (like Native American Hopi) and that people like the Amerindians, Polynesians, and Japanese don’t swear much at all, while Ukrainians, on the other hand, have a mighty offensive repertoire at their disposal. We’ll see what the early Christians thought about bad language when I finish Hultin’s book.