I recently finished a book recommended by a friend, written by a person famous in the entertainment industry. Doesn’t really matter who it is, it was just that the writing was out of the normal genre I like to read for pleasure, which in our local library is classified as “inspirational”. The great majority of these books are published by Christian publishing houses, so there are fairly uniform standards as far as the use of offensive language is concerned. With only a couple of exceptions, I have come to expect that I won’t be reading words that I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking.
The book I just finished didn’t have the same standards, and even though the language was tame compared to what you hear in even some G-rated movies, I was still bothered by it. I sometimes wonder why this is, because if you had known me way back when, you would know that I did not always hold myself to such high standards. I pushed the limits in my language, mostly for peer acceptance and shock value inside my family as a college student. And even then, it left me feeling unsettled.
It probably wasn’t until I had my first child that I realized that there were little ears listening to every word that came out of my mouth, even the ones said in frustration or anger, and he was going to learn how to respond to other people and life’s curve balls by watching how his dad and I chose to respond. It was at that point that I made a conscious choice to guard my mouth. To not let any foul language pass my lips (not that it never runs through my mind), and twenty-four years later I’m still holding to that pledge.
You would probably laugh at the words considered cuss words in our house, because my kids have grown up knowing they weren’t allowed to say them. My theory has always been: set the bar really high, because even if you don’t hit it all the time, you are usually way ahead of what many people settle for.
So don’t try calling someone “stupid” in our home, and don’t expect to watch a movie without me talking loudly over the language and saying, “That’s not nice!” Which is really funny, because I’m not a particularly “nice” person. Good, but not merciful. Still working on that one.
And that doesn’t mean my kids have the same convictions that I do. My older ones have been through college and learned that most people’s standards are way lower than our family’s and they have chosen to make use of a more colorful vocabulary than I would choose. Ironic, because we are big conversationalists, and we all have generous storehouses of words to choose from, so why resort to the base and nasty?
So, back to the book. I always ask, in a case like this, if the story warranted the use of strong and disturbing words, and some rare stories actually do use them sparingly and pointedly to show extreme desperation. But for the most part I think writers throw them in, in place of finding a more exact way of saying what they mean. And not really meaning what the word’s definition would be saying about their story.
This was a rather light, fluffy tale, with token religiosity that fell flat instead of uplifting or informing, in fact it poked fun at God for the sake of the plot. I don’t ever want my name connected to that kind of writing, popular as it may be. I also don’t want my children to ever have a memory of me using words that may help me blow off steam but wouldn’t help work out whatever the situation was that led me to let loose with a stream of profanities.
Like the old Verbal Advantage ads said, “Words mean things.” And what words we choose to say – and read – say a lot about us. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else because my language is cleaner; I know my heart is just as guilty as the next person of falling short of God’s perfection. But I will aim for that sometimes nearly impossible bar of keeping the words that come from my mouth out of the gutter. And the same goes for the ones I put into my head and my heart.
So, my once-a-year-or-so foray into the everyday fiction aisle has shown me again, that it isn’t easy to keep clean. That my choices are limited to a little bitty section of the library, that I sometimes resort to rereading old favorites if nothing new appeals. But the rewards are greater than I think I can imagine. This obedience to Philippians 4:8 helps me guard not only my mouth, but my heart. And that’s a worthy goal.