Shocking language

There’s been something of a kafuffle over shocking language, electronically communicated, lately.

What interested this pewsitter was the idea that somehow we are too respectable to use certain language. Too respectable? Too good to use some words?

There will always be debate about what words are okay to use. In the same month that the word ‘penis’ was too strong for one suburb, one of the English language’s two strongest swearwords was used across town – in a sermon.

And the word bloody, as in where the bloody hell were you last Sunday – made one church notice board famous for more than its fifteen minutes.

This column is not about that. (Asbestos paper was ruled too expensive for the new look Southern Cross). But publicly decrying a robust use of the English language carries the risk of being seen as wowsers. Banning primrose talk leaves one prim.

There is the risk of ‘gnatstrain’. Not to be confused with ‘groin strain’ (the standby story for sportswriters) but rather concentrating on the miniscule and losing the big picture.

And the risk of being grey rather than colourful.

That seems wrong. Because to the world we are – or ought to be shocking.

Because we are shocking. We preach a scandal.

Even the idea of god is shocking to our society that claims to be free but is looked into a debased and grey conformity.

Against that background the power and love of god is passing strange.

The otherworldliness and strangeness of our God is hard to capture in language. It takes a genius. Like John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne Holy Sonnet XVI

Just what is Donne saying God is up to here?
Like Donne we need to set alight the dry tinder of the gospel in our society.
Being provocative is one good way of puncturing the cage of respectability that is what is left of the colonial status we once had.
The most provocative we can be often is not to use challenging language but to state old truths that have become today’s new obscenities to today’s new wowsers.
Sometimes it is stating the obvious. For example: The Bible and the Quran disagree on whether Jesus died on the cross. They can’t both be true.
Donne’s Sydney successor as Dean is back in the controversy business. I don’t know if he knew there was an Australian Associated Press reporter with good shorthand in the cathedral on Good Friday, but it was a good story that got a good run. It probably means some reporter will lose his or her holiday next year too.


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