Bonus: Giving a &*%$
But cussing in the movies is a different problem. In part one of this series, professional critics and readers discussed cinematic nudity. Some avoid even being confronted with it. Others turn away. Still others don't think twice about it. Many struggle somewhere in between. Does bad language in film carry similar cautions and prohibitions?
Critics on Cussing
Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "To demand from our movies and from our unsaved friends that they not curse is to destroy the Gospel message: We preach that Jesus can transform the soul, but we expect people to reform themselves before they even approach us. We should instead hold ourselves to Paul's exhortation to 'let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,' and by example show that we have no reason to cuss or offend; neither need we engage in hateful denouncements, idle chatter, and backstabbing gossip, which unfortunately have been blights on the church throughout history."
Rich Kennedy (Lansingh's colleague at The Film Forum) also sees many Christians walling themselves out of their mission field. "To avoid profanity and vulgarity is to almost universally cut yourself off from the world around you. You give yourself some small respite from what you believe to be dishonoring to God, but you shut yourself off from what your neighbor is trying to say. You demand that your neighbor talk to you only in a way that you deem acceptable and … he may refrain from sharing what is on his mind sometimes because of what he might think will offend you. Just as believers are starting to engage and thrive in the world outside 'Sunday morning,' whether in academia or popular culture, evangelicals are trying to craft … a 'pure' subculture … expecting outsiders to come to them on their terms. … From an aesthetic point of view, the avoidance of profanity and nudity for their own sakes is to cut yourself off from sources of truth, beauty, profundity, and poignant cries for help. This is just as bad as the embrace of profanity and vulgarity indiscriminately."
Kennedy finds two examples of profound but profanity-laced art in the works of Richard Pryor. "Pryor's concert films of the late '70s and early '80s are priceless performances of unique insight and truth … breathtaking examples of masterful storytelling. They are redolent of casual profanity and vulgar topics. To edit or censor these films would eviscerate them. They communicated profound truth. … They say much about Pryor himself and his peculiar fragility at the time. The monologues about going to Africa for the first time and of how Jim Brown rescued him from his addictions still bring tears to my eyes upon recall after 20 years, for their poignancy even as they are funny."
Matthew Prins (The Christian Century) has not found cussing to be a very contagious disease for discerning adults. "I have a bit of a needle phobia. I hate getting blood taken, and I hate shots; if either of these are necessary, I get lightheaded. [If] I see someone taking intravenous drugs on-screen … am I tempted? Do I want to start shooting up cocaine? I have no reason to swear, I don't foresee ever wanting to swear, and seeing it flickering 20 feet tall isn't going to change that." When he considers the example he sets for others, he adds a condition: "If I had a child, I'd have to rethink this all."