So, one million moms are up in arms over "Schweddy Balls," the, uh, gutsy, name of Ben and Jerry's newest flavor: rum-flavored vanilla ice cream adorned with fudge-covered malt balls.

One would think such an unsavory name for something that should appeal to taste not mortify it would negate the need for a boycott.

But the controversy provides an excellent opportunity to think biblically about scatological humor, which in its narrowest sense, centers on bodily excretions of any kind, or more generally, refers to any obscene humor. When it comes to humor of any sort, it's sometimes hard to tell when the realm of manners crosses into that of morals. For manners and morals are not the same thing, and the lines connecting the twain don't always meet.

I would argue, however, that the name of the latest Ben and Jerry's flavor might be an offense against manners, but it's not immoral. I'd say it's just a rather puerile example in a long tradition scatological humor:

  • Aristophanes' prize-winning play, Peace, from the fourth century B. C., includes an insult of a scatological nature to Zeus.
  • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one of the greatest literary works of the Middle Ages, has two stories that conclude on punch lines involving flatulence.
  • Within the eighth circle of hell in Dante's Inferno, where the flatterers are found, is a pit lined with stinking excrement.
  • An entire body of scholarship exists around the scatology in Shakespeare's works.
  • Perhaps the most scatological writer of all time is the conservative eighteenth century Anglican priest, Jonathan Swift. Within the body of his works is a group referred to by scholars as the "scatological poems." Those familiar only with the children's versions of his best known work, Gulliver's Travels, would likely be shocked to learn exactly how Gulliver puts out the fire in the queen's palace as well as the details about the Liiliputians' efforts to rid their land of the giant visitor's, um, leavings.
  • Another Anglican clergyman's entire novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is saturated with scatological humor, beginning with the unfortunate circumstances of his conception (humorously described), followed by an accidental circumcision when the young lad hero urinates out his bedroom window and the sash malfunctions.
  • By one account, scatology is a staple of contemporary children's films, including Mr. Popper's Penguins, Kung Fu Panda 2, and Cars 2. There's even a children's book on the subject.

Clearly, not all scatological humor is equal. Ben and Jerry are no Jonathan Swift.

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Nevertheless, eras marked by the prim propriety of the entire culture, at least within the Western tradition, are few and far between. In fact, most of the ages of man, whether ancient or modern, have had a downright celebratory attitude toward these coarser aspects of the human condition, regardless of that culture's morality. While God's moral standards are eternal and absolute, human manners careen as wildly as a stung donkey from age to age and culture to culture.

The continued influence of one particular period, the Victorian age, has caused many to equate Victorian manners with biblical morality. But the Bible actually has a surprising amount of scatology, most notably, Philippians 3:8 where Paul counts all his worldly gains to be dung, as it's rendered politely, but not-quite-accurately, in the King James Version. Here, of course, Paul isn't being humorous; he's being quite emphatic.

But sometimes scatology, as in Chaucer's tales, is just for laughs. The inability to laugh at ourselves, especially in the most undignified moments of the human experience, is probably one of the widest gateways to destruction. Granted, humor of any kind works best within the context of community. Proper time and place are important factors. Questions of taste, decorum, and age-appropriateness are significant considerations. Funny is as funny does.

Yet, more often than not, there is purpose behind the laughter. Within the Christian tradition, excrement has been long held as a metaphor for sin. Even in the humanist tradition which excludes the notion of sin, scatology serves as a blunt reminder of the more sordid aspects of the human condition. Beyond the snickers, scatological humor has much to teach us about ourselves as creatures that are both animal and spirit, daily decaying yet always reforming.

For this reason, I don't believe that the biblical admonition against unwholesome talk necessarily precludes scatological humor (although certainly it sometimes does). The works of Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare (if not the likes of various so-called "teen comedy" films) surely build up those thoughtful enough to dig beneath the surface.

Perhaps we even have something to learn from the natural offense we take at such a distasteful name for ice cream. For despite all of the scientific, philosophic, technological, medical, and social progress we've made in the human race, despite all the creams, lotions, sprays, and tissues we buy, we still sweat, urinate, defecate, bleed and excrete as much decay as our body is capable of shedding. And we still alternate between mirth and shame when confronted with these realities.

Such ambivalence perfectly reflects the in-between state of the human condition, one described by some of the most scatological and incarnational words ever written, a powerful reminder from St. Augustine: inter urinas et faeces: we are born between urine and feces.

Inexplicably, God chose One born of these same humble origins to save us—by his shed blood.

And, this is nothing to laugh—or blush—at.