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Friday, February 8, 2013

You Cannot Use the Word ____ In a Christian Book!

Eric Drooker. Source
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I performed a Google image search of "Christian family." I found the photos, above, typical of Christian websites. These folks are so blindingly white ... not just their skins and teeth are white, their clothes and walls are white. 

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I performed a Google image search of "Paterson, NJ," the city I live in. I found the photo, above. These folks are Christians, too. 

Some years back I was watching a televised discussion about the existence of God. I felt compelled to email the atheist participant. To my great surprise, he responded. Our exchange continued for a year. We debated the existence of God, and we fell in love.

Two years after our relationship ended, I wrote "
Save Send Delete," an account of our email debate and affair. It was an act of courage for me to argue, in the book, for my Christian faith. I am an imperfect and unorthodox Christian. I actively support gay rights. I am a feminist. I am critical of the Catholic Church that baptized and educated me and that collects my donations in its weekly baskets. I lay claim to no Christian celebrity. I possess no snapshot of myself with the pope. I don't even have a photo of myself with my parish priest. What right do I have to argue for Christian faith?

Upon reflection, I realized that it was my very imperfections, unorthodoxy, and plebian status that might lend value to my work. "Save Send Delete" isn't about the Christ, or the Christianity, of power, perfection or piety. "Save Send Delete" is about one flesh-and-blood seeker's encounter with Jesus Christ.

I sent the manuscript to secular publishers. They attacked. I received a typical rejection from the publisher of a small but trendy house, one with one of those offbeat and pretentious-in-its-lack-of-pretentiousness names, something like Used Handkerchief Publishing or Chipped Coffee Cup Press. Or maybe it was the one with the outdoorsy, New Age label – Clouds of Bodhisattva Books or Cougar's Spit Ink.

This trendy publisher's rejection leaked more corrosion than an abandoned car battery. This was a practically audible email, with its own volume – eleven – and its own pitch – fever. It's a truism among writers that literary agents, editors and publishers have no time. Once they reject your work, you are not to linger in their inbox, not to send any follow-up messages, and not to expect any. I sent a follow-up message: "Having a bad day?"

He wrote back. Immediately. More outrage. It's Christians like you, he insisted, who stone gays, and prevent evolution from being taught in schools, and burn witches.

"It is?" I responded. Just those two, two-letter words were enough to bait him into a page and a half of fresh outrage.

I wrote back. "May I help you?" You bet he wrote back. Five times.

I began sending query letters to Christian presses. I received equally impassioned but differently reasoned rejections. One publisher sent a lengthy letter praising my writing. He said that "Save Send Delete" "emasculates" atheist arguments. But then he brought the hammer down, in a sentence I don't think I'll ever forget. "You can't use the word ____ in a Christian book."

My first reaction – had I used the word ____? I checked. There it was, on the third page of the manuscript. I suddenly remembered a previous rejection. That one had said that people like me didn't do Christianity any good, and "I recoiled from the stunt you pulled on page three." At the time, I was blank. What "stunt" on page three? Now I understood.

In the 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," about the lives of impoverished Irish immigrants, young Francie Nolan submits to her teacher writing assignments that describe her own, real life. "Poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly," this teacher tells little Francie. "We admit these things exist, but one doesn't write about them…The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty, always…stop writing these sordid little stories."

Francie must look up the word "sordid." She discovers it means "filthy." She is crushed.

I felt like Francie Nolan. I'm also the child of immigrants. I did not realize that snooty Christian editors, my presumed social superiors, would assess my natural speech patterns as "filthy."

Ephesians 4:29 counsels against "foul" language, but, it continues, speak "only such as is good for needed edification." Colossians 4:6 says, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one." Each of these verses emphasizes that speech must be honed to fit its context. The Amplified Bible makes this most clear in its translation of Ephesians 4:29: proper speech "is fitting to the need and the occasion."

I'm a working class girl from New Jersey. We use the conventional swearwords more than many other demographics. These are basic words that translate, variously, as "Ouch," "I'm shocked," "Listen," or "Nonsense!" Used judiciously, these words are not foul, but, rather, serve excellently for needed edification. We value grace in speech, and we value the seasoning, the salt.

In 2005, Princeton University Press (in New Jersey!) published Prof. Harry Frankfurt's book entitled "On Bullshit." Frankfurt and Princeton argued that no other word could have communicated exactly what "bullshit" communicated. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," said Mark Twain. Words are power, power Christians are commanded by God to harness.

If Christians decide not to mention, when mention is called for, a given aspect of life, their speech is not edifying, it is not seasoned with salt. Jesus modeled this in his longest recorded conversation, the conversation with the Woman at the Well. In John 4:18, with the mercilessness of a film noir antihero, Jesus states the erotic facts of this woman's life. It's hard not to be shocked by his bluntness, but it is his bluntness that causes her to state, in the very next verse, "I can see that you are a prophet."

After the rejection that accused me of pulling a "stunt," I thought of the graphics on the webpages of Christian publishers. Puppies and kittens. Ponies and daisies. Soft focus and airbrushed. These warm and fuzzy graphics communicated Christianity-as-Barcalounger, Christianity as a soft, fat piece of furniture one could occupy when one wanted to feel sheltered and smug.


I thought of the view outside my window. I see garbage, a bar, gang members. I see my neighbor, a single mother from the Dominican Republic, with determined gait, heading to her job as a nurse's aide. I see her fatherless son, obese, leaning on a fence, far from any playing field, on his face the resignation of a caged animal, a life-form suspended by boredom and neglect till death or explosion.

I thought of the vocabulary necessary to converse with my students about their most pressing concerns. My students don't approach me to have urgent, one-on-one conversations about puppies or kittens. These conversations never require multi-syllable, abstract, Latin nouns: sola scriptura, actus purus, transubstantiation. My students need to talk about pain, and the obscene vocabulary of abuse, betrayal, and exploitation. They need to confess to the orgy at a tacky Route 3 motel, the boyfriend who impregnated, the girlfriend who teased, and then ran. They need to talk about mom's boyfriend who takes her daughter into the basement of the public housing complex and rapes her. They need to disgorge the words that name the unique nausea caused by the deaths of those who should not die. Nice words need not apply.

If Christians quarantine this vocabulary, they relegate these conversations to non-Christians who are all too ready to use these words. Atheists don't have any problem using the vocabulary needed to talk about sex or pain or bodily functions. And so my students, if turned away by me on the basis on of the inadmissibility of necessary words, would simply turn to atheists.

This relegation of discussion of the most intimate, the most intense, the most telling and testing moments of life to non-Christians is both tragic and farcical. If Jesus does not belong in that basement with that inner city girl being raped, Jesus does not belong anywhere.

Billy Graham used the word ____. Pope John Paul II used the word ____. Mother Teresa used the word ____. They've used the word, either out loud or internally, because it names an escapable part of life. Since we all know that we've all spoken, or at least thought, the word, a public pretense that we have never used it, or that we live on the planet where this vocabulary word is not necessary, suggests that we require phoniness in order to be Christian.

Thomas Friedman tells us that the world is flat and crowded. Technology places office workers in Kansas into competition with office workers in Bangalore. Technology also places Christianity into instant competition with ancient traditions like Hinduism, invented ones like Neo-Paganism, as well as atheism. Only a Christianity vital in its authenticity will survive these debates. On this playing field, we can't afford to anesthetize our language. We need to be able to address the panoply of human experience, as did Jesus himself.


This essay appears in the February 8 - March 14 issue of The Ryder magazine. 

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