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FIRST-PERSON: Digging for meaning in secularized America

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–A Christian film critic stated recently that there was profanity in writer/director M. Night Shayamalan’s sci-fi thriller “Signs.” I thought that was misleading, as my own understanding of profanity has always been the irreverent use of God’s name.

Indeed, my old faithful dictionary maintains that profanity is “irreverence toward God.” Well, there was no misuse of God’s name in that particular film. He had done what many secular reviewers do — lumped all objectionable language under the heading of profanity.

This is not meant as a slight toward my colleague and brother in Christ. He’s a good reviewer. And through my subsequent research, I have discovered that he might not be wrong.

It boils down to which dictionary you use.

When I began reviewing films 15 years ago, and examining the effect language was having on the movie-going audience, I wanted a clear-cut definition for profanity, obscenity and minor expletives. My old New Webster’s Dictionary, Modern Desk Edition had served me well since 1976 and I merely assumed that all dictionaries had a uniformity when it came to defining everyday words. Well, you know what? They don’t.

Coming across a special sale on a newer edition of Webster’s New American Dictionary, I added it to the same shelf alongside my raggedy earlier edition. For some reason, I pulled the new dictionary down and happened to come across the definition of profane. It read: “To treat something sacred with irreverence or contempt.” No mention of God, just something sacred.

Well, I became curious. I drove to one of those gargantuan bookstores (you know, the block-long ones with the cushy chairs and the adjoining coffee cafes), and went to their dictionary section. Wow, was I surprised at the different meanings for profanity the editors of these new shiny vinyl or leather-bound editions had conjured up.

Webster’s New World Compact Desk Dictionary said: “Profane: showing disrespect or contempt for sacred things.”

The American Heritage Dictionary said: “Profane: irreverence for what is sacred.” But they also added to the definition: “vulgar, coarse.”

The Oxford American Dictionary said: “Not belonging to what is sacred or biblical; irreverent; blasphemous.” It also added: “vulgar, obscene.” And then it said: “Treat with irreverence or disregard.” (And I thought, treat what or whom with irreverence or disregard? God’s name wasn’t mentioned at all in this one.)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary’s 10th Edition said: “Profane: secular rather than religious, not initiated into religious rites. Not respectful of religious practice. Blasphemous or obscene. Treat with irreverence” (again, they left out the name of God). A couple of other weighty definitional books declared coarse and vulgar as all-encompassing definitions of profane.

On the whole, the Almighty has been vetoed from the political arena, ruled out of the judicial system, dismissed from our educational classroom, and canceled from the entertainment scene. Now, it would appear that even our dictionaries are attempting to remove God from our psyche.

By studying history, we can see that many nations that once showed reverence toward our Savior have removed him from the throne and replaced him with the image of man. Even America’s own foundations of higher learning once run by Christian men and statutes (Harvard, Princeton, etc.) are now completely secularized. God allows man his follies (“A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord,” Proverbs 19:3). But there will come a time of reckoning. (“The great day of the Lord is near…. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish,” Zephaniah 1:15 NIV).

The Bible is about the only place where you can find God’s name in a contemporary bookstore these days (without it being followed by a curse). Nearly every house in America has a Bible. Is your family reading the one you have? Despite the secularization of America, let us not also turn our back toward the Most Holy God. (“But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” Joshua 24:15 NIV).

This afternoon, I came across my family’s old musty-smelling, yellow-tinged Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary, published in 1955. Hallelujah, it read: “Profane: manifesting irreverence disrespect, or undue familiarity toward the Deity or sacred things; blasphemous.” Deity! Hey, that’s God.

So, what comes to your mind when you hear the word profanity?
Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.moviereporter.com.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright