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FIRST-PERSON: Pondering profanity

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Back in the mid-1970s, Mary Tyler Moore uttered the expression “Oh — my — God” on an episode of her beloved sitcom. At the time, I didn’t consider it a profane use of our heavenly Father’s name. It was used as an expression of surprise and certainly conveyed no sense of irreverence toward God.

A decade later, Frank Zappa’s little Valley Girl daughter Moon Unit used the term in her tribute to San Fernando’s Generation X girls. It soon became as much a part of teen talk as “like” or “for sure” or “whatever.” Although the phrase, like the song, was done tongue-in-cheek, I was beginning to feel a little uneasy about the expression.

Shortly after becoming a critic, I began to notice “Oh my God” popping up with regularity in movies and TV shows. Still, alongside other expletives, obscenities and downright blasphemies, it didn’t carry much weight as a profanity.

Spring forward another 10 years and we find that the “Friends” cast on TV have made it a trendy catchphrase. I have heard that slang term pop up as often as 10 times in a single 30-minute episode.

Today at the swimming pool I share with others in my complex, I overheard a 10-year-old girl use the term. It went unchallenged by her parent. I suspect “Oh my God” has now become a socially acceptable saying amid yuppies and their offspring. But is it an actual profanity?

First, let’s define profanity. Over the years, all crude, vulgar or obscene language has been lumped under the heading of profanity. I even read a Christian critic’s review of the movie “Signs” that summed up the objectionable language in the film as profanity. But the truth is, there is no misuse of God’s name in that film. He mistakenly referred to the two or three obscenities, one from a child, along with the few minor expletives like “damn” or “hell” as profanity. Which, in a way, was misleading.

There is a difference between profanity and obscenity. According to New Webster’s Dictionary, obscene is defined as “objectionable or repugnant to acceptable standards of decency or morality; indecent; pornographic, offensive in language or action.” Whereas profane is described as “irreverent toward God or holy things; implying contempt of religious things through speech or action.” Although a newer edition of Webster’s waters it down a bit, the definition remains the same — “serving to debase what is holy.”

In the grand scheme of things, profanity falls short as one of the great no-nos. Right? Wrong! We are instructed in the Scriptures not to take God’s name in vain. It’s the Third Commandment. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:4 NIV).

This ruling comes before not coveting, not committing adultery and, yes, not killing.

Today, little regard is given to language, either in daily life or in the movies. Some seem to think that words by themselves are not harmful and are simply a part of our inalienable rights. But there is great power in language. And with great power comes enormous responsibility, for language not only expresses our thoughts but reveals our character as well. We should use words with discretion. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 NIV).

So is “Oh my God” a profanity? Well, it can be argued that the intent of the heart gives an expression its meaning, but because we are being scrutinized by those looking at our daily example, we Christians should use care in how we express ourselves. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV).

God is our heavenly Father, but he is also the most holy Creator. The Bible instructs us to reverence him. “Friendship with God is reserved for those who reverence him. With them alone he shares the secrets of his promises (Psalms 25:14 Living Bible). “The Lord confides in those who fear him, he makes his covenant known to them” (Psalms 25:14 NIV).

Although many people in the media and our society use his name — and that of his Son’s — as a mere expletive, let’s honor him by teaching our children to regard his name as sacred.
Philip Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Philip Boatwright