Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Theology of Invective

         I can see no other way.
         We must learn once more to confront nonsense in all its forms and to call things by their real names.  We must learn that euphemisms are lies and that patience and gentleness sometimes do no good.  Worse still, they often do injury.  Count on it, when you treat a fool with nothing but kindness, he remains a fool.  If you pat him on the back and stroke his ego, he does what any fool does:  he mistakenly concludes that everything is alright with him, rather than realizing that you are simply being kind to ignorance the way you are kind to all other forms of poverty.
         We must revive the ancient and honorable art of invective, which is to language what justice is to law -- a means of giving people what they deserve.  What some of them deserve is a good kick in the pants.  This article, therefore, is dedicated to telling the fools to bend over and grab their ankles.  The beatings will now commence.

The New Testament

         If, like me, you are a Christian, you often encounter brothers and sisters in the faith who are, to put it plainly, well-intentioned but mush-minded invertebrates.  They seem unwilling and unable to grasp with clarity or conviction that some things are wrong and some are wicked.  Even if they could grasp that fundamental truth about the world, they lack the courage to call evil and error by their real names.  They do not understand that, if you fail to call evil evil, then you are treating it no differently than you treat goodness, which you do not call evil either.  The only thing they seem able to oppose publicly is that small collection of Christians who speak forthrightly, Christians who are less afraid of giving offense to the offensive than they are of aiding and abetting wickedness and error with sloppy and unjustifiably lenient language.
         This will never do.
         We Christians rightly recognize Christ as the very embodiment of love.  But Christ was no bleeding heart, and He was no invertebrate.  The "gentle Jesus meek and mild" never existed.  He is a nineteenth and twentieth century fiction.   The historical Jesus was another matter altogether.  At various times, and when the situation demanded, the real Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs and dirty dishes.  He actually referred publicly to one of his chief disciples as Satan.  So that his hearers would not miss his point, He sometimes referred to the objects of his most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. 
         No doubt His doing so made the invertebrates around him begin to squirm because they realized how offensive this tactic would be to outsiders.  Nevertheless, Jesus persisted.  He did so because He knew better than his jellyfish camp followers that alluding to heinous acts, and to those who continue to practice them, in only the most innocuous and clinical language does no one, least of all the offenders themselves, any good.  I cannot say it forcefully enough:  Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant.  Others He often addressed with the most withering invective.  God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that his listeners found deeply offensive.  He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice.  I deny that we can improve upon the rhetorical strategy of Him who was Himself the Word, and who spoke the world into existence.
         The objection raised by the invertebrates that Jesus spoke aggressively only to self-righteous Pharisees simply misses the point.  Any sinner who rejects repentance, or any sinner who holds repentance at bay because he somehow believes it is not for him, is self-righteous.
         Paul talked the same way. 
         Although his invertebrate comrades probably considered it offensive and indelicate of him to do so, Paul did not hesitate to suggest to several churches -- publicly, plainly, and in writing -- that his many detractors ought simply to emasculate themselves (Gal. 5: 12).  If you believe that circumcision makes you right with God, he argued, why not go the whole way and really get right with God?  If Lorena Bobbitt was reading the Bible on the night that made her famous, this was the verse she read.
         Furthermore, in the same letter, (in fact, in the space of but three verses) Paul twice refers to his Galatian readers, the very people he is trying to convince, as fools (Gal. 3: 1, 3).  Subsequent events indicate that his shocking words, though clearly offensive, were not ineffective.  The Galatians chose to follow Paul rather than the Judaizers, whose tactic was, in Paul's words, to "win the approval of men," the very tactic urged upon us so indefatigably by the invertebrates -- though never in gender specific language.
         In short, if the religion and practice of the New Testament offend them, the invertebrates need to argue with Jesus and Paul, not me.

Christian Literature
         Furthermore, like Christ and his chief apostle, the greatest Christian writers of the Western world also refused to subscribe to the principle that language deeply offensive to one's readers or listeners ought always to be shunned.  Neither the greatest writers of Western tradition (such as Dante, Erasmus, Milton, and Swift) nor the best of the present day permit their language to be censored or vetoed by the hyperactive sensitivities of the spineless.  Great writers select one word over all other words because that word, and that word only, most fully conveys their meaning, and because that word, and that word only, can best be expected to produce the author’s intended effect.  That meaning and that effect are occasionally, and sometimes intentionally, offensive.

The Rules 
         Verbal precision, not inoffensiveness, is the traditional hallmark of the West's best writing and the West’s best books, some of which were deeply and intentionally offensive to great numbers of those who first read them.  Dante's Inferno consigns a number of Catholic notables -- including popes -- to Hell.  Erasmus's Praise of Folly excoriates monks and theologians as a shameless and squalid mob.  His Julius Excluded locks Pope Julius out of Heaven because he was an adulterous, blood-thirsty, syphilis-ridden, mammon hound.  Some of Milton's political pamphlets and poetry are, among other things, timeless handbooks of insult and invective.  Great portions of the works of Jonathan Swift constitute a veritable scatologist's Bible.  These works and many like them would never have been written or published had the modern preoccupation with inoffensiveness been then the controlling consideration.  Because that preoccupation now prevails, these books and many like them are being harried out of the literary canon.  In other words, the guidelines according to which the invertebrates want us to write are guidelines that not only would have radically recast many of our culture’s great books had they been followed, but would have prevented some of them from ever being written at all.  Had modern guidelines been previously in effect, they would have banished many of our civilization’s most important and memorable texts far more effectively and extensively than has the politically correct curriculum at Stanford, Harvard or Oberlin.

Freedom and Virtue
         Invertebrates cannot comprehend that despicable conditions inevitably arise in a fallen world.  Those despicable conditions sometimes require us to employ the language of shock and of confrontation in our unflagging efforts to push back the frontiers of evil and error.  But the spineless do not like it when we do.  They want to police the way we speak.  They want, literally, to erase words from our language.  I have been told by one Christian professor, whom I like and whom I respect, that there was never a time when shock language was right.  Such language, I am asked to believe, ought to be eliminated.  But though others delete it, I shall not.  The fewer words you have at your disposal, the fewer thoughts you are able to think or to articulate with full precision, and the fewer points you are able to make with your desired effect.  When the range of words is small, the range of thought is small and the power of speech is diminished.  In that sense, word police are thought police.  The invertebrates want to put you under arrest. 
         Language, like liberty, is not normally lost all at once.  It slips through our hands a little at a time, almost imperceptibly.  Don't let it happen.
         Slang words and shock words have their legitimate use.  Sometimes the right word is a slang word or a shock word because no other word conveys your meaning as fully or as accurately, and because no other word elicits the response you desire.  Sometimes the right language is language that falls beyond the pale of polite discourse –- but not of virtue. 

1 comment:

F G L said...

I totally agree with this view. I am only affraid that if we, as human beings, so easily can be wrong in our theological presuppositions and conclusions, or even in our spiritual and moral concscience, and therefore it is usually wrong to use an offensive language when speaking to (or about) other people. When it is about grave moral matters and things are clear, it is better to name the evil evil. Living and vertebrate people have to answer "answer the fool according to his folly", but surely not in a foolish manner (Prov 26:4-5). My appreciation. God bless you.