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In Defense of Plain Speech


Phil RobertsonPhil Robertson was already well known as the patriarch of the popular Duck Dynasty clan, but after his interview with GQ, he will be forever remembered as the man who, with an exuberance and unaffectedness reminiscent of the Beverly Hillbillies, issued one of the great philosophical statements of our time: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus.”

In 1962, when the Beverly Hillbillies debuted, Robertson’s comment would have been taken as unintended satire—a statement of the obvious, humorous for its superfluity, hilarious for its sincerity. But today, such humor is impossible. We have been culturally catechized and conditioned, 1984-style, to denounce such statements as not only false, but hateful—indeed, as borderline criminal. One would not suppose having culture nannies to instruct us that cats are dogs, and the moon is the sun, and it is not okay to laugh in response, would be a sign of societal maturity, but they keep assuring us that we have come of age.

There were two reactions to Robertson’s statement in our brave new world. One was considered orthodox, and the other heretical, and the latter was met with the immediate censure that heresy demands. Neither reaction was new, however. They have been around as long as fallen humanity, and they show up every time a society gets silly drunk on its own conceit. The reactions were the same ones the little boy received, who said, “Look, the emperor is naked!” The nobility were aghast, but the commoners were elated: “Finally, somebody said it. Thank God.”

That is the dividing line—not wealth, not faith, but cultural privilege. It is the line between those who want to maintain cultural respectability and influence, and those who have no cultural respectability or influence to maintain. The dividing line cuts right through the Christian community. The Christian cultural upper-crust and media types were highly critical of Robertson. I heard one, a Fox News analyst, say that Robertson’s comment was so vulgar and offensive that it could not be repeated on the air. Actually, you can say “vagina” and “anus” on the air. What you cannot say is any of the vulgar-chic verbiage GQ so liberally sprinkled throughout their article. But none of that seemed to bother the culturally-in-for-Jesus class.

Respectability and influence should be good things, but there is something about them in a fallen world that disadvantages one when it comes to seeing things right in front of one’s face and calling them by their proper names. That is why the conservative Pharisees found themselves siding with the liberal Sadducees against Jesus and his uneducated band of commoners. Their mutual interest in preserving social status and influence proved to be thicker than theological conviction. Let that be a warning to us.

Christian cultural leaders need to come to terms with the fact that we will never be able to express God’s design for marriage and sex in a way that is acceptable to the forces of “diversity” (which is a modern euphemism for “shut up!”). Lot’s mere suggestion that Sodom’s men spend their evening raping his daughters (!) instead of raping his male guests was enough to enrage the mob (Gen 19.4-9). Why? Lot was being judgmental (Gen 19.9). The same spirit is at work in our culture.

When it comes to what we say and how we say it, we need to take our cues from the Bible, not from the purveyors of cultural correctness. Jesus spoke to different sorts of people in very different ways. When he spoke to broken sinners, he was straightforward and gentle (John 8.3-11). When he talked with the spiritually hardened, and especially when he addressed rebellious cultural leaders, he was shrewd, often mocking, and not uncommonly brutal (Mat 21.23-27; 23.13-33; John 9.39-41).

High rebellion is always accompanied by deep self-deception, which is why societies like ours are always awash in Orwellian euphemism—calling good evil and evil good with smooth words and pretty packaging. To cut through the delusional fog, God has been known to address such cultures with graphic and shocking language:

“[Judah] lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses” (Eze 23.20).

On every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore” (Jer 2.20). 

“You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her cravingin her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her” (Jer 2.23-24).

These verses leapt to mind when I first read Robertson’s statement, which seemed to me to be the same sort of plain speech—appropriately shocking for a culture that needs to be shocked back to reality. We should keep this in mind when we are tempted to tut-tut the untidiness of Robertson’s remark.

When our society is more offended by saying what people do than by them doing it, that is a sign we are approaching end-stage, moral Alzheimer’s. As Chesterton observed: “It is the final sign of imbecility in a people that it calls cats dogs and describes the sun as the moon—and is very particular about the preciseness of these pseudonyms. To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence.”

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