Language Provides Lens for Social AnalysisMike Massar
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 4:37 am

I am certainly no prude when it comes to profanity, but I was taken aback by the crudeness of the dialogue. … I was haunted by what this has to say about our society these days, Massar writes. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

I attended the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts several years ago, and the professor of my screenplay-writing class took pains to warn me about it ahead of time.

Knowing that I was a minister attending the course to study the comparisons between writing sermons and screenplays, she said to me, “Mike, in this seminar there will be a lot of scenes written and read that have profanity in them. I hope you won’t be too offended.”

I responded that I was a guest at the film school, and I fully understood the need for freedom of expression.

I also mentioned that I worked my way through college in the oil field and so had not led a sheltered, ivory-tower existence.

I was reminded of that experience last weekend when I went to see Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County.”

I had read several of the movie’s reviews and thought I was somewhat prepared for the sad story line. The truth is, I was not.

The movie is one of the most depressing movies I have ever seen. And what made it even worse was the language employed.

There was hardly a conversation that wasn’t laced with some of the most vulgar profanity you’ve heard anywhere.

I am certainly no prude when it comes to profanity, but I was taken aback by the crudeness of the dialogue. Over the weekend, I was haunted by what this has to say about our society these days.

As I reflected on the film, I remembered an article that David Brooks wrote in The New York Times last May, noting how language is changing and what that seems to say about us.

Brooks said that a number of recent studies have been conducted based on a Google database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008.

The studies reveal that in the last half-century, individualistic words have been much more prevalent than words connected with community.

For example, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “unique” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently than words and phrases like “community,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good.”

Brooks also noted a study where researchers found that words and phrases associated with moral excellence were on the decline.

“Virtue,” “decency,” “honesty,” patience,” “compassion,” “faith,” “humbleness” and “prudence” have all declined in use, along with words of gratitude, such as “thankfulness” and “appreciation.”

In concluding the article, Brooks said, “Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.”

Brooks’ insights, coupled with my movie experience, have left me a bit unsettled.

What does our language say about us? And, in thinking about the church, what does it have to say about our faith?

Why have words and phrases like “surrender,” “confess,” “reverence,” “take up your cross” and others diminished in the expressions of our faith?

I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to start paying closer attention to the language I use and what it might be saying about me and my faith. I hope you’ll join me.

Mike Massar is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La. A version of this column first appeared in UBC’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.