Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Michelle Wolf, Crass Speech and the Prophetic Tradition

The Twittersphere has been on fire after the White House Correspondents Dinner and comedian Michelle Wolf's acerbic truth telling. I'm a little late to this party as I've been reflecting on her words, the broad reactions, and in particular the reactions of fellow Christians. I've been watching many Christians expressing offense at her "crassness", her "language", her "mean spirited attacks" and how "unchristian" this all is. Meanwhile ...

Flint still doesn't have clean water and Sarah Huckabee Sanders still lies.

What is annoying to this priest is how pearl-clutching Christians have such utter ignorance of the crass language in the prophetic tradition of their own Bible. Don't believe me? Well, sit back and hold onto those pearls.

Let's look at Isaiah - the prophet who spoke hard truth to the leaders of Israel who wanted to "Make Jerusalem Great Again" while exploiting the poor and oppressing the foreigner (sound familiar?). Isaiah to told them to knock this off or they would be destroyed and then said, "See, I told you!" when Jerusalem was sacked (SparkNotes version). Of course, later he spoke of restoration, but there was a whole lot of judgement and truth telling first. Consider Isaiah 64:6:
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
The underlined words in Hebrew mean "menstruation covering". That's right - the bloody, discarded rags women once used in the "pre-Stayfree" days.

Now before you get all caught up in your own "EWWWW GROSS!!" reaction to that (and no, menstruation isn't gross, but that's another post), think about how Isaiah's original audience would have reacted. It was crass. It was rude. It was offensive language in polite society - and that's exactly what telling the truth is. Was it mean? Perhaps. Was it provocative? Absolutely. Provocative speech is the realm of prophetic when it wakes you up and gets you out of your spiritually anesthetized state. Did Isaiah's hearers get pissed off at him? Very likely.

Now let's turn to Paul, the prolific letter writer of early Christianity. He wrote a letter to a little church in the city of Philippi. In that letter he trotted out his Jewish pedigree:
...circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)
Yeah, sounds like he was pretty impressed with his CV, but then he says this:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ ... (Philippians 3:8b)
Only ...

He didn't say "rubbish". Going back to the Greek, he said (pearl clutch trigger warning):
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ ...
OMG! Paul said "shit"???!!! Absolutely he did and if you didn't know that, it's because your sanitized English translation cleaned up Paul to make him presentable for your delicate sensibilities. That Greek word skubala only occurs one other time, in the apocryphal book Jesus, Son of Sirach and it still means shit.

Was that offensive? Maybe. Paul was, after all, writing to a church full of ex-military guys so maybe they just got a good laugh out of that in church. Was it provocative? Absolutely. He was making it clear he had totally changed in Christ. I kind of miss my seminary professor who charged us to read this passage from Philippians in seminary chapel just as it was written because, "You'll never get away with that in any church."

Which brings me to the problem. Christians who don't understand the role of crass language in the prophetic tradition failed to see the truth-telling Michelle Wolf did. They get caught up in her style and totally missed her substance. Did I like everything she said? No. I thought her crack about abortion was cavalier and showed a lack of respect for life (and FWIW, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and rare - but that's another blog post). BUT, she did some serious truth telling to an utterly morally bankrupt power structure whose lies and corruption are undermining our democracy.

Michelle Wolf had the nerve to speak truth to the compulsive lies Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells to cover up a president who is anything but a Christian. She had the audacity to call out the press for its complicity in using the antics of President Trump to sell papers, because if it bleeds it leads. If you as a Christian are more upset with Michelle Wolf because she was "crass" and "mean" than you are with the moral bankruptcy of our political leaders and their phony-ass Nationalism wrapped in a paper-thin veneer of Jesus talk, then you are part of what is wrong with the Church right now. You are seriously misunderstanding the call to speak truth to power. Perhaps you want a Jesus who won't challenge, provoke and upset you. Let me remind you that people who don't challenge, provoke or upset others never get crucified.

Jesus taught us the truth will set us free but he neglected to add that first it will piss you off.


Barbara Bruneau said...

Your post has been featured in the RevGalBlogPals "Friday Festival" this week. You can find it on the RevGals website I would have tagged you on the post in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group as well, but I don't have any other name for you than "Snarky Anglican."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...