Brother Ned, say a little prayer for us

In one of the most illuminating passages in his autobiography, Here I Stand, retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong recalls the strict environment of his childhood:

But the religion of our home was quire clearly the religion of my Presbyterian mother. Sunday was called the "Sabbath" and one did not work or cause others to work on that day. The Lord's name was never to be taken in vain, not even by saying "My goodness," for that was a clear reference to God, and the phrase "For crying out loud" was said to be a direct reference to the cross. I can recall having my mouth washed out with soap for saying "gosh" and "darn."

After reading this, I find it easier to understand why Spong is so fond of using the word fundamentalism to describe what he hates. In Spong's childhood home, apparently even Ned Flanders would have been the regular subject of mouth-washings.

From the other end of the spectrum: In my childhood home, a frequent source of entertainment was hearing my father bellow into the phone, after his Cajun temper had been ignited, that someone could kiss his ass. From my mother I inherited the habit of saying "God!" to express surprise -- something to which I didn't give a second thought until my early 20s, when a friend from Moody Bible Institute suggested I probably could find a less glib way of invoking the Almighty.

All this comes to mind because of Jeffrey Weiss' report -- under the copyeditor's dream headline of "What the *^&%$#@!" -- in today's Dallas Morning News. Weiss' balance is masterful, combining funny anecdotes with insights from scholars.

Weiss explores the strangest territory in explaining the standards of TV and movies:

Broadcast TV remains more cautious than many other cultural outlets. While "Oh my God!" can be heard virtually anywhere in prime time, ads are still a blasphemy-free zone. For instance, a candy bar ad not long ago had an angry guy shouting "Great oogly moogly!"

Cable, from The Sopranos to Bill Maher, bars few if any words. Comedy Channel's taboo-shredding South Park started as an Internet-distributed short that featured a wrestling match between Jesus and Santa Claus.

Movie ratings also indicate a softening of attitudes said Jim Wall, the former editor of Christian Century, who is a longtime advisor to the appeals board of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"The ratings are designed to reflect what the rating board feels the average American parent would expect to find," he said.

So even one f-word used in a sexual context is still pretty much an automatic path to an R rating, he said. But a bunch of religious expletives aren't likely to move a movie beyond PG-13.

In fact, the official explanation of the ratings on the MPAA Web site mentions violence, profanity, drug abuse and sexual content as factors in determining ratings -- but nothing about religious language.

I do not yearn for the return of blasphemy laws, or the Hays Code, for that matter. Nor do I yearn to hear 8-year-olds hollering "Jesus Christ" during what friends of mine once called a grand mal hissy fit. Weiss' story includes one segment that helps explain the taboo thrill of certain language:

The sacred and profane are an odd pairing in most contexts, but stand comfortably together in foul language in most cultures. That's partly because they both pull concepts where polite society says they don't belong, said Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times and a researcher at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Obscenity takes bedroom and bathroom activities and drags them out into the living room, he said. Blasphemy, on the other hand, hauls heaven down into the common world.

Both feel satisfyingly "wrong" when we want to vent our frustrations.

That reminds me of an angle worth some column inches. From screen-talking galoots at the theater to chattering gossips during a church service, mass culture seems to be losing any distinction between public and private space, or between the sidewalk and the sanctuary. Why is this?

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