Friday, May 10, 2013

As I drive home on the 35E from St. Paul to my home, I am greeted by a huge Billboard from local station My Talk 107.1 which has a picture of Lindsay Lohan and the caption, “The Radio Home of Train Wrecks.” I “know” Lindsay Lohan in a passing way, as I have seen Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, but I suspect the people who made this billboard “know” her as well as I do. It seems cruel to publicly humiliate a person, but I suspect the argument would be that she is a “public figure” and her behavior and persona are so well-known that she is a fair target for this sort of “lack of empathy for the bad behavior of celebrity,”  a citation from a letter written by a representative of the station. I suppose radio stations will do what radio stations do, but the sort of gossip and slander underlying this billboard ought not to be on the lips of Christians. And our culture is saturated with it.

On the other hand, I do not “know” who Amanda Bynes is, that is, I have never heard her music, if she makes music, or seen a movie of hers, if she indeed makes movies, but I have come across mockery and gossip about her on social media. Did you know that she got topless, smokes so much pot that she talks to herself in a secret language, shaved her head and was sentenced to three years’ probation for driving with a suspended license?  What’s wrong? No, not with her, but with us?

Amanda Bynes
Why do we talk about these young women (and men also) in such hurtful terms? Most of us do not know them, and the vast majority of us do not belong to their families or close circle of friends, but these are the only people who ought to be speaking about Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes and numerous other “train wrecks,” because these are the people who ought to care for them or ought to have their best interests at heart. I know, this is naïve: public figures, such as actors, athletes and musicians, have made a terrible quid pro quo, that if we  give them money, fame and (fleeting) cultural power, we get to know about them and talk about them however we choose. Unless, of course, we opt out of the system, as Christians ought to do.

For the gossipy speech about celebrities and the reality stars who give up their morality on television for our pleasure and titillation, all for the sake of a cheaply bought fame, is only one way in which this plague hurts us. It is only the star struck tip of the iceberg of chatter that we carry on about people we do know. I am not talking here about the need to discuss friends and family members among those who love them, because I think we can all distinguish between discussing someone in order to mock or shame them or in order to help them change their life or just to enjoy their idiosyncrasies and unique ways of being.

Who or what put me onto this rant? The Bible, particularly the letters of Paul.  Sometimes you can read the Bible for a lifetime and all of a sudden things leap out at you as if you have never seen them before. In studying the letters with my students this semester, and preparing a talk for a Methodist Church on the passages dealing with homosexuality in the New Testament, it struck me how often Paul (or a reasonable facsimile, depending upon your views of Pauline authorship of his letters) talks about our speech. That is, Paul spends a lot more time discussing what’s above our chin than what’s below our belt. I am not dismissing concerns regarding sexuality and the Bible, but what if we paid as much attention to how we speak about each other, including how we speak about each other in Church, as we do about who sleeps with who? How would our conversation change if we poured over Paul’s passages on gossip and slander? (I omit the many other passages from the Gospels, Catholic Epistles and the rest of the New Testament.)

In order to keep it manageable, I will only give a Top Ten List of Paul’s "How Not to Talk about Each Other" List:

10. In tenth place is 1 Timothy 3:11 and the word diabolos, which is someone who engages in slander; according to Louw and Nida (434) it could mean in this verse “gossipers.” Here it describes either wives of deacons or female deacons – “Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers (diabolos), but temperate, faithful in all things” – though this word is not applied in general only to women.

9. In fact, in ninth place is 1 Timothy 1:13 and hybristês, one who insults in an arrogant manner, which describes Paul himself as a persecutor of the Church.  In 1 Timothy 1:12-13 Paul writes that “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a hybristês. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Though hybristês is often translated as “violent man” or “man of violence” it can have a sense of a man with violent, insolent, rude and insulting speech.

8. There is a tie for eighth place, with 1 Timothy 1:6 – mataialogia – which refers to idle discussions and meaningless talk – and Titus 1:10 – mataialogos – one who engages in empty, idle talk; an empty talker, or foolish babbler. Certain men Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:6 have wandered away from true doctrine “and turned to meaningless talk (mataialogia).” While Titus 1:10 says that there are rebellious people “mere talkers (mataialogos) and deceivers.”

7. Seventh place gives us 2 Timothy 2:16 and kenôphonia: foolish talk, empty talk or talk which lacks significant content. Paul tells Timothy to “avoid godless chatter (kenôphonia), because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.”

6. 1 Timothy 6:4 jumps into sixth place with its use of logomaxias, or a desire to argue and fight about words. In this passage, Paul talks about those who turn to false doctrine and such a man “is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words (logomaxias ) that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions.”

5. Fifth place gives us another tie with blasphêmia  in Colossians 3:8 –“But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language(blasphêmia ) from your mouth” - and Ephesians 4:31 – “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander (blasphêmia ), together with all malice.” Blasphêmia can be used to describe speech against God, of course, but it can also mean “to speak against someone in such a way as to harm or injure his or her reputation” (Louw and Nida, 434).

4. 2 Corinthians 12:20 gives us katalalia, which means to speak evil, insult or slander: “For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander (katalalia), gossip, conceit, and disorder.”

3. The bronze medal goes to 1 Corinthians 3:3 and erizô, which means to differ in opinion with hostility and antagonism. So Paul writes that “you are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling (erizô) among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”

2. In second place, a solid silver, though in a less crowded field it could easily take gold, is loidoros in 1 Corinthians 6:10, one who engages in reviling or slandering others. What ranks loidoros so high is that it comes in the midst of a passage that includes slander along with sins that are often seen as more significant:

“9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers (loidoros), robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

I will offer a post on the words “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” in the near future, but for the time being, is it surprising to find slander on this list?

1. Finally, the gold medal! Is it a surprise that we find these words in Paul’s opus Romans? Romans 1:29-30 has psithyrismos and katalalos; the first word describes a person who shares harmful and hurtful information about a person as a gossip; the second word defines a person who engages in speaking against, slandering or insulting someone. Paul writes of those who have turned away from God as “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips (psithyrismos), slanderers (katalalos), God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents.” Surprised to find these words on a list with “murder”?

Keep in mind that this is only a Top Ten list and each item on the list represents a different word in Greek for malicious speech designed to harm, insult, gossip and ignite quarrels. This is also limited by referring only to the Pauline corpus. I find it interesting that proper speech, and I do not mean grammar, mattered so much to the early Christians. Let’s keep this in mind as we talk about those we have never met, but feel we have the right to judge, and those we know well, but still do not have the right to discuss except in order to speak the truth in love.  

Best wishes to all of you and best wishes to Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes, whoever she is. I hope the people around them speak with them honestly and truthfully and with love. But this is not just my billboard to them, but to all who are abused with words:  “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus 3:2)

John W. Martens

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


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