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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Reflections on the Third Commandment

I grew up in the Episcopal church which taught that the third (of the Ten Commandments) was, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

I was reminded of this recently while reading the following opinion piece by Ruth Ann Dailey in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

TV’s Jesus Fixation

Ruth Ann Dailey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MAY 30, 2021

Like many, it seems, I spent large chunks of 2020 binge-watching shows I’d missed in years when I could leave my house. For me it was Homeland, Berlin Station, Jack Ryan, Succession, Billions, River, Shetland, The Crown and, of course, The Great British Baking Show.

I was surprised to discover so much religious fervor on television.

Not on most British shows, really. You might see one would-be “star baker” fingering Buddhist meditation beads or the husband of another wearing a vicar’s collar. On The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II bonds with Billy Graham and Prince Philip explores his faltering faith with a hip Anglican priest. It’s all quite tasteful.

But on spy thrillers and crime shows, Jesus is basically a co-star. He gets many, many shoutouts. On Berlin Station, in particular, everyone is super-religious. “Christ” is about 50% of the dialogue. Usually, he has the sentence all to himself.

I’m yanking your chain, of course. Because, what the *@#&?

About 65% of American adults and 2.4 billion people worldwide identify as Christians. Some may be lackadaisical in their faith, but that’s still a whole lot of people to offend.

At a moment when people are — or claim to be — newly sensitive to the hurtful power of words, the ubiquitous, disdainful use of the name of Jesus Christ is hard to fathom. I cannot think of any similar lapse in our culture’s militantly policed vocabulary. Why this singular exception?

When one of the world’s bestselling authors asserts that there are, scientifically speaking, just two sexes, she is pulverized for offending the trans population. When a journalist muses with colleagues as to whether a podcast can quote someone else using the N-word, that journalist’s career is over.

But angrily shouting “Jesus H. Christ” every five minutes in any workplace, even fictionalized, is OK? Who decides? Social media mavens usually insist that the offended party gets to decide, but somehow that isn’t happening here.

Some who profane Christ’s name may simply be unaware of what they’re saying: A dear friend and staunch nonbeliever recently got a text from her teenage nephew asking, for the second time in days, the name of “the guy on the cross.”

She texted back, “Jesus Christ! It’s Jesus Christ!” The first mention was exclamation, the second information. Clever, but kinda sad — evidence of the failure of both the Church and public education.

But 16-year-olds aren’t the ones writing scripts for million-dollar series. The adults who do are singling out Christ for mockery. No other name is thus abused. And it isn’t limited to major media. Minor media are rife with it as well.

A popular crossword blogger assaulted thousands of readers on a lovely morning last October with a screen-capture of a puzzle fan’s Twitter feed, which read “Jesus F&%!” Not once, but twice. Both tweeter and blogger were enraged by — horrors! — some obscure content in that day’s New York Times crossword.

It’s. A. Puzzle. What words do they use when something actually matters?

Growing up in a devout home, I sometimes heard the adage, “Profanity is the conversational crutch of the intellectual cripple.” Today’s cultural gatekeepers would banish me for using the word “cripple” while those who mock Christ make bank.

It’s time to call out the double standard here and challenge “content producers” to try a little creativity instead. The British baker who exclaims, “Oh my giddy aunt!” in moments of crisis (“Dr. Who” meets Shakespeare) is way more interesting than gray-faced CIA drones spewing profanity.

In fiction as in real life, when we mock something, we’re attempting to defuse its power. We’re acknowledging, however obnoxiously, an unsettling challenge.

Today I’ll be one of billions celebrating the hope and healing found in the name and person of Jesus, the Christ. (That’s his middle name — “the.”) We’d like to share this hope with others; indeed, we’re supposed to, even when people are basically slapping us in the face.

When they do, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek — but he didn’t say how many times we have to do so before objecting. I object.

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