Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#228 Not taking God's name in vain

Evangelical Christian culture has a specific idea of what the third commandment entails and goddammit, they won’t hear anything else.

As a participant in western Christianity you are taught that this command is supposed to keep God’s name from being spoken with disregard or irreverence. From Sunday school onward the exegesis of taking God's name in vain is usually presented without context or explanation. Christian culture doesn't tend to be overly curious about meaning and intent.

People who identify as Christians become visibly uncomfortable when God’s name is spoken with apparent irreverence. They are on you like white on rice if you say oh God or oh my Lord. “Was that in vain?” you are then asked. Many of them don’t even approve of “gosh” because it is just a substitute for the authentically vain version. Christian culture has decried the use of “omg” for the same reason. What if the “g” stands for “gosh,” you might ask? We can’t know, they say, and we must not give the appearance of evil. End of discussion.

The evangelical definition of taking God’s name in vain is so far-reaching that it has become the mainstream (secular) definition. Ask someone what it means to take God’s name in vain and regardless of their faith tradition or religious persuasion they will probably tell you that it means using one of God’s many pseudonyms in an exclamatory or thoughtless manner. Test it right now. Poll a friend or nine and they will prove this. Jesus Christ, it’s universal.

Much of western Christianity doesn't even know that the commandments were issued to the same Israelites who, when they asked God his name, weren’t given a straight answer. They still don’t have an answer. The story goes that answer was only "I Am," which is why Jews traditionally write the name as G-d. And Christian culture hasn't really publicized the fact that the commandment issued on Mount Sinai wasn’t intended to censor careless bandying about of a literal name, but rather was stating we are not to use God to justify or legitimize an action that is not justified or legitimated by God.

Getting this detail wrong has resulted in Christian culture declaring God’s position on causes such as war, marriage rights, evolution and megachurches, all while staunchly refraining from typing “omg” lest they blaspheme the name of G-d. The irony is excruciating, and they are able to keep it going as long as people don't ask too many questions.

"You say I took the name in vain.
I don't even know the name."


Simone said...

Oh my Yahweh!

amy said...

Gosh golly jee-wiz!

Sarah R. said...

Nice post, never thought of it that way. I never really did by into the whole thing though, it just seemed too trivial for God to be concerned with. Do you happen (if you read this) to have any literature you could recommend on this subject? No one ever talks about it...

Anonymous said...

I ought the reason that "YHWH" was written that way was because the Hebrew texts were not written with vowels.

Dave Thom said...

Totally correct. Amen.

Anonymous said...

You say that evangelical Christians usually present their interpretation of the meaning of not taking God's name in vain "without context or explanation." You say the culture "doesn't tend to be overly curious about meaning and intent."

Yet you have not provided any context or explanation to your own assertion that not taking God's name in vain is actually about "we are not to use God to justify or legitimize an action that is not justified or legitimated by God." How do you know that that's what it really means? Where is your context? Mentioning Mt. Sinai is not terribly impressive -- most evangelicals also know Mt. Sinai is the setting of the giving of the 10 commandments. What is your insight into the intent of this command based upon?

I also think your statement that "Jews traditionally write the name as "G-d" " is either lacking clarity or mistaken. What does "not being given a straight answer" or the fact that the answer was "I am" (which of course, was NOT the answer, the answer being recorded in Hebrew, and "I am" being only a very rough translation that many Jews, if any, would not even affirm as accurate.)

You write that "Jews traditionally write..." but many Jews, both secular and religious, follow a different practice, for differing reasons. And even among those who do write G-d, I know many who would not give the reason that you do for why they do so. I think they would supply a similar reason that many evangelicals supply for not saying "God" or "gosh" thoughtlessly, which is that this practice conveys symbolically a reverence for God.

I personally attach a meaning to this commend that I think is useful and valid but I do NOT claim to be God's original intent (this being impossible to know.) I think of it as the people who take God's name, at that time, "Israel," which means "God (El) saves" cannot take his name as their own and not act the way he wants them to. I think of it like a woman changing her name to her husband's after marriage. If she gets married and signifies this by changing her name, she should not run around acting like an unmarried woman, dating others. She should be faithful to her spouse. Otherwise, she has taken his name "in vain." Similarly, this command follows the command to have "no other gods before me" The metaphor of marriage occurs elsewhere in the Bible. God wants his people to be faithful to him, just as he pledges to be faithful to them. So "you shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain" simply means "you should not take my name and enter into covenant with me and then carry on as if you HAVEN'T entered into covenant with me."

clerestorie said...

I heard a story by Shalom Auslander on a recent episode of This American Life that described the absurdity of taking this commandment too literally. Very, very funny.

I believe there are a lot of words that should not be tossed around casually, actually, because the original meaning is trivialized, and some are as unholy as they come. Nazi, for example. I hate the term "grammar nazi," because someone who is a stickler about punctuation and usage is not going to smash in the windows and doors of careless writers, pillage their households and confiscate their valuables, take their entire families down to the writing center for questioning, and shoot them all in the head.

So I can kind of understand how some words and expressions come to be regarded reverently by people of one faith or another, and how hearing them casually tossed off can make one flinch. As in "omigod did u see kim kardashians hooker shoes what a slut!" When the name of God (whichever name is being invoked) becomes an empty epithet, it becomes uncoupled from those intangible qualities and virtues which God is said to represent.

All that aside, however, I agree with your conclusion 100%. Uttering the name of God mindlessly is far less of a transgression than doing reprehensible--one might say, blasphemous--things in the name of God, and CC is very often the site of such outrageous hypocrisies.

Anonymous said...

I have a lot to say about this, but for now, I just want to say that for a xtianity to place such importance to keeping this commandment contradicts one of their main teaching that the law was done away with and they are free in Christ. It's stupid, really.

Dave S.

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea for future post: A post inviting readers to submit topics for the SCCL blog.
Here's one I'd like to see:
Hagee-type tells anecdote about how he was on a commercial flight, and his seatmate recognized him and told him that he was a "witch" and that US witches had an agenda to promote the downfall of all "bible-believing pastors" in the US.
Yes you can't make something like that up.
Or maybe you can.
My topic: Ridiculous implausible anecdotes concocted to illustrate boring biblical point


Anonymous said...

Joel Osteen talks for 20 minutes about how he found the perfect parking place at the mall and how that is an overwhelming physical manifestation and proof of prosperity.
Other examples:
Every RA Schuller address for the past 40 years.

Anonymous said...

RH Schuller.

Anonymous said...

Similarly, as a child I had a fundie rail on about my use of "geez" as that's apparently short for Jesus. Talk about missing the point.

stephy said...

Sarah R. and Anonymous (heh), my source is the Torah and various commentaries. I won't even recommend one cause it's not too hard to find. I just ran across this article from the Wittenburg Door too that mentions it — it's under the heading "Taking the name of God in vain doesn't mean saying 'goddamn.'"


Another Sarah said...

I love the Leonard Cohen line especially what follows it in the song.

He's one of my favourite Christian philosophers.

... I know, I know, I stand by my statement.

Anonymous said...

Stephy, I think you're on the right track about taking God's name in vain. I always thought it meant to pray to God "in vain," as in praying to God because what can it hurt. Might as well give it a try, because if He doesn't answer your prayers try praying to Zeus or whomever. As in not invoking God while also praying to some other god, with the belief that one god is as good as the other.

I never thought it meant to not say "Goddammit."

Also, I don't know if you're taking requests, but I have two ideas for posts. One is the ridiculous way CC uses the word "satanic" 50 times a day. If they don't like something they just call it satanic. Everything is satanic, the chair I'm sitting on, the table, the computer I'm typing on, everything.

Another thing I've noticed is that CC people like to pretend they've been under demonic attack.If they are depressed: demons. If they act like a jerk:demons. If they argue with someone, the devil made them do it. Apparently, this gives them plenty of church cred. They even make up wild crazy stories that they even saw demons. Other CC people pretend they believe them, so when they make up their own stories the first person will pretend they believe them, too. So weird and delusional if you're not in the club.

Graeme said...

YES! *Singing my tune!*

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

"I've prayed about it and I'm sure God wants me to marry X." is the most pious variation of using God to back up something you've already set your heart and mind and loins on. :)

Throwing around casual phrases like "Jesus stepped on the gas" while getting into a series of money pit real estate projects might also qualify. But as Conan O'Brien put it, of course, I'm speaking generally.

Daniel A. Kaufman said...

You know, it really isn't that difficult to find these things out...especially with the resources of the internet.

Here is an excellent account of what the prohibition of "taking God's name in vain" actually involves, and why Jews often write "G-D". (Fun Fact: the two reasons/customs are not the same).


"Jews do not casually write any Name of God. This practice does not come from the commandment not to take the Lord's Name in vain, as many suppose. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as "in vain" literally means "for falsehood").

Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se; it prohibits only erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better.

The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God comes from Deut. 12:3. In that passage, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities. Immediately afterwards, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God."


Reverend Keyrlis said...

Totally on track with my belief that whatever superior being you believe in (be it an old white man with a beard or the combination of billions of galaxies' energies into a cohesive neural network, or just a flying spaghetti monster) is probably less concerned with the noises you make by blowing wind through your slapping-together meat flaps than the role you play in making life a more glorious experience for all those in it. Of course, I could just be making stupid humanistic observations with logic, but I've never been much on religion, anyway. Spirituality usually holds more love, less money, and greater truths than a grand room with a translator telling me what god wants.

klaudyna said...

OH MY GOD, this is a bunch of lies.
greetings from Poland :)

Alison said...

I loved this post (and this whole website). This is one of my pet peeves, i.e., Pat Robertson making all kinds of predictions and saying, "God told me ....." I think about the verse that says, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no." I even think the phrase, "so help me God," might be taking God's name in vain. With regard to blaspheming, I think that falls under another category, such as instructions about the tongue in James, and "let no corrupt (vulgar) communication ..." In my day darn and gosh were just as bad - "minced oaths" they were called. Anyway, I agree, making a questionable comment or proclamation in God's name is what is meant by "taking the Lord's name in vain."

Daniel A. Kaufman said...


Actually, if you look back to my post, you'll see that that's *not* what the prohibition means.

The commandments are part of the Hebrew Bible and were written by the Hebrews. I would think people would be interested in what the Hebrews actually meant by them, rather than what gentiles, hundreds and thousands of years later interpreted them as meaning...often erroneously.

Anonymous said...

You're right that using God to justify or legitimize an action that is not justified or legitimated by God is taking His name in vain. But that certainly does not mean that uttering His name carelessly as an interjection or as part of cursing is not taking His name in vain. His followers should take care not to do either.

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Elliott said...

Jew here, clearing up some misconceptions.

Anon, you're correct that YHWH is the without-vowels written version. It's not an abbreviation, though; the vowels that went with it were an oral tradition among the priest class and were rarely or never pronounced, and have thus been lost.

G-d is written that way for reasons more similar than not to the Xian notion of not taking the name in vain---in Jewish tradition, paper on which it's written out is not something you should discard or treat casually. (Same goes for writing on blackboards which will be erased. I bet the same ideas apply to an internet comment which might get deleted, but I've never actually looked into it!) When it's abbreviated that way, the same restrictions don't apply.

That's all by analogy with the treatment of the Hebrew Name, of course. yod-hey-vav-hey is the most serious; there are actually multiple abbreviations of *that* which are used in the same way "G-d" is for the full version. ("yod-yod" being one of the most common.) There are also spoken versions---many people refer to Adonai in services, but only say ha-Shem ("the Name") outside of them.

I'm sure there are four or five more poetic interpretations that I don't know; perhaps your "not knowing the name" version is one of them.

Joanna Hislop said...

Well, I agree with that interpretation but I think most people who actually knew & respected God would try to refrain from bandying about any words which would make others feel that they do not honour God - including any curses that are intended to replace "God". I mean, say your child - every time something went wrong - started coming out with your name as a curse, even if you had nothing to do with whatever it is. It mightn't be your real name - but the name your child calls you, the same name they call for when asking for help or talking to you etc. People who hear are going to start thinking you're not the greatest parent or that you've raised a very rude child.
It mightn't bother you personally but everyone ought to be considerate of others or the day will come when people pick on something important to you & no-one will be considerate to you. And as such, you should take care not hurt others with your words. You might think "words mean nothing" but everyone can think back to at least one time in their life when another person caused them emotional pain & thats frequently done with words. For most people that's more like daily or weekly.

Cursing of any description isn't pleasant - they are far from "just words" they have been given meaning by thousands or millions of humans who brought their use into existance. Curse words are coarse & vulgar language because those are the words society has chosen to express vulgar sentiment and that is what they mean. If every word was "just a meaningless word" then how do we communicate? Surely none of our words mean nothing? I don't see why the words pertaining to God should mean less than all others. And the very fact that society has made "God" into a curse is a mirror of how society now thinks & feels about God. Or, more the lack of society feeling about God.

It is a great shame that the greater issue been overlooked due to this minor definition however - but that doesn't make it ok. You have freedom of speech & so do I, but just because it's legal doesn't make it ok, cheating on your boyfriend is legal too for a start... And all those things WBC cult say are legal too.

As a side note, I must add that I find it a little odd that God & Jesus Christ's names are predominantly victimized - even by atheists & agnostics. Surely atheists should treat all of their "non-existant religions" with the same disrespect and apply them into everyday curse words. But you don't see many atheists flying with "Oh My Allah" & "Buddha Dammit." Yet some of the evergrowing complex & disturbing phrases about Jesus used as curses are becoming so sick you wouldn't say that about any other person.

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