Back When Anathemas Really Meant Something

Last night I watched the movie Saved!, which was a lot of fun, especially if you're not looking for it to be anything more than the teen comedy it is. Other than the fact that it's set at an evangelical high school, there's really not much of religious depth going on in the picture.

But there is this one wonderfully honest prayer scene, where the 17-year-old protagonist, who has just learned that she's pregnant, finds herself in the shadow of a huge concrete cross imposed on the side of a building (not sure if it's a church or the school). She stares up at it and declares:

"Shit."

[Pause]

"Fuck."

[Pause]

"God damn."

It seems that this is supposed to be an escalating hierarchy of bad words, that the good little born again girl is declaring her rebellion against the God who let her down by saying the worst curses that she can think of. But it rings slightly hollow, because you just know that "goddamn" isn't really the king of the curse words, even if it is taking the name of Lord in vain. In the hierarchy of bad words I learned as a kid, the F-bomb was far and away at the top of the list. "Goddamn" was child's play. Just ask the FCC.

Tonight I watched the 1964 movie Beckett, depicting the relationship of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett and King Henry II, leading the murder of the former in 1170. One of the powerfully striking things about the story is the way Beckett is depicted to wield the power of excommunication as a weapon to protect the good of the church and the honor of God. When he declares excommunication against one person, and threatens others with the same fate, there's a palpable force to the pronouncements. He could scare away a man with a sword by his mere word, because that man really believed that the archbishop had the power to condemn him to hell, and knew that to be a fate worse than death.

Beckett never, as far as I remember, actually uttered the simple expletive "God damn," but that was the force of his words. He was casting the offender out of the church, and consequently out of God's kingdom, forever. And the emotional power of that declaration far outstripped the shock value of your run-of-the-mill early-21st century profanity.

Hmm. Maybe Mary was right to put "God damn" at the top of the list.

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