Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

Suppose Christ stands at the door and knocks.

Suppose you don’t feel like getting up to see who it is. Suppose you remain seated instead, take in a breath, and ask who’s there. Suppose too the door has a special device attached that screens words before permitting them into your home. Suppose Christ IDs himself, per your request. Pretty cool that the Lord would humor you like that.

Supposing all this, though, it follows that you don’t hear the name of God. There is instead a silence at the door vast enough to fill infinite spaces. Interpreting your continued sitting on the couch as your being indisposed vis-à-vis the door situation, Christ leaves. Christ is averted.

Words are powerful. They can establish eternal bonds, enact miracles, bestow blessings, and pronounce curses. When it comes to the reality of day-to-day human life, words are the boss. If two people are battling each other using words, chances are the one who is able to control the kinds of words both parties can use is the one who is going to hold up a severed head by the hair at the end of the battle (figuratively).

Radio makes it possible to hear other people’s words whenever you want. Christian radio uses words that will build you up and make you feel awesome and forgiven and privy to a great secret. Public radio uses words that draw you into the pleasant and noble exchange of measured opinions. Sports radio uses words that evoke the chill that zaps through your windbreaker as you sit in a remote Ohio high school football stadium.

Television has words, too. Ugly words. Despicable words. Words that should have no place in the home, and certainly no place to call home in the mind of a child. Somehow our method of hitching moving images to sounds has resulted in the degradation of both.

Thankfully, there is a strong tower for concerned parents to run to for safety. The TV Guardian hearkens back to the halcyon days before people could say swears. It is a device that you can hook up to your television to filter out objectionable words by automatically muting them. Its three settings are “Strict,” “Moderate,” and “Tolerant,” and they allow the user to configure the approximate amount of verbal garbage that is appropriate for her living room.

I saw the TV Guardian in action once. It was an older model, which meant that it had the ability not only to mute swears, but also to display captions that replaced the offending word with an alternative term.

“Alternative term” sure sounds like a stupid way of saying “synonym,” but the problem is that viewers don’t see a synonym for the bad word. They see something more like a translation of the bad word into the conceptual vocabulary of a Precious Moments figurine.

Case in point: When I saw the TV Guardian in action that one time over a decade ago at a friend’s house, we watched a movie called The Terminal. In one scene, Tom Hanks listens as Catherine Zeta-Jones laments her decision to remain involved in an affair. She wonders why she keeps seeing him. She figures it was partly because “the hugs was [sic] so good.”

By this point in my life I was a world-wise teen, and as such, I had an idea of what the line probably would have been sans filter. However, I’m curious how this mute/caption combo might have come across a decade earlier still, when I was a perceptive and pathologically contemplative child.

Without being explicitly apprised of the TV Guardian’s protective function, a bright kid would know this much: Sometimes my TV doesn’t let me hear what the characters are saying, and my experience with mom and dad’s hushed asides leads me to believe that the words I’m not allowed to hear are three things: important, forbidden, and totally adult.

Suppose our bright child, lying prone with chin on hands and illuminated in flickering TV light, figures out which word is the pinch-hitter. Suppose too he doesn’t have a very large mental stockpile of vulgarities and maledictions but does have an inchoate “cusses” category, and then suppose even further that at some point, he will start to pathologically contemplate the substitution’s relation to the Great Unknown Swear. Forbidding something gives it gravity, after all, and if something has enough gravity, it’s bound to acquire satellites.

Supposing all of these things, we are headed for some thorny eventualities.

Chin on hands on the floor in the dark, our child considers the logic of his censors. Hugs are a good thing, obviously. Hugs are cool most of the time. Mom and dad give good ones; siblings give obligatory ones; old people at church give scary and unwanted ones.

But there’s something sort of like hugs, and it’s bad. It’s so bad it’s not even allowed to be said out loud. It’s so bad, Adam and Eve probably only learned it after they ate the fruit.

What is like a hug, but not a hug? Maybe a high five? He frowns. No, not that. High fives are definitely good. Pretty sure skin is involved in the forbidden thing, though. His hunch game is strong.

Skin. Contact. Affection. A great unknown, dark and sweet and alluring and dreadful. It hangs over him. He doesn’t know this either yet, but as soon as a couple of chemical switches are thrown in his body, he will understand all too well the true nature of adult hugs.

In another room, his mother waits for a moment to hear who is at the door, but the mystery knocker is gone without a sound. She shrugs. In another room still, his father nods with pursed lips as he thinks about what a good decision it was to install the TV Guardian. There is so much to keep out.

Back in the first room, however, our child is discovering how the barrier that keeps some things out seals up the things that are already inside, and the resulting pressure does some weird stuff to his ideas.

Words open up vistas for thought; they can also bind and contain. If there’s an energy in the mind strong enough to guarantee the perpetuation of the species, what would happen if it were left unbounded and invisible? Does obstructing a premature thought of sex require us to forego an unsullied idea of hugs?

Here’s hoping the answer is “no,” but as with anything, it is almost impossible to […].


4 Comments

  1. Holy Relics has become one of my favorite columns on CaPC, and this is my favorite of the ones I’ve read. I’ve got a kid this age, and I’m thinking through the balance of when to block, warn, and/or explain. This is quite a helpful picture for me.

  2. “Back in the first room, however, our child is discovering how the barrier that keeps some things out seals up the things that are already inside, and the resulting pressure does some weird stuff to his ideas.”

    Oh! Nicely said!

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