In 1979, I sat in Dr. Richard Cutter’s early morning Greek class at Baylor University praying my professor would call on someone else to translate the homework passage from Plato.
My prayers were answered when he called on John.
John was more clueless than I was in this second-year Greek class, but he took a gallant stab at translating the passage.
After five agonizing minutes, Dr. Cutter thanked John and interrupted our naps with seemingly the most random of questions.
“How many of you think crap is a bad word?” he asked the class comprised of mostly Baptist ministerial students.
A few brave souls from the conservative South raised their hands, while the rest of us stared forward with wide-eyed incredulity.
“A freshman girl came to me after class last week,” he said, introducing his reason behind the question. “She told me that she was offended by my occasional use of the word crap because her East Texas upbringing taught her that it was an expletive.”
Cutter told us he’d apologized to the girl, but explained to her that his upbringing on a Kansas farm taught him to understand crap as a common word.
For him, the word was a homonym, a word having the same spelling and pronunciation, but with different meanings. Offering an example, he explained that a Baptist deacon in Kansas might use crap to describe the proposed church budget as well as the piles scattered in the pasture next door.
Hoping his heartfelt explanation had convinced us, he repeated his polling question. “How many of you still think that crap is a bad word?”
We cowered in silence. It was our second year with Dr. Cutter, and most of us recognized the sound of him loading both barrels.
“Good,” he said, taking our silence as approval.
“John,” he exclaimed pointing to the unfortunate translator, “that translation was a bunch of crap.”
The questionable word is much more accepted now, but what Dr. Cutter was so colorfully illustrating 30 years ago is something called a regional sin. These are sins that may offend the sensibilities of the local community, but would not be offensive in other communities.
Regional sins are helpful to avoid when teaching in a university with a national reach, but the girl’s question illustrated that there is a downside to paying them too much heed.
The downside is we, like Dr. Cutter’s inquisitor, sometimes use our list of regional do’s and don’ts to define and measure the faith of others. When we do that, our faith vision blurs, and we start seeing ourselves as doubly better than others.
For instance, while being able to say, “I don’t cuss, drink or chew nor date girls who do” may be a good health practice, it says nothing of your quality of faith.
Faith is better understood when you leave the regional list of do’s and don’ts at home and replace them with their true elements.
Moses did a pretty good job of that when he summarized the hundreds of do’s and don’ts in Jewish law with the Ten Commandments. Later, Jesus introduced a more portable expression of faith that found acceptance in all regions of the world.
He taught that faith should “hang on these two commandments:”
1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
No more long lists of complicated regional sins. Just two.
Multitasking Jesus’ short list can still be pretty difficult. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be valuable.
His list is valuable because it comprises the gold card of faith accepted in faith communities worldwide.
And that leaves me an ending I won’t resist. As they say in the old commercial, don’t leave home without it.