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The Proper Use of Christian Profanity

Posted on 02 Sep 2009 in Faith | 10 comments

dwcoverI like Derek Webb.  He not only understands music and verse he understands his job as a Christian artist.  I’m not at all a musician but I’m inspired as an artist when I listen to his albums.

His latest album is surrounded by a bit of controversy.  His record label refused to include one of his songs, “What Matters More”,  in his newest release, “Stockholm Syndrome”, because he chose to use the word “sh!t”.  He, in turn, refused to change the song so they had to work out a compromise where you can only buy the complete, uncensored album directly from Derek Webb himself.

I think Derek made the right choice to use the word and to refuse to change the song.  Please watch the video above to hear the song before reading my thoughts on why it was appropriate.

In the song Derek is challenging Christians to consider “What matters more?”.  He weighs the condemnation we might feel about a homosexual’s personal choices against our need to respond lovingly to the AIDS crisis.  I think he quite thoughtfully uses to word “sh!t” to provoke a reaction out of Christians.  They’ll naturally be offended by his use of the word. Their feelings of offense offers him the opportunity to again ask, but in a slightly different way “What matters more? My profanity or your indifference to suffering?”

I think it’s an appropriate use of profanity.  He doesn’t sling the word about because he can’t find a better word to use.  His ability to communicate isn’t handicapped by the word, it’s enhanced.  He wishes to cause offense and the most expeditious way to do that is via profanity.  I think he follows a Biblical model for using profanity.  There is plenty that is profane in the Bible and my understanding of the Old Testament prophets is that they too use profanity but it has been white-washed out in translation.

All that being said, crossing this barrier in Christian art causes me concern.  Artist have a need to continue to provoke.  Once an audience becomes numb to one thing the artist must take the next step to illicit a similar reaction.  Next we’ll be on to the “f” word and then the “c” word.

A couple of years ago I saw an art exhibit in which the artist was torturing himself through various methods (his purpose had nothing to do with the Bush administration if that’s what you’re thinking).  It was quite disturbing and quite powerful.  He successfully garnered the reaction from his viewers that he was seeking.  Unfortunately I don’t think his message was worth the price to himself or to his viewers.  It’s one thing to be controversial, it’s another to be controversial for controversy’s sake.

I hope as Christian artist explore the use of profanity that they do so as thoughtfully as Derek Webb and avoid the cheap punch of sensationalism that it might provide.

10 comments

  1. The Yellow Dart / September 3rd, 2009 4:27

    “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” – Tony Campolo

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Campolo

    TYD

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  2. Steve Martin / September 3rd, 2009 8:14

    Luther was adept at using profane language once in awhile himself.

    Not that I always agree, but now and then for emphasis isn’t necessarily so awful.

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  3. Melissa / September 4th, 2009 13:48

    Found your post on a twitter feed. Thanks for the thoughts.

    I agree that Webb uses profanity appropriately, and the previously mentioned Campolo quote exemplifies his point as well.

    But I do share your concern that bringing profanity into the Christian music realm may not bear all good fruit. I’m in youth ministry, and I want to be able to recommend Webb’s music and message without having to warn about explicit lyrics. Although what kids are listening to nowadays is much worse, that doesn’t mean we should just give in to that fact and melt into what culture is already giving them.

    Thanks for the post!

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  4. Ray / September 6th, 2009 0:42

    The problem, imo, is our distorted view of “profanity”. The word he used isn’t “profane” at all; it is “vulgar” – in only the elitist sense of “words that are beneath us and shouldn’t be used by cultured people”. The idea that using “excrement” somehow would have been different – and ok – is ludicrous.

    The word he used isn’t contrary to ANY passage of scripture to which Christians should adhere. It’s not “swearing” in the Biblical sense (using the name of deity as to give solemnity to an oath) OR “cursing” in the Biblical sense (consigning one to Hell or casting a damning curse upon someone – a curse that makes that person of no eternal effect or significance). It’s not “profane” in the Biblical sense (contemptuous or irreverent toward God or sacred things) OR “blasphemous” in the Biblical sense (impiously irreverent and profane). It’s nothing more than a common word that is said in a more sophisticated manner by people who prefer to speak in poly-syllabic words.

    I don’t use it in social settings, since offending intentionally in this particular manner is not consistent with my own perspective on the Golden Rule – so I can’t applaud the artist here no matter his justification. There’s a difference between being edgy and thought-provoking and being an ass – another word that is not forbidden by any stretch in the Bible. However, it’s more of a shame, imo, that so many Christians get their shorts in a wad over the use of the word than that this man used it intentionally to offend.

    “Turn the other cheek” seems like the proper response in this case.

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  5. Eric / September 7th, 2009 21:27

    I agree with most of what Ray said; there’s nothing profane here. And in this particular case, I see “the word” doing little more than attract attention to what is otherwise a mediocre piece of music.

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  6. Nathanael / September 9th, 2009 16:57

    I am a follower of Christ and I really don’t have a problem with swearing (I don’t use God’s name in vain) but…

    – I don’t do it in front of impressionable little kids
    – I don’t say it to just SAY it, I use stronger language to deliver the point home, similar to Derek Webb

    Outside of that, hmmm…I really don’t have any rules on my swearing.

    So where and when did I pick up swearing? Was it the TV? (no, didn’t have one growing up) Was it my friends? (no, tightknit homeschool community where swearing was labelled a “sin”) Was it my parents? (Bingo Ringo!)

    Their fighting, their verbal ramming of heads…this is where I learned such “bad words”.

    I don’t have a problem with swearing because it is US who give words power, we say what words mean or don’t, but words are just words and if we empower them and they become stronger. If we took a “regular” word, say BANANA, and we said things like ‘shut the BANANA up’ or ‘what the BANANA’ eventually people would say stop saying BANANA! But banana’s not a “bad word”, it was just empowered and so it became something labelled as “bad”

    If people quote to me the verse where it speaks of what comes out of our mouth says something about our hearts (roughly paraphrased, sorry!) I question them, not to egg them on (at least, not too much), how much of the Bible do they follow themselves? If they can say that verse at whim to me, how are they at giving to the poor or storing up treasures in Heaven where moth and rust do not destroy…or are they still being a part of a consumerist/capitalist society and doing what those who are in the world still doing?

    Yes, I will be careful as to how I swear and the context of it, but for you follower of Christ who says it is wrong/sinful/bad/et al… “Judge not lest ye be judged”

    ~Nathanael

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  7. Bridget Jack Meyers / September 10th, 2009 8:32

    I see “the word” doing little more than attract attention to what is otherwise a mediocre piece of music.

    Gotta agree with Eric here. Now I generally like Derek Webb. “Somewhere North” will always be welcome on my playlist. And I can agree that this song makes an appropriate use of swearing.

    But I also feel like Webb is capable of much better than this song. If it weren’t for the swearing in it, I really doubt anyone would be talking about it.

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  8. David / October 22nd, 2010 18:32

    Merriam Webster says, “A profanity is a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect.”

    If we assess words that fit this category, virtually all are common (vulgar) terms for: excrement, body parts, body functions, sex acts, or are derogatory names, or use God’s name (or Hell or damnation) in vain.

    One reason they are profane is that they do not describe anything clearly and precisely, but instead seek to make something coarse by reference or, as in the case of the song, to offend. In other cases they are blasphemous or simply unholy.

    If one is not a Christian, then this does not matter. However, if we present ourselves as Christians, then we ought to follow Biblical council in this (and all other) matters. So, what does the Bible say about profanity? Here are a few of the verses:

    Proverbs 4:24 Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.

    Proverbs 10:31 The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be cut out.

    Exodus 20:7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

    Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

    Ephesians 5:3-7 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

    Colossians 3:5-10 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

    Psalm 10:7 His (the wicked man’s) mouth is full of curses and lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue.

    James 3:5-12 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

    And the greatest challenge of all, 1 Peter 1:13-16 “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

    Contrast these verses with the definition of profanity and consider for yourself whether it is consistent to “be holy as God is holy” while at the same time being “insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect.”

    So, while it is clearly a tragedy that 30,000 people died last night, God does not give us license to use profanity to draw attention to our seeming lack of concern. We do not sin so that grace may abound, and we do not need to choose one sort of sin to work on (the deaths of 30,000) and then ignore all other sins. God is concerned about all sin, and so should we be, with all our hearts, souls, might and minds.

    As for the song, it falls into the same category as Campolo’s comment. We are not called to sin to expose other sins. The Gospel is plenty offensive enough without us adding anything to it.

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