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Is the Fight to Swear a Noble Battle?

  • Todd Hertz Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2009 13 May
Is the Fight to Swear a Noble Battle?

Yesterday, Derek Webb sent an e-mail to fans revealing an internal battle over his next album, Stockholm Syndrome, originally scheduled for release next week. He said that he is now unsure when it will see the light of day because of a disagreement with his label, INO Records. He says:

"They've been very supportive over the years, but … it seems I've finally found the line beyond which my label can support me, and apparently I've crossed it. I consider this my most important record and am adamant about all of you hearing it. … The majority of the controversy is surrounding one song, which I consider to be among the most important songs on the record."

A representative for INO told me today that "INO has a wonderful relationship with Derek and expect everything to work out and release as planned [later this year]. However, in regards to the e-mail from Derek, they presently have no comment."

Since the e-mail arrived in inboxes, there's been internet speculation that the disagreement is a matter of a record label's censorship over swear words. In fact, suggests that based on the name of Webb's yet-unlaunched activism website, this fight may be over the s-word. Just based on these uncomfirmed theories, some fans are applauding Webb for standing up for his art and his freedom of speech. That reaction has made me think about Christian artists, freedom of expression, and profanity in bigger terms.

We don't know anything about the details of this issue. It may have nothing to do with profanity. It may be about themes that INO is uncomfortable with. But if this issue truly hinges on using a cuss word, it is good fodder for a relevant faith and arts discussion. I can't say I'd automatically describe the stance by any artist fighting for their right to swear as heroic. For the record, I don't toss out any art because of profanity or offensive content. I believe in artistic expression and the power of words—all words. I wouldn't denounce an album made by a Christian just for the use of a culturally taboo word. I'd want to see the context and discern fully what's going on there. Still, I also know that using swear words can be a cheap, overdone, and an easy way to shock and draw attention. Just ask Britney Spears (much profanity in the link).

More so, with Webb characterizing the song at issue as "important," I sure hope this fight is about more than just using the s-word. I'm not so sure that sticking up for scatology for its own sake is noble. And is there ever a case where using a certain word to make your point is, as Webb contends, "important?" I'll be honest, I have a pet peeve with artists who self-declare their own art as important. Is it important to you? OK. Is it your most personal song? OK. Is it the song you're most passionate about as you make your record? Great. But this is one of the most important songs on your most important record? Is that for you to say?

Still, I know Webb's history for intelligent, passionate, and challenging songwriting. So I have no doubts that he truly believes in the content he has to share. But my question is: If any Christian label rejects the release of an album with profanity, is it really a detriment to self-expression? Is there not a way for that artist to still make their point and be true to self without it? If using divisive language keeps one person away from your message, is it worth it? When did using profanity become a mark of art or true expression? Is it selling out to not use a shocking word for emphasis? Maybe. Maybe not. Without knowing what is really happening in the Webb issue, I can't make the call on that but I think this is a much bigger and relevant discussion to have.

With more and more albums released independently online, the gate-keeping and apparent censorship of labels are quickly being removed. These independent artists don't need approval from anyone. That seems to be the direction Webb is going with this song. In his e-mail he said that he's decided this is a place where he must "break the rules" and has a plan to get his song out there. As we move more fully toward that world of full artist autonomy, I have to ask: Just because we can say anything we want, should we? After all, everything may be permissible—but not everything is beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12).

The bottom line is that I find the argument to use profanity as peripheral as the argument against it. What matters is what you are truly saying. I hope the issue at the crux of Stockholm Syndrome's delay is about something truly worth Webb's fight—and not just over the words he uses.

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