A few years ago, Derek Webb ruffled evangelical feathers by including the word “shit” in one of his songs. In the song “What Matters More?”, he said:
‘Cause we can talk and debate till we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that He’s coming to save
And meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About fifty thousand people who are dying today'
Webb’s song stirred up debate, hand-wringing, and gnashing of teeth over whether it’s okay for a Christian songwriter to cuss in songs. If I remember correctly, there were blog comment strings of truly Tolstoy-ian lengths, with ample references to Hitler, slippery slope arguments, and the decline of morality in the church. It was great fun in a bare fisted boxing sort of way.
This debate has come up again recently thanks to the King’s Kaleidoscope song “A Prayer”, in which the f-bomb gets dropped a few times. As you would imagine, the general response from the evangelical community was…
This brings up the question: what place, if any, does strong language have in Christian art?
It’s an important question that deserves some deep thinking.
AVOIDING KNEE-JERK REACTIONS
It’s easy to have a knee-jerk response to this kind of issue.
“Of course there shouldn’t be swearing in a song! Christians don’t cuss, chew, or run with those who do! They must be slipping away from God if they feel comfortable with THAT kind of vulgarity.”
To quote Ned Flanders, “I expect that kind of language at Denny’s, but not here!”
And there’s also the whole, “My kids may be listening,” problem. If possible, I prefer to limit the amount of gross vulgarity my kids hear. They won’t be watching The Wire until they’re at least 10.
The simple, Sunday school answer is that Christians shouldn’t use strong language in their art, no further questions, class dismissed, leave your flannelgraphs on the desk.
And it’s certainly true that Christians are called to avoid vulgar speech (Eph. 4:29). We will give an account to God for the words we speak. But knee-jerk, hot take reactions don’t adequately address both the intent of this verse (and similar verses) or what’s really happening in the art.
A deeper look is needed.
THE CONTEXT OF THE VERSE
Ephesians 4:29 says:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
This command comes as part of a long list of behaviors that should characterize those who have been born again and are walking in new life, along with other behaviors like truthfulness, integrity, and kindness. Verse 29 is a divine ban on words that “corrupt” others – the type of speech used by those who don’t know Christ.
Corruption has connotations of rot, gangrene, and disease – all things that spread ruin. Corrupting words poison and pollute hearts and minds with sinful thoughts, attitudes, and desires. They cause good, holy desires to rot like meat left in a freezer that has been unplugged.
So, does hearing cursing corrupt us or other believers? I think it depends on how the words are used and in what context.
When curse words are used in a sexual way, to humiliate a person, or to express blind fury, that’s corruption. “Locker room talk” (to quote the Big D) is certainly corrupting talk. Muttering obscenities to a coworker because your boss wants you to file TPS reports is corrupting talk. Slander and gossip is corrupting talk. This type of speech poisons you and others.
But I think there are select occasions and contexts when curse words can be used in a way that is not corrupting and is actually helpful. I realize this is somewhat controversial, but hear me out. And no, I’m not advocating that you suddenly start napalming people with f-bombs in casual conversation.
SELECT OCCASIONS AND CONTEXTS
As Ephesians 4:29 makes clear, Christian speech should build up other believers, as fits the occasion, so that it may give grace to those who hear.
So, can there be an occasion when the use of strong language can actually give grace to someone? I believe so. A few examples.
The great author Flannery O’Connor wrote powerful stories in which she demonstrated “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” In writing these stories, she often had her characters using profanity and other objectionable words. This was necessary given her subject. After all, it’s hard to craft a believable sinner who says, “By golly, that is a bunch of codswallop you no-good ninny.”
And yet despite the cursing, these stories have imparted grace to so many, including many who have been led to salvation through them.
Another example. Last year I was meeting with a very godly older man and expressing some really deep angst about some broken situations. At one point he said to me, “You know, the world is a pretty f****** up place.” These were some of the most refreshing words I had ever heard. He didn’t say the world is a messed up, screwy, or broken place. He called it exactly what I felt about it.
Finally, scripture itself doesn’t pull any punches when speaking about the darkness and bleakness of the world. Paul told the Galatians that he wished those who were unsettling them would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. God called the people of Israel whores. Scripture often uses strong language to jar us out of our comfort and help us see the true nature of a subject.
THE CONTEXT OF THE SONGS
So how did Derek Webb and King’s Kaleidoscope use profanity in their songs? Interestingly enough, despite the relative “badness” of the words used (if that is such a thing), the Derek Webb song is waaayyyy more problematic.
His point is that the church at large spends all this time huffing and puffing and stomping about “minor” issues, such as sexual orientation, tradition, doctrine, and minor profanity in a song. Meanwhile, they don’t give a s*** about 50,000 people dying every day.
He certainly makes a valid point that we as Christians could do a better job caring for the poor, broken, and hungry. But his casual dismissal of tradition and biblical sexuality is flat-out unbiblical and not a minor issue at all. Honestly, the use of the profanity is the least troubling thing in the entire song.
The song by King’s Kaleidoscope is another thing entirely. When asked about the song, front man and author Chad Gardner said:
…that song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life – I’ve had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that’s been a major part of my struggle and story. That song is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal – I don’t know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it’s good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that’s what that song is.
This makes complete sense to me. There have been multiple points in my life when I have poured out my soul to God in a completely raw and unfiltered way. There are times when the thoughts running through my head would shock everyone except God.
More importantly, Gardner’s words align with the Psalms. That book should come with an explicit warning. The Psalmist is constantly struggling, doubting, and even angry with God. He wonders if God will abandon him. He wonders if his life has been vain. He never shied away from putting his soul on full display for God and the world to see.
Is there a place for profanity in Christian art? It depends very much on the purpose of the profanity and the heart behind. Sometimes speaking the truth about a subject requires using words that will truly grab hold of someone.
This isn’t something to be taken lightly. Words matter to God. Words can bring grace or gangrene. Let’s use our blessing and our cursing for the glory of God.
Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.