We began addressing the topic of profanity in Christian music in a newsletter a couple of weeks ago, and then readers chimed in with their reactions. Here’s a more in-depth commentary on the subject.

It was the summer of 2003, and I was midway through one of the most enthralling albums I’d heard in a long time. One I couldn’t wait to share with readers, filled with beautiful melodies, varied musical styles, some of the most expressive singing around, and artful lyricism that often touched on the spiritual. It seemed like a shoe-in for our Best Albums of the Year list.

And that’s when the f-bomb dropped.

The album was Over the Rhine‘s double-disc masterpiece Ohio, and the expletive appears in “Changes Come,” a powerful and haunting ballad that mournfully prays for the Second Coming:

Jesus come
Turn this world around
Lay my burden down
Bring the whole thing down

It’s an apocalyptic petition worthy of Jeremiah, lamenting a fallen world that can only be redeemed and reclaimed by our sovereign Lord. But then lead singer Karin Bergquist expresses her concern about having a baby in a world that’s “too [messed] up for any firstborn son”—only, of course, she didn’t sing “messed.” Of all the word choices, I thought, why did it have to be that word?

Christian Music Today decided to cover Ohio as part of our Glimpses of God series, which features spiritually themed albums that don’t necessarily fit traditional parameters of “Christian music.” Some readers expressed their frustration, saying that one word should not override the thoughtful content of the album’s 21 songs, or the personal beliefs of the artist. (Bergquist and her husband, Linford Detweiler, who make up Over the Rhine, are Christians, but they’re not on a Christian record label.)

In a recent online poll at Christian Music Today, 64 percent of voters feel that profanity is always inappropriate in the music they listen to, while 29 percent said it depends on the context, and another 6 percent are completely unfazed by profanity. Obviously it’s fodder for debate.

“I Heard It From … “

Profanity in music actually has some historical precedent in the CCM world. It rarely occurs with mainline Christian artists, but is more typically used by those on the fringe of the industry. And not all of them have employed it in the same way.

Bruce Cockburn is a perfect example. Some regard the acclaimed singer/songwriter as an important part of the Jesus Movement in the ’70s, with overtly Christian songs like “Joy Will Find a Way,” “Can I Go with You?,” and “Lord of the Starfields.” That last song inspired the name for worship band Starfield nearly twenty years later, and numerous other Christian artists have covered his music over the years. CCM magazine placed Cockburn’s Humans and Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws on their 2001 list of The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music.

Yet despite his influence on Christian music, Cockburn’s provocative ideas and lyricism don’t always conform to traditional Christian ideology and theology. All along, Cockburn has occasionally peppered his songs with profanity. “Tell the Universe,” from his new CD Life Short Call Now, is a tirade against President Bush for the war in Iraq—”You’ve been projecting your sh– at the world/Self-hated tarted up as payback time.”

Here, Cockburn conveys his frustration over the political climate. The same could be said of Over the Rhine’s “Changes Come,” which is, interestingly, virtually identical to U2’s “Wake Up, Dead Man,” from 1997’s Pop—one of the few in their catalog that uses profanity—in theme and word choice, expressing disdain over a fallen world. Bono sings:

Jesus, Jesus help me
I’m alone in this world
And a [messed] up world it is too
Tell me, tell me the story
The one about eternity
And the way it’s all gonna be

Again, “messed” wasn’t the word of choice.

While artists like these are certainly influential to the Christian music genre, they’re not necessarily representative of it—more tangential than integral, embraced by the industry without intentionally being a part of it. The same could be said of Bob Dylan, King’s X, Creed, and others. Because they never officially declared themselves “Christian artists,” perhaps they shouldn’t be expected to hold to the higher standards generally expected of those who do write primarily for a Christian audience.

So, what about those self-declared Christian artists? When it comes to profanity in lyrics, what standard should apply to them?

In 1999, there was a minor flap over Brit rock worship band Delirious and their single “It’s OK” (from Mezzamorphis), which depicts a girl in a desperate state of brokenness:

She’s as pretty as hell and her eyes have no home
The beauty has run from your face
Such beauty that hung from your face
And if you would drink this wine, you’ll shine

Songwriters Martin Smith and Stu Garrard used it as a stark contrast to other songs on an album predominantly about heaven. “Hell” in this case was never intended to offend as gratuitous profanity, but rather to show someone living in a literally hellish state.

This precise use of language similarly characterizes Derek Webb‘s 2003 solo debut, She Must and Shall Go Free, banned from some Christian bookstores because of its strong wording. The chief culprit is “Wedding Dress,” which draws inspiration from the books of Hosea and Ezekiel, in which God’s people are depicted as prostitutes:

I am a whore I do confess
But I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle, run down the aisle
I’m a prodigal with no way home
But I put you on just like a ring of gold
And I run down the aisle, run down the aisle to you

So could you love this bastard child? …
‘Cause I am so easily satisfied
By the call of lovers so less wild
That I would take a little cash over your flesh and blood

Here again, Webb uses these words in the literal sense to tell the whole gospel picture.

In a recent e-mail, Webb told us, “I believe that strong and even offensive language is not only useful, but oftentimes necessary when proclaiming the whole truth. But [as artists], we must risk all, including reputation and commercial ruin, to tell the whole truth. If we accept any calling lower than this, we haven’t taken seriously our unique position as artists to push back the effects of the fall and to build the Kingdom coming, where all these things are made right.”

That thinking seems justified in defense of strong language with specific meaning that drives home biblical truths. For example, there are few substitutes for words like “damn” and “hell” when specifically talking about Judgment Day and the afterlife. But what about more casual use of the same words in song lyrics?

The Lost Dogs are respected not only for their fourteen years together, but also for the members’ individual contributions to classic Christian bands like Daniel Amos, The 77s, and The Choir, not to mention the acclaimed City on a Hill worship series. The band’s 2003 release Nazarene Crying Towel is as deeply rooted in Scripture as any album you can find.

Contrast that with their new CD, The Lost Cabin and The Mystery Trees. Though many songs still clearly express the band’s Christian beliefs, some light profanity punctuates a bit of their storytelling. The narrator in the title track calls his girlfriend/wife’s brother an “S.O.B.,” and in “This Business Is Goin’ Down,” a man refers to the central character as a “damn ne’er-do-well.” Do these words add to the picture the band is trying to paint, or is it simply gratuitous? What some may consider colorful, others might define as cursing.

Profanity difficult to define

One problem with profanity is that not everyone agrees on what it is. One person’s profanity is another’s casual slang. I’ve known churchgoers who don’t consider “damn” or “ass” to be offensive. Others clearly feel differently, and I certainly would have caught “heck” if I had used such words inappropriately growing up.

But using such words in conversation—sometimes via a slip of the tongue—is entirely different from writing them in lyrics. That’s no accident. Songwriters intentionally use words—they’re tools, not mistakes. There’s an opportunity to self-edit for the benefit of others, rather than potentially offend.

Some would argue that using profanity is simply an artist’s right to self-expression. I respect that right; we live in a land that values the right to free speech, after all. But the consumer/listener also has the right to choose what to listen to. Last I checked, there’s no right to be heard.

Artists are playing with fire when they choose to use profanity in songwriting. In a politically correct society where we’re all required to be mindful of what we say concerning race, gender, politics, and religion, it seems strange that a songwriter would choose to risk radio airplay and fan support by using words that have the potential to offend so many.

Terrific songs with deep spiritual roots like “Changes Come” and “Wake Up, Dead Man” consequently go unheard by Christians because of a single word, and sometimes an artist’s faith is unfortunately forever questioned because of the use. But such is the power of profanity—a two-edged sword that draws attention, and often the wrong kind.

Blending in, or conforming?

What about Christian artists who make music for a broader audience and not just the Christian market? Should the Bruce Cockburns, Over the Rhines, and U2s of the world be held to the same standard? Based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, are they simply blending in to connect with others? Or are they going to far in “conforming to the world” as Paul says in Romans 12:1-3?

To me, it goes beyond responsibility to an intended audience, but responsibility as a believer in general. Christian artists may not be united in their music and goals, but they are still united in faith by God’s Word. For any artists who identify themselves as followers of Christ, whatever happened to laying aside personal rights—including free speech—and making them secondary to obeying the Lord?

Scripture isn’t specific with a list of what’s considered profanity, other than misusing the Lord’s name as outlined in the Second Commandment. But Paul does warn about “unwholesome talk” in Ephesians 4:29, and James 3:1-12 explains the dangers of an untamed tongue. Jesus himself warns in Matthew 5:22 not to call our brother “fool.” Which begs the question, is a word by itself profane—or the intent behind it?

Perhaps we can learn most from repeated New Testament warnings to avoid causing angst for our brothers and sisters—to be sensitive and mindful of their needs. In Romans 14, Paul acknowledges that Christians don’t all see things eye to eye, but asks that we not place “any stumbling block or obstacle” in the way of others. Even if a Christian artist isn’t explicitly making “Christian music,” shouldn’t they extend the courtesy to fellow believers and avoid offense?

Still, I do believe that careful, strong wording is acceptable and effective in getting a point across. Paul, after all, uses humor in Galatians 5:12, wishing that certain legalists would castrate themselves. And some scholars interpret his use of “rubbish” in Philippians 5:8as “poop,” though most agree it doesn’t translate to the cruder cousin of that word.

Examples like these seem to vindicate an artist like Webb; after all, the King James translation also uses “bastard” (Hebrews 12:8, Deuteronomy 23:2) and “whore” (Leviticus 21:7, Hebrews 13:4) in the correct sense.

But the same can’t be said for all “strong words.” Some—like the f-bomb and the s-word—simply don’t have a “correct” use, as in Webb’s choice of “whore” and “bastard.” Instead, they have more widely accepted definitions—and they’re not nice ones. Such words seem to be used more for the sake of shock value or emotion.

In our Glimpse review of Ohio, Linford Detweiler explains that he feels a connection between the Psalms and Over the Rhine’s songs. The difference, however, is that David was able to express anguish, remorse, fear, loneliness, and evenanger without resorting to the equivalent of the f-bomb.

The point: As Christians, we should do our best to avoid offense with the words we use. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial [or constructive].” Yes, there are times where strong language is warranted in songwriting to boldly communicate our faith and scriptural teachings.

But as far as profanity goes, I ultimately have to throw a strong word back at it: unnecessary.

Feel free to share your own thoughts with us here.

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