Thursday, March 08, 2007

Profane or not Profane? That is the Question.

Before you read this article, please know that there are words and phrases used in this article – both created by me and quotations of others – that I consider profane. Because of the subject matter and the way in which this issue was raised, there is no way to really communicate the stark contrast in views of how Christians can use language without showing examples. Please be aware and read (or don’t read) accordingly.

Last Friday I called a radio show to express some concern over a song that was played for bumper music. Now, before I get pigeon-holed for something that I am not, I want to setup the scenario. The Internet radio show, the Narrow Mind, is a fun program covering many of the different types of things that interest me – theology, apologetics, and other things – and I have enjoyed listening to it ever since I found it a few weeks ago.

One of the “catchy” things (for me, anyway) was the style of bed music that the host chose to have during the breaks. The music tends to be more…driven. By that I mean that the music is more rock/hard rock in style. I was a head-bangin’, air guitar playin’, thrash metal listening born-again Christian. I listened to groups like Deliverance and Tourniquet, but I did my best to avoid the secular heavy metal groups. So, hearing this type of music on a Christian broadcast, even if only in short bursts, is fun for me. This is all to say that I do not have any negative knee-jerk reaction to hard rock/heavy metal music as a style.

Well, when listening to this radio program I heard some provocative and somewhat questionable lyrics on one of the songs. Knowing that sometimes words can sound different than intended, I googled the lyrics that I could definitely make out and I was directed to a song by the secular (definitely not Christian) band, Nickelback with their song “Throw Yourself Away.” Here are the lyrics from the portion of the song that can be heard on the program (at least the few times that I heard it),

Baby's born on a bathroom floor
Her mother prays that it'll never cry
But nothing's wrong you've got your prom dress on
When they ask you'll say "it isn't mine"
You know there gonna know you lied

Why the hell don't you throw yourself away?
You know there gonna burn it down

Wash my, hands of this
You notice how god ain't even helping you out1
Again, the above lyrics are not the exhaustive lyrics from the song, just the lyrics that are able to be heard when listening to the show.2 After reading the lyrics that I had been listening to, I was a little shocked and confused as to what possible reason could there be to use a song with a profanity in it. This is what prompted me to call. When I called, I had a very good natured discussion/debate with Pastor Gene Cook Jr., but we failed to see eye to eye on this issue.3

I asked him if he was aware that the song this song in particular had profanity in it and his response was “not in the part that we play.”4 When I clarified my statement to refer to the word hell, the response I received at that time was hell is a biblical term. And if we’re making the statement that all words used in the Bible are not to be considered profanity, then any use of “ass” (Matthew 21:5 KJV), “bastard” (Deuteronomy 23:2 KJV), and various forms of the word “damnation” (Matthew 23:14.33 KJV) should not be considered profanity either.

I would agree that all of the above words – ass, bastard, and (forms of) damnation – are able to be used in a precise fashion and using their technical definitions in certain contexts that would be acceptable. That is very different that excusing the use of these words because they are Bible terms. For instance, referring to a donkey as an ass is very different than referring to a person as an ass. The same word is used, yes, but the use of that word in contemporary language refers to someone who is acting in a particular way (I say “particular” because the use is so broad, that it would be foolish to try and over define it here) or to refer to someone’s posterior. In any event, modern usage of the word “ass” is (except on rare occasion when reading from the Bible or when referring to a beast of burden) is not used in the same way that the Bible does.

In the same way, referring to hell as the eternal place of torment for those people who die in their sins is very different than telling someone to “go to H@&&” or saying “why the H@&&...”. My main point is basically that just because certain words are in the Bible, that doesn’t give us a free pass to use them in any way that we want to.

When I continued with my concern, Pastor Cook said that one reason that this song is used on his program was to demonstrate “the antithesis between the Christian mindset and the mindset of the worldly person.”5 He also went on to say that he plays this music intentionally in order to facilitate or encourage conversation with unbelievers. The reason for doing this is to share the gospel and to demonstrate how to talk to unbelievers.

I am in favor of creating an atmosphere where interaction with unbelievers is important for the reasons that Pastor Cook gave, but the problem is not with the intention, my problem is with using a song with profanity in it to accomplish this goal. I think that it is appropriate to consider various passages on Christian speech as a guideline for our spoken words in all arenas.
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
“But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (Colossians 3:8)
“Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4)
The above passages specifically refer to the speech of a Christian and not to what Christians play on their radio or television programs (obviously). However, I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that if you host a radio or television show that you are responsible for what is said or done on it. In other words, if during my radio show I have an audio clip of someone telling crude jokes, I am responsible and accountable for that because it is my show. However, if I am doing a live program and a caller slips in a crude remark that I cannot get edited in time, that is different if, for no other reason, than I did not plan it nor did I sanction it.

Therefore, even though Pastor Cook (and his production team) didn’t actually speak the words from the Nickelback song, in a sense they are doing just that because they are intentionally placing that on the air as part of their show. My concern is that this does not fit with our call as Christians to speak good things that are not foolish, filthy, or full of rage.

However, the heart of where our disagreement lies is with how we define profanity differently. I personally think that Pastor Cook, with all due respect to the man (and I sincerely mean that), is being very inconsistent in his application of what is or is not profane. To get at the heart of this issue, I asked him if he would allow his son (I believe he has a school aged child) to use this language. He responded by saying that he wouldn’t, but he also does not allow his child to drink beer either, and that there are some things that are inappropriate for children to say, but the same things can be okay for an adult to say. That is a fair qualification to make even if I don’t think that it applies to the current issue, but I conceded that in order to move on.

I then asked him that if, hypothetically, he had a 22 year-old son who used that kind of language, would he consider it to be profane. Pastor Cook answered by saying that he would not defend the use of profanity by anyone. This gets us back to square-one with the question of is the use of the word “hell”, as done in the song by Nickelback, a profanity even though hell is a biblical term?

But before I can even get back to that issue with the example that I think proves my overall point, Pastor Cook asked me one more question.

The question that he asked me was, “What do you think [that] Jesus would think about two Christians arguing about whether it is appropriate to use ‘hell’ or not?”6 Well, if the reason for the discussion, debate, or argument is done with the goal of glorifying God and if the discussion is done so in a respectful manner (as I think that ours was), then I believe that Jesus would be pleased and glorified with this discussion. He is glorified because we are holding up the lofty calling of being a Christian and scrutinizing what we do to see if there is any fault in it.

I am not sure what answer he thought I would give or if this would be the question to ask that would ultimately dismiss my fairly intense scrutiny of this issue. But I think that my answer (and I stand by it) is true and that we should be in the business of scrutinizing what we do in an effort to not sin in our ministry. I cannot see the things that I do in the light that others can, and so naturally things can (and do) slip by me. I either do not see a problem or do not see an issue as a problem, and it takes a loving brother or sister in the Lord to bring up concerns that may or may not be legitimate.

The rest of the conversation and any follow-up conversations that I have had with others always comes back to what is defined as profanity and the rationale is either that hell is a biblical term or that God used “much worse word” than hell in the way that the culture used it that day in order to make a very strong point.7 I do not know what exact examples that Gene was referring to in Scripture, and I am skeptical that any scriptures would have use of terms that is the same as or worse than the lyrics of this song.

Perhaps the key to articulating my point would be with the use of other biblical terms. The words that I am referring to are “Jesus”, “Christ”, “God”, and a form of the word “damnation”. Now, I tread lightly here because I do want to make my point, but I do not want to sin in doing so. So, please bear with me.

We would agree (I hope) that saying “Jesus Christ is the only true Son of God, and that to reject His gospel result in your damnation,”8 is a correct use of the words that I referred to. I also hope that we would agree that if someone used these same words in a different way that it would be considered course, profane, and truly blasphemous. For instance, “J C, Gene, don’t use G-D’ed profanity on your radio program!”

My point in the above sentence, as well as my overall argument, is to show that just because certain words are in the Bible, that doesn’t give us a free pass to use them in any way that we want to. Granted, if said, the sentence that I constructed would definitely violate the third commandment by taking the Name of the Lord in vain, and in that sense it is not equivalent to the profane use of another word, but the principle of how to use words is very similar.


2 You can hear this excerpt on the 2/23/07 show (The Narrow Mind Show #750). You can click here to hear the song, it is the very first thing that is played as the introduction to this particular episode. Total length of the song excerpt is 50 seconds.

3 You can listen to the actual interchange between the host and myself by downloading/streaming The Narrow Mind Show #755 by clicking here. My conversation begins at 15 minutes into the show and lasts for about 14 minutes.

4 TNM #755 17:00 To be fair, he may have been thinking of the stanza where the lead singer is condemning the woman in the song by signing,

“Damn you for thinking we would never know
And damn you for thinking we would never mind
Only reason that you made it this far
You never asked him, but you never tried”
5 The Narrow Mind Show #750 18:30

6 During the actual radio conversation, the connection was not as good as it could be so I did not understand that he said “Jesus” (even after asking him to repeat himself), so my answer was not given exactly as I would have if I had heard and understood his question correctly.

7 The Narrow Mind Show #750 28:30

8 In this case, please disregard the theological incorrectness or incompleteness of this sentence (i.e. rejecting the gospel doesn’t send someone to hell, our sins do that).


M said...

Very intersting. I think the host was just not willing to admit his mistake (or poor judgement),

EJ said...

It would be bad form if I didn't mention that just today I heard Piper (one of my most beloved and favorite preachers) use the phrase "fight like hell..." in his sermon (1/4 radio broadcast 9:40 into it), not as a quote or a reference, but as an explanation of Paul's thoughts.

If this was not an accidental phrase (i.e. it slipped out), but it is something that is not considered profane, then it dwarfs the seriousness of the music on the radio show that I wrote this post about because it was done in church from the pulpit.

I sent an e-mail to DG and am looking forward to any response.

However - regardless if John Piper or Gene Cook and I have different views on this issue, although that difference is significant in our presentation of the gospel and our missions, I would not cut ties with ministries or ministers because of this area of disagreement.

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