Remember that scene in The Christmas Story
where Ralphie finally loses his mind on his nemesis, that kid with yellow eyes (YELLOW EYES!) and just drops a massive array of obscenities while pounding away at his bully's face? Kids recoil, the voiceover takes control to protect the watcher's ears of the barrage of filth flying from this adolescent's mouth as pure rage takes over.
In another scene from the same movie, Ralphie drops the f-bomb in front of his father, resulting in the worse friend rat-out in cinematic history alongside a punishment made of a mouth full of Lifebuoy soap!
Swearing is kind of a big deal. It always has been. Like it or not, it's something that's typically frowned upon in Christian circles (go figure), and it causes most of us
to stop in our tracks, with ears perked up while we begin to question everything around us.
Others, it seems, don't really mind. And they are big ole stinky, smelly sinners.
Swearing in Christian music is something previous generations of fans never had to deal with. Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Point of Grace, Casting Crowns, Audio Adrenaline, dcTalk, Jars of Clay and hundreds of other bands in the previous three decades had done quite well on the charts (and even in the mainstream!) without making their mothers blush once. (Well, Amy Grant DID say the word "baby" in a song... gasp!)
But times they are a-changing', or so I'm told, and I'm a bit concerned that we are at the early stages of what I view as an epidemic. More and more artists are going independent of a record label, vying for attention in an increasingly difficult musical environment while justifying their poor lyrical choices a hundred different ways.
Let's make this clear from the start: I have zero percent pity for artists who say they struggle with not being able to find a way to effectively communicate in their music without cussing. Swearing has ZERO places in Christian music.
End of story. And it's time for artists of any faith to knock it off.
Yes, I'm looking at you, Hillsong United. I know; weird, right? The thing is, no church on this planet is going to be singing the words of the second chorus in "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)": Even when the fight seems lost / I'll praise you / Even when it hurts as hell / I'll praise you
. Look, I get it. Sometimes, life does
hurt like hell. I don't think any of us will argue that and we don't need to pretend like it doesn't. That's not the point. The point here is that ears have been perked up, and now we're now focused on dissecting the entire message and its delivery. The distraction is instantly created and, if even for a moment, the focus has the potential to shift from worshipping God to a certain word choice.
Argue for or against the use, it causes some to pause, some to stumble, and in a number of cases, flee entirely. The response that I see from proponents of this "honest songwriting" (and sometimes the artists themselves) typically is "Don't let the door hit you on your way out." Writing those people off as out of touch, snobby, churchy goody-two-shoes, or as simply not welcome in this little swear club cool clique you think you're creating, is about as insensitive to the issue as you can get. And let's not forget Romans 14, where Paul writes, "But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love." Artists may really want to use certain words, but if their decisions could cause distress, there's a problem.
Oh wait, is "hell" not edgy enough?
OK. Well, let's stay in the worship genre and look at Kings Kaleidoscope's use of the f-bomb on their 2016 release. The track that sent a shockwave through the industry contained not one, but TWO
uses of the word. The song title? "A Prayer."
If I call You with my last breath / Will You be there for me after? / 'Cause I'm wasting in this silence / And my fear is f------- violent.
I don't really care what emotion the band was trying to convey. Again, not the point. The very use of the word put up instant barriers against their ministry. They lost festival appearances over it. Tour bookings. Retail shelf space. Radio silence. Like, literally--radio pulled their music. They created mass division within their own fan base and folks on both sides of the issue lost their collective minds. And that big, red EXPLICIT icon next to the song title looks fantastic. The facts are this: The band's overall ministry footprint was hurt and reduced. Over a word. Worth it for the sake of "lyrical integrity and honesty?"
The Classic Crime recently released an album with the same word and has faced the same controversy. However, the band is signed to BadChristian, a label who made a name for themselves by not really caring what you think, regularly cussing up a storm on their podcasts. Because, well, they are "bad Christians." Being an edgy believer today, apparently, means lots of swearing and scoffing at anyone who disagrees. Andy Mineo went so far as to tell his fans on Twitter
to "Keep your $10" when faced with disagreement on his stance of supporting Christian artist's right to swear. Heard loud and clear, man!
And those are just a handful of examples. Earlier this decade, P.O.D. and Derek Webb paved the road of profanity in Christian music, with the latter having an incredibly public battle with his record label--which refused to release the album containing the obscenity.
Sho Baraka recently made headlines when LifeWay Christian Stores pulled his CD for the use of the word "penis," which followed up the multiple uses of the N-word in previous projects and this gut-wrenchingly honest but again, polarizing line on "Jim Crow:" That woman you call b---- (yeah) / That's my mother.
The rap world is full of this problem. And as Christian hip-hop artists are increasingly embraced by the mainstream, it's getting harder to trust what traditionally solid artists are putting out nowadays.
Kirk Franklin found himself on the defensive after he announced he was in the studio working on a gospel album with explicit lyricist Kanye Kardashian West. "When I was sitting in the studio with Kirk Franklin," Kanye eloquently explained
, "I said this is a gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it, but it's still a gospel album." Let's be clear here: Kanye typically makes about as much sense as giving KFC gift certificates to PETA members. But is THIS
the type of artistry an ideology we're working towards?
Chance the Rapper, a mainstream artist who frequently professes Jesus' name and sings Chris Tomlin worship songs in his concerts, follows it up with wonderful choice words most parents with a moral compass wouldn't repeat in front of their children.
John Reuben is the latest offender. We haven't heard from him in years. But he's back. Woo hoo! And he's all pent up, apparently, because try as he may, he just couldn't find another way to express his long-bottled feelings without twice dropping an expletive about male cow droppings in one of his new tracks. The uproar was so instantaneous and loud, he posted a response on Facebook
where it was clear he was borderline annoyed he even had to address it, and justified its use 10 different ways. I found his explanation to be similar to male cow droppings.
So how did we get here?
I believe it's the current business model folding in on itself and creating a massive void of accountability that Christian artists previously couldn't avoid. In years past, objectionable content was a death sentence. The label wouldn't allow it because radio wouldn't play it and retail wouldn't buy it. Retail has vanished, a relic of the past replaced by digital distribution. And with it, that accountability? Gone.
The label system is quickly eroding, forcing more and more artists out on their own where radio won't play them. Accountability, gone. They can do whatever they want and write off anyone who disagrees with a flick of the wrist and a Facebook or Twitter post. And they are.
That new reality is leaving us, the Christian music fans, with a massive quandary. The choice words of those artists who can't/won't express themselves without explicit lyrics is causing headaches for fans, casual listeners, radio executives, booking agents and the media that covers it all.
Personally, as the head of the largest Christian music site online, it's leaving me with a musical migraine. Parents write me, asking why I would push them and their family to tracks containing offensive language. Youth pastors, who rely on us to lead them to new music, find themselves diving for the mute button as these songs blare out of the speakers on Wednesday night.
These are real situations we get feedback about, and while our team can't possibly comb through every single song on every single release--hoping that somewhere an artist isn't dropping an obscene word--we have a responsibility to represent music I believe is fully glorifying to God. That is why, as a media company moving forward, I'm done with the "bleeping" Christian music. We'll bring zero attention or promotion to any album that contains explicit/profane/blasphemous/sexual language defined by the general society as obscene.
I'm not going to sit here and #jesusjuke every person that drops a naughty word in public. God knows I've let one fly here and there in my soiled past. I also truly believe that almost all of these artists and organizations are well-intentioned. Some may be being edgy for edgy's sake, but some of them really do honestly believe that what they're doing is the best way to communicate honestly and spiritually connect with a certain crowd. Fine. But let's face a reality here that exists no matter where you stand on the issue of swearing: This is a stumbling block for many. And this issue causes a lot of pauses where they just don't need to exist. It's completely avoidable.
If this continues, as I believe it will, then we're in trouble. If you've been scratching your head and are itching to blast me in the comments
, that might be the line that pushes you over the edge, but I know this as a fact: a few choice words can bring destruction to an environment and a ministry. If you don't believe me, try casually dropping them into your next conversation at church, and let's see what the general reaction of those around you are.
Despite what social media may have you believe, it probably won't look like this: