What do John Piper, Derek Webb, Mark Driscoll, and British folk band Mumford & Sons have in common? A lot more than they would probably all admit, but at the very least each of them has used a curse word in a public setting (to be fair to Piper–he is merely quoting someone). If you are a music fan, you are probably familiar with the controversy (albeit somewhat self-inflicted) surrounding Webb’s song “What Matters More” in which he uses two four letter words in an effort to expose what he sees as an evangelical tendency to attack homosexuality while ignoring more pressing matters. To be fair, Mumford & Sons have not declared publicly whether or not they are Christians, however, their album Sigh No More is a testament to salvation by grace alone. “Little Lion Man”, one of Mumford’s most popular songs has the F-word in the chorus–so it’s repeated often and yet the song is clearly about seeking salvation outside ourselves.
So these examples press the question, is it ever appropriate to curse for the sake of adding force to our arguments or relevance to our art? Should Christians avoid art that includes four letter words? Is there ever an appropriate time for curse words? Did the Biblical authors ever use such language? How much does our culture define our words?
I can’t even begin to address all these questions adequately in this blog post so I won’t try, but I will lay out some guiding principles in navigating these waters.
1. Cursing does not prohibit someone from being a Christian. This sounds like a no-brainer, but when I first started thinking about writing this post I didn’t know whether the members of Mumford & Sons publicly professed to be Christians–so I did some googling and discovered a couple of discussion boards addressing that issue and found a number of Christians saying things like, “they are not Christians–they use the F-word in one of their songs.” Given that these comments were made, I feel the need to point out that cursing simply is not a biblical indicator as to whether someone is a believer or not.
2. The Bible does not condemn the use of four letter words explicitly. The key word here is explicitly. The Bible condemns foolish talk and perverse language (Col. 3:8; Eph. 4:29, 5:4) and promotes that which serves to “build up.” The Bible is more concerned with the purpose behind our words than the words themselves. Our words ought to be gracious and seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). It’s worth saying that there is no list of words that do and do not fit that category. Even if there was, what language would it be in? What English words are off limits for the Christian? I am not insinuating that anything goes in terms of the language we use. Whether a word is a “curse” word or not is not the question these verses move us toward. The question we should be asking ourselves is what the motive is behind our language. Is it to build up or to tear down? Is it to promote beauty, goodness, and grace? Do our words encourage or discourage the pursuit of God? Is the motive behind our words to make light of that which is evil? Is our motive to be controversial and divisive? It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean but what comes up out of his heart (Mark 7:18-23).
3. Words are defined to some degree by the culture they are spoken in. Meaning begins with the communicator, but the meaning of the communicator’s words are influenced and defined to some degree by the various cultures they are spoken in. For example, the word “bloody” means something completely different here in the United States than it does in the United Kingdom. In some English speaking cultures, what we would consider to be curse words are much more common place and are not nearly as offensive as they seem to us. I have personally known Christians from other cultures that regularly cursed in conversation and didn’t think anything of it and typically their cursing was not motivated by bitterness, anger, or slander. Think about new believers–some of their cussing before they came to Christ was probably not motivated by perversion or anger. For example–they see something that surprises them and they respond with, “Oh s**t!” Such speech was not motivated by slander, anger, or desire to hurt someone. What motivated that particular word was surprise. Biblical wisdom and sensitivity may suggest removing certain four letter words from our regular vocabulary. You could even say it varies from family to family–I have upset parents by saying “stupid” before–even though I wasn’t referencing a person but an idea–i.e. “driving without a seatbelt is stupid!” These examples do not make it wise to use such words, but at the very least we should consider how far removed we are from someone’s culture or situation before we start throwing stones at them for using such language. I am simply arguing for Christian charity here.
Does that mean that there is an appropriate place for four letter words in Christian expression? I would simply say that the Bible doesn’t answer that question for us. In my context there really isn’t any situation I can presently think of in which I would feel compelled to use what our culture would consider a curse word. Take the S-word for example. What makes it offensive? You wouldn’t chide someone for saying saying “excrement,” “feces,” or even “poop.” Why is the S-word offensive? It’s worth thinking about. Paul Tripp addresses this very issue here (he is building on Scriptures’ teaching on our speech–don’t watch it if hearing the S-word is going to cause you to sin). But these words shouldn’t cause us to sin. If merely hearing these words is causing us to sin, there is a much deeper problem in us that needs to be addressed.
Most four letter words are culturally impolite and we don’t serve anyone well by using them. But what should we do when others do? Be gracious to them–be willing to distinguish between words that are meant to damage others and make light of sin and words that are merely impolite and do not indicate impure motives on the part of the speaker. In general, we should always care more about the condition of people’s hearts than we do about their outward actions. Outward actions are heart indicators, so we don’t help Christians by correcting behavior without addressing the heart.
So what to do with Mumford & Sons? I wouldn’t recommend “Little Lion Man” to any of the students at my church. I have listened to it, and I think despite an unwisely used word (which doesn’t seem to be aimed to hurt anyone, but rather to express remorse) the song has a redemptive theme that is worthy of consideration by mature Christians who are not going to be tempted toward sin by hearing that particular expletive. Their use of this particular word in this particular context does not warrant a boycott of the rest of their catalog which is expletive free, gracious and seasoned with salt.
What about in our interaction with media? Should we avoid music and movies that contain expletives? Yes and No. Yes if hearing such music or watching such movies is influencing you to use language in a damaging way rather than a gracious way or if that particular media is actively promoting immorality. We live in a very dark world, however, and much of the media we decry is actually drawing out the darkness of our world rather than promoting it–that is a distinction worth making. Anytime you watch a movie or a TV show–ask yourself what the point of its use of language is. Is the show promoting immorality through its use of language or is it simply realistically illustrating a situation? In case you didn’t know, lots of people in our country use curse words regularly. Any war movie in which people don’t curse when bombs are falling all around them is simply not realistic. Think about the meaning and the purpose behind all the words you hear before casting judgment. Be wary of writing off a particular piece of pop culture simply because it uses a word on your list. Jesus didn’t give us such a list and I think he would rather we be concerned more about the condition of our hearts.