Last week the Christian rap-metal band P.O.D. (Payable on Death) came out with their eighth album, Murdered Love. When I first heard that P.O.D. was releasing a new album I was quite excited. There was a time when P.O.D. was my all-time favorite band. Indeed, they functioned like a doorway for me into the world of metal (which has since become my favorite musical genre). I can remember the first time I was ever introduced to them. It was a Jr. High Summer Camp in Southern California and I saw their CD in the bookstore. I didn’t think too much about them the rest of the camp until a cute girl asked me on the car ride back to Las Vegas what kind of music I listened to. I betrayed my ignorance – and my earnest desire to impress despite my ignorance – when I said that one of my favorite bands was ‘Pod’ (as a one-word name). Of course, after the humiliation I went out and purchased their new album at the time, The Fundamental Elements of Southtown. These are all good memories. It’s nostalgic really. And if you would have told me back then that eventually a P.O.D. song would include a few ‘F Bombs’ I would never have believed it. Intriguingly, the newest P.O.D. album contains just that: F Bombs.
In the first week since the release of Murdered Love the band has received harsh criticism from its Christian fan base on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. The question is, has P.O.D. crossed the line? Is this a compromise on their part? Can the album still be called ‘Christian’? I want to take a close look at their album and suggest that it is a thoroughly Christian one, and not despite its use of the F bombs, but including them. I will begin with some general remarks, as well as some specific thoughts related to Mumford & Sons’ album, Sigh No More, before analyzing P.O.D.’s newest album.
[SIDE-NOTE: I tried to be sensitive in my spelling of words, but of course the subject matter requires a certain straightforwardness in order to be understood. I sincerely hope that if you disagree with the point being made in this post that you at least will not be offended]
Are Swear Words Inherently Sinful?
I think this is a silly question really. Is sin bound to phonetics or intentions? Of course, the issue is not phonetic. It would be absurd to suggest that the F Bomb is sinful because words that begin with a fricative and end with a velar are evil. Well, here’s a made-up nothing word that matches that criteria: “Vug.” Try pronouncing it. It is phonetically very similar to the well-known F Bomb, yet apparently it would not be inappropriate to say! Now, this is an admittedly absurd example, but it helps prove the point. To go further, what of the halfway swear words that have appeared? When someone types “sh*t” on facebook for instance, are they trying to keep themselves from sinning? Has the removal of the “i” rescued one from moral downfall? Or by saying “freakin” instead of the F bomb are we saying anything different? Additionally, what’s the moral weight of saying “A$$” that “butt” does not possess? It’s arbitrary. Completely. Same thing applies to poop=crap=sh*t (it’s the same referent for goodness sake). I’m reminded of something Paul may have said about the letter of the Law here…
The truth of the matter is that swear words are cultural products that have come into existence in multiple contexts and in multiple languages. In fact, this is an evolutionary linguistic phenomenon as certain words become taboo over time (e.g. faggot). For our American readers, it is generally recognized that “crap” is a more sensitive word for refuse than “sh*t,” but in the UK many regard “crap” to be a cuss word. So words can contain cultural stigmas, but not inherent worth. The excessive use of swear words can indicate a certain heart attitude, such as a rebellious spirit, or indicate a dearth of active vocabulary. But these words per se are not sinful. Thus, there is no inherent moral value in swear words, or any other word for that matter. The Apostle Paul warns us to refrain from crude speech (Eph 4.29; 5.4; Col 3.8), which refers to being crass. Additionally the passages speak to belittling others. Berating a fellow brother — you idiot! — is far worse than saying, “I fell on my A$$.” What truly matters is the heart.
And, one final word, context is everything. If one is in a context where swearing is not permitted and one does so, it is obviously sinful. Additionally, if one is preaching in Church, it is likely not the most appropriate place to use swear words often, especially since issues related to the ‘weaker brother’ from Rom 14 should be taken seriously in an ecclesial setting. So the question now is, is there such a thing as an appropriate use of the F Bomb?
Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More
Truth be told I was originally planning on writing this post as part of a review for Mumford & Sons’ new album. I’ve been sitting on this post for quite some time actually. But in fact, I noticed today that they just announced the release date, September 24th, for their new album called Babel. The reason why this discussion would be relevant for Mumford & Sons is because their album Sigh No More contains many Christian themes, and yet, their hit-single “Little Lion Man” contains five F Bombs. Now, the band does not self-identify as a Christian band, though many know that the lead singer Marcus Mumford was raised by a Vineyard pastor in the UK. Thus, it is no surprise that the album contains references to God throughout. The most profound lines for me come from the song “Roll Away Your Stone.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that reciting this line out-loud often makes me teary-eyed:
It seems that all my bridges have been burned. But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works. It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart. But the welcome I receive with the restart.
The line is obviously very powerful. But what are we to make of the song three tracks later that contains five F Bombs? In “Little Lion Man” it is very clear that Marcus is conveying deep remorse for something that he has done. I’m not quite sure what he’s done, but the chorus goes, “But it was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the line, I really F***ed it up this time. Didn’t I my dear?” When I listen to this song I can’t help but feel the remorse that is being conveyed. As a piece of Art it has achieved its desired end: empathy. It is rhetorically moving as an expression of remorse. Nothing could be more heartfelt and meaningful then to say it like it is. No sugar-coating. No censoring. Just real and raw remorse. That’s powerful and effective. In my opinion, the use of the F Bomb in “Little Lion Man” is appropriate. But what about P.O.D., especially since they do self-identify as a Christian band?
A Look At P.O.D.’s Murdered Love
There is no doubting the fact that P.O.D. is a Christian band. Their early albums Brown and Snuff the Punk are about as overtly Christian as possible. Perhaps one could say that with mainstream success they tamed their message a bit (of course, one could also say that this was for missional reasons). But the fact remains that Christian themes pervade every album they’ve produced. Recently P.O.D.’s frontman Sonny Sandoval has been heavily involved in the outreach movement known as The Whosoevers (so-called after John 3:16), which aims to reach the average concert-goer with the gospel. Undoubtedly, Sonny and P.O.D. has had an incredible impact for Christ. Intriguingly, since Sonny’s involvement with The Whosoevers it is noticeable how much more overt the Christian imagery is in their newest album, Murdered Love. In fact, I’d say that it is the most overtly Christian album they’ve produced since signing a major record deal in the late 1990’s.
The album begins with “Eyez,” a visceral opener that is ostensibly about the Rapture (to be honest, this is the part of the album that offends me, but I’ll save that for another time). The song declares that “Death has risen, to meet His Majesty” and refers to the “Millenial Reign” from Rev 20. The second verse contains an amalgamation of 1 Thess 4 and Rev 19-20:
Awake and scream all who sleep in the earth. Hear his voice in the grave, arise and step forth, and make your stand while men run for the hills. Fill the valley with blood and flood the killing fields. Keep laughing now, you’re gonna regret it then. Cuz this day God will judge all the secrets of men.
The second track, “Murdered Love,” which is the title-track, makes several references to the death of Jesus. The pre-chorus declares, “he was numbered with the transgressors” and the refrain of the chorus repeats: “the day that they murdered Love.” The second verse states, referring to Jesus:
Eliminate the infinite, snuff the light and finish the truth. Kill the Immaculate. Condemn beautiful virtue. Assassination of individual redemption. Obliteration of this Undeniable One.
And in the bridge Sonny repeats: “Remember me when you come into your Glory!”
The third and fourth tracks, “Higher” and “Lost in Forever,” contain multiple references to Heaven and the afterlife (in many ways they sound like the same song).
The fifth track, “West Coast Rock Steady,” is lame and hardly deserves commenting (lyrically all it amounts to is: Hey, we’re from California). Similarly, the ninth song, “Bad Boy,” feels woefully out of place; essentially Sonny, the self-identified ‘bad boy,’ sings about how he wants a ‘good girl.’ Good grief.
The sixth track, rightfully titled “Beautiful,” is an ode to life directed towards the suicidal among their fans. It’s function is quite similar to the hit “Youth of the Nation.” It is a very positive song that I hope will reach many.
The seventh, eighth and tenth tracks, “Babylon the Murderer,” “On Fire,” and “Panic and Run,” are about the destruction of false idols and the ungodly system called, “Babylon.” In P.O.D.’s parlance, this is a de-politicized entity and in that regard unlike the biblical references in Revelation, yet it retains a certain biblical flavor.
The final track, “I Am,” is the one that has caused all the stink. Now, up until this track the album has been full of Christian imagery. Yet intriguingly, the most overtly Christian song in the album is the same one that contains the F Bombs. The song explores the gracious gift of Jesus in light of the depravity of man. Sonny sings in first-person perspective, but refers to all of humanity; he sings biblically as one in solidarity with Adam (cf. Rom 5.12-21). As an example, the verses include lines such as this from the opening line: “I am the Murderer, the Pervert, Sick to the Core. I am the Unclean, Dope Fiend, I am the Whore.” This leads directly into the Chorus. Here is it in full:
Are you the One that’s come to set me free? Cause if you knew who I am, would you really want to die for me? They say you are the cursed man, the one who hangs from this tree. I know this is the one and only Son of God, but tell me who the F*** is he?! So tell me!
Here Sonny is asking the right question in a rhetorically powerful and admittedly provocative way. His response to our just God’s gracious gift is not cliché or trite. Instead of asking, “How Could A Just God Do This?” he essentially asks a holy WTF. He isn’t being crass and he isn’t calling anyone names. He is expressing his deep amazement at the gift of God. This question, “Who the F*** is he?,” is made rhetorically necessary by the dark imagery of depravity that fills the song. The F Bomb is not out of place (just as we’d expect it in a Gangster movie it should be no surprise here). Humanity is described as so wicked and depraved that there is no other response. Why would God die for him?! Again the “he” in the F Bomb line refers to humanity, as Sonny makes explicit in the penultimate line of the song: “This is Me, We are Him, and I am You.” And beautifully Sonny ends the song with “Old things have passed away and all things become new!”
To conclude briefly, I believe that P.O.D.’s album Murdered Love is still a Christian album. In fact, “I Am” is undoubtedly the best track on the album in my opinion and it ministers to me greatly when I reflect upon it. You might say, Well why magnify Christ with such bad language? Again I would direct you to my discussion above about swear words, but I’d also note the way that Paul chose to contrast his “righteousness” according to the law with what he had in Christ. He referred to all he had gained as σκύβαλα (skubala; Phil 3.8), which was a profane term for refuse in Paul’s day. Paul understood something of the rhetorical necessity regarding the use of swear words to contrast himself with the riches of Christ. I say P.O.D. learned this lesson well.