The editors of Patrol Magazine, an online journal for hipster evangelicals, recently offered a broadside against those evangelicals like Brett McCracken and the Southern Baptists who remain cautious about throwing off their prudish heritage and embracing the liberating and enlightened state of those Christians who engage in . . . profanity.
There’s no doubt that those suddenly addressing the “issue” of Christian swearing have missed the cultural train. What David Bazan arguably started with his potty-mouthed lyrics has been fully realized as younger Christians have thrown off the church’s traditional linguistic taboos with nearly as much fervor as they have embraced alcohol and rejected partisan politics. Considering how widespread and essentially non-controversial Christian swearing has become in the past decade, even in the Bible Belt, it is surprising that a Christian musician only now had to battle with a record label over a lyrical obscenity.
The irony of their critique is that McCracken’s piece was published by Relevant Magazine, the editor of which was originally tapped to pray at Barack Obama’s inauguration and has openly rejected partisan politics. If there is one evangelical magazine that has not missed the cultural train, it’s Relevant.
The editorial continues:
No, the obscenities now uttered by young Christians have transcended the milquetoast rebellion of the “emergent” movement and are likely here to stay. They have arisen as peripheral indicators of a whole new level of intellectual openness, and an almost masochistic devotion to honestly sorting through the horrors of our time. With young Christians in unblinking pursuit of the big questions, it’s hardly a surprise to find them uninterested in who is saying [s**t] or what corporate behemoth is gifting funds to gay rights. In an adult world of strong ideas and strong language, puerile fixations on “bad words” and partisan allegiances are no longer even part of their consciousness.
The attempt to justify swearing on grounds that we have ascended to “big questions” is both facile and pretentious. It ignores the fact that somehow the Victorians—not to mention many of our parents—managed to ask big questions without stooping to use profanity. And while Patrol thinks that critiquing corporate behemoths for funding gay rights is beneath them, their suppression of piracy is worthy of judgment. Never mind that disparaging traditional evangelical efforts to vote with their dollars undermines the case for ‘protest stealing’ that Sessions argues for in the case of piracy. Intellectual consistency be—dare I say it?—damned.
Anderson is right that young Evangelicals are intent on outer signs, and that they are not culturally clueless or “fundamentalists.” What he is wrong to think is that there is anything new in this. It is hard to expect much different when the head of an Evangelical arts program, about my age but dressing younger, can tell me that a goal of his program is to let the “kids know it is o.k. for Christians to say ‘bastard.’” I remember thinking at the time that it might be more useful to have a program in the arts reminding students that it was okay for a Christian not to say ‘bastard.’
I suspect that Reynolds would agree that jumping on the “cultural train” is a sure way toward cultural captivity, popularity, and Christian impotence. Regardless, the editors attempt to justify swearing as grounded in a better way of intellectual life (ironically) undercuts the possibility of thinking about swearing and its implications, which I suppose is why the article is suspiciously light on arguments. Some “weighty” reasons for swearing are mentioned, but never articulated or even linked to. But then, that’s not Patrol‘s point: Patrol wants us to ignore the question of swearing altogether and simply accept the fact that all the kids are doing it. This is, however, a rather impoverished view on Christianity’s offering the world on the question of language and its appropriate uses.
Despite Patrol‘s best efforts, I suspect that swearing will (rightly) remain a question worth considering along all the other questions of evangelical ethics, for it is a question of our speech to each other and to the world. I will make no attempt to answer it one way or another here, but will instead close with Karl Barth’s devastating critique of Christian freedom for its own sake:
The strength of the strong is confronted by an iron barrier. We now stand before the krisis of what we think to be our freedom, of the freedom in which we rejoice as our good. But it is good only when it is the freedom of the Kingdom of God. Do we understand this? Is our freedom nothing but the freedom which God takes to Himself in our doing or in our not doing? Or is it a freedom which we take to ourselves in His name? Or do we perceive that our freedom is important only when it demonstrates His freedom? Or do we suppose our freedom to be in itself important? In displaying our strength, are we anxious that—righteousness and peace and joy should be made known unto men? Or are we, in fact, in the end concerned with—eating and drinking?