I remember a few years ago when P.O.D released their album ‘Testify’ they indicated in the commentary section of their disc (if you purchased the director’s cut) that they almost used a swear word in their song ‘Let you Down.’ They held off, probably because of the stigma attached to swearing by their target audience. The use of a swear word in a Christian album is almost unheard of and, given the change in their line up in addition to a slowly declining popularity, P.O.D. probably thought it suicidal to include such a stigmatised word. They already had enough trouble by their sound, artwork, and their touring line up keeping their material in Christian bookstores.
Despite this, P.O.D was always beloved as the “safe” hardcare/nu-metal band for Christians, has had a good and long run of making music which is edgy and, yet, confrontational with messages of truth, love, and God. Contrary to what one might expect, this band was able to introduce a secular world to the Gospel in ways which most Christian bands dream of. Satellite, for example, became one of the top selling records of the entire decade (2000-09), and it didn’t water down their convictions one bit.
One of the reasons why P.O.D. appealed so much to my generation, whether Christian or not, is because they did well at portraying a real world and the situations we find ourselves in. While they had songs which sang of God’s love and the effect that it has on us who know it (Alive, Satellite), they also had songs which school shootings (Youth of the Nation), the loss of loved ones (Thinking About Forever), doubt (Going in Blind), gangster life (On the Grind), and, of course, just some fun off the hook rock songs (Rock the Party, Boom, Roots in Stereo). Some albums were better than others (I didn’t care too much for their self-titled album), but all of them had deep convictions and messages, not to mention talent (if you want to hear talent, listen to Jason Truby’s duet with Phil Keagey on their song Eternal).
The surprise on this new album is not only a return to some of their roots (you get the impression that they recognize the Satellite years are gone and, thus, their main prerogative is to make music for their loyal fans), it is also a confrontational record in two major ways. First, they do not water down the gospel message. From the very beginning to the very end Christian truth is played, sang, screamed, banged, and whatever else you think hard-core bands do. The message is not left behind the sound. Indeed, the very title of the album is a testimony to the death of Christ. The crucifixion was murder. And it was love that was murdered.
But more people, as I’ve already witnessed, will focus on the second point of confrontation: P.O.D, for the first time on a record, uses the f-word. Not a big detail, except for the fact that P.O.D carries with them the name ‘Christian.’ This has already created a good bit of stir, boycotts, and reactions from many within the Christian community. One reviewer wrote, “ ‘Murdered Love’ would have easily garnered a 4-star rating without the disappointment of ‘I Am,’ but that one song sadly skews the entire album.” Not just the song. The whole album. The point and the message is lost for this one reviewer.
How could P.O.D, the safe alternative to Korn, Papa Roach, Manson, and so many others, betray such an obvious moral imperative? Christians don’t swear. And we certainly don’t do so intentionally. It’s a sign of the world…
Or is it?
Now, let me say something somewhat controversial. I am glad that P.O.D. used this word. For the record, I’m not saying that I would’ve been let down if they didn’t. They didn’t need to. Indeed, I was fairly surprised when I heard it. I needed to backtrack the song. But the fact that they had the guts to do say raises some very interesting points about where our Christian generation is heading, what it finds important, and, even, what the relevancy might be of using such a word. And the benefit of this is that it allows us an opportunity to bring the discussion of language to the forefront. Is it what we say (as many suppose) or how we say it and what we mean by it that is of issue? If anyone sees this as a pointless discussion, I want to remind you of the incident this past week where The Blind Side (a Christian movie by almost all accounts) was removed from Life Way Christian bookstores because of the presence of a couple swear words. Or think of how many kids are turned off from otherwise moral, upstanding bands (whose messages, again, support Christian ethics and ways of thinking) because of the term “secular” or because of the presence of a “bad word.” The “safe” alternatives we give our children often tend to represent worse ways of looking at reality than better ways, but we insist that they are the godly choice, not because they do well to explain reality but because they don’t include stigmatized and confrontational issues.
Language has appropriate times and places. I’ve never held that all swearing is immoral. For one thing, no one has yet to explain to me how the combination of certain letters can make a mere vocal utterance immoral. What if I inserted a different vowel in a traditional swear word. If the intention is still there, wouldn’t it still carry the same level of immorality? Or does the presence of a different way of spelling somehow change the innocence of the word? Secondly, few people recognize that there is a difference between a swear and a curse. The latter is directly against somebody, a point to pre-determine their value or a sort of destiny. The former is more emphatic. It makes a point and serves as a marker of degree or quality: “What the heck?” and “What the hell?” mean the same thing; the degree of emphasis is just elevated in the latter. But is emphasis wrong? Not according to most of our human existence and, even, church existence. With that said, let’s ask what P.O.D’s song, I Am, is actually about.
I originally anticipated that the song would be about YHWH, the “I Am” as portrayed in Scripture. But this was not what the song is about at all. Contrary to what one might think, the song takes on the persona of a sinner. Stemming from the singer’s time with hurting youth he wrote in the first person, of somebody who hates themselves and equally struggles with the idea that they have any value, even to God. The first verse reads as such:
I Am The Murdered, The Pervert , Sick To The Core
I Am The Unclean, Dope Fiend, I Am The Whore)
I Am The Beat Down, Mistreated, Sexually Abused
I Have Violated, Fornicated and sexually Used
I Am The Con Artist, Cold Hearted, Smooth Preacher
Cash Stealer, Emotion Bleeder, The Soul Lecher
I Feed Off The Poor But I’m A Slave To The Rich
I’m In Depression So, This Reflection is Making Me Sick
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 ?
The question, “Who the f*** is he?” follows up this verse and is the question stemming out of the mouth of the sinner (an important point). Captive in sin, stuck in an identity of shame and guilt and regret, there is a degree of emphasis in the question, an emotional plea for an answer. Sonny’s (the singer) reason for including the phrase was out of an attempt to be real: “I think that’s just being honest, from anybody’s point of view. We’re all confused and have problems and struggles. If you’re praying to a god who can help you, it’s OK to be honest, and it (the song) is an honest prayer. ”
For anyone who has reservations now, know that the band thought long and hard before including it but due to the singer’s experiences with abused or abusing teenagers he thought the word was necessary to express the emphasis of the pain of those hurting. And the use of the swear word here, I contend, is entirely appropriate for the persona in place.
P.O.D. portrays a real hurting world in which the offer of salvation does not come down from the sky wrapped with a pink ribbon. Salvation and redemption confront the very identity of a person and asks them to change their very essence. For the pervert, it means not only abandoning your perversions but recognizing them. For the one who’s sexually abused, it means not only realizing that you have been used in this way without so much of a choice but also the ability to forgive the one who has done that to you. There’s a deep shame when we actually recognize our hearts and any sane person who sees this should equally ask the question ‘Would You Really Want to Die for Me?’ Perhaps no swear word, perhaps a swear word. Who cares? What level of desperation are you at? We can’t be expected to get clean and washed before we experience the love and forgiveness of God. He wants us, as broken and offensive as we might be. (Tweet This)
Now, did P.O.D. make a mistake in simply recognizing this and including it in their record, swear word and all? I don’t think so. For one thing, such emphasis in a declaration will inevitably catch the believer’s ears (it did for me) and make them ask ‘What is it that they’re really portraying?’ It moves from being just a headbanging song to a confrontational song, one which makes the believer look at his own heart and recognize, at the same time, the depth that God will go for those that are the thieves, swindlers, murderers, perverts, and so on. Secondly this opens up a door of reality for those that live this identity. It recognizes reality. When The Blind Side was removed from Christian bookstores last week it was due to a couple profane words including one somewhat offensive use of Jesus’ name within the gangs of the city. The pastor who found this offensive would have preferred that the gang/streets scene would have all those features (wife-beater t-shirts, cards, rap music, etc.) but without the swear. Really? Is this a good portrayal of the real situation which took place? Or is it “safe” so as not to offend any Christian, while perhaps leaving the non-Christian feeling that such a lack of passion and reality places Christianity itself outside the realm to be taken seriously. P.O.D., much like The Blind Side, described a situation of redemption with the dirt that it carries and, thus, came into contact with every day life for most people. The use of such a word is intended to help us wake up and realize a truly hurting world.
The fact is, if you meet these identities (and I would guess that somewhere along the line all of us do), you will identify whether cognitively or not with the question ‘Who is this man that died for me?’ When this encounter happens, it is not always clean and happy. The recognition of our own sin and depravity should make us bothered, aggravated, saddened, and even perplexed. The response for many may be less than pretty. But it is effective and true.
P.O.D. recognizes that our culture and our generation does not take issue with language in the same way that previous generations do. But even more so, they recognize that redemption is never clean. It involves the destruction of the one person in order to make a new one. A question full of emphasis, emotional angst, anger, sadness, and curiosity may be what inevitable opens up the door for Christ to respond “I am he.”