This is a variation of an old blog I wrote on someone else’s site, but I think it’s a great reminder of our present situation.
Over one Christmas stay in LA, I was conversing with a Christian who exclaimed to me in utter disgust, “Can you believe Urbana got Bono from U2? Bono!??!!” I have to admit, as a knee jerk reaction, I was a little freaked out by her disdain for Bono. I happen to like U2. My wife LOVES U2 (no, she doesn’t love ‘you too’; she loves the band). Upon deeper meditation on the topic, I have come to my own conclusion. What you say about Bono says more about your Christianity than Bono. Hear me out please.
This week, Mike Huckabee has said some things that offended both Christians and non-Christians alike. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151195531403915 He basically observes that America has rejected God and we should not be surprised that we have gun violence. Certainly, America is not a Christian nation, and arguably, probably was never really one. The firestorm that follows causes a lot of very angry reaction. I’m not here to argue the right or wrong of Huckabee’s logic. Rather, the offense of his words, however good it is, has offended the community because of the context in which it was said. Words and context are important in preaching. We really need to think about language used in the pulpit and in our Christian vocabulary. Quite often, Christians can sweat a lot about the small stuff and miss the big picture. What then is the small stuff? Let me use U2’s Bono as our example.
I recall watching Rattle and Hum years ago, a documentary of a U2 tour. With musical movies like that, you’ve got to see it on big screen. Nothing less will do. I recall hearing the mesmerizing and “edgy” (no pun) guitar work with Bono’s aggressive lyrics. I recall being completely captured by the U2 spiritual “Love Rescued Me” or by the soulful B. B. King as he celebrated Christ in “When Love Comes to Town” or haunted by the creepy “Helter Skelter” and “All Alone in the Watchtower.” It’s all good.
One particular moment touched me deeply during a rendition of “Silver and Gold” when I heard Bono zealously shouted, “F… apartheid.” I hate to say it, but my heart echoed, “Hell, yeah!” So, like the naïve idealist that I was (still am), I went back and shared that touching moment with some of my Baptist friends in the Baptist church I was going to at the time (no offense against Baptists, but do please keep the fan mail to yourselves, OK?). The typical response they gave me was (get this!), “Bono said the F-word?” I couldn’t believe it. Black people were being oppressed for the color of their skin, and all these believers cared about was Bono’s F-word? The F-word is probably the only fitting word for the context at hand. Their response sums up for me the popular understanding of piety among evangelicals. In that encounter with such “pious” people, I had arrived in the religious twilight zone. In retrospect, I was surprised no one answered, “But Bono plays rock and roll, the devil’s music.” From the shocked look in their eyes, maybe someone was thinking that, but knew better than to spout it out in front of fiery Dr. Sam. This is the same church that was afraid that the Laotians and Vietnamese would take over their congregation while they were nestled comfortably in the middle of Little Saigon in Orange County. Surprised?
Now you may not always agree with all of Bono’s politics or even any of his theology. I certainly do not, but I did feel passionate enough to echo his sentiment (maybe not in quite such colorful words). I totally agree with Bono’s heart for the poor. His context justified his language.
In response to those Baptist friends, I sometimes wonder which Bible they have been reading. I can imagine the fiery “Saint” Paul rattling and humming off a few colorful words himself when writing his letters. Try Phil. 3.8 for the “S- word” in Greek. I kid you not. Maybe I should write a book on cuss words in the Bible because there’re not a few, and I bet you it will sell. Then, I can retire. Don’t worry. I won’t do it because I don’t want to retire that early, and you can’t get rid of me so easily. Lest you think this is a yet another off-the-wall rant from the crazy professor, you ought to try looking in the Greek and Hebrew. No telling what side benefits you may derive from reading God’s word in the original language. Maybe that’s why some of my students are afraid to take the languages. They’re afraid of the “cussing Holy Bible.” To add to Eccl. 3.1-8, maybe there’s a place in there for “a time to cuss.” Now I’m really kidding (or am I?). What then is the “small stuff”? The small stuff is the religion we made in our own image to make ourselves feel good about ignoring the bigger and more major issue that the Bible repeatedly dealt with.
What exactly did the Bible deal with more than the F-word or S-word Bono or Paul (gasp) might have uttered once in a while?
In all seriousness, Bono’s concern for social justice is the heart of the Bible. If we compare the command not to use foul language (strictly speaking, one verse James 3.10) to condemnation of God and Jesus against those who oppress the poor, those who are prideful, those who use politics in God’s kingdom for their own power and gain, those who live hypocritically, those who ignore the needs of others for their own greed, and those who commit sin against their neighbors, the F-word is the least of our problems. How many have been prideful this week? How many have not given to God His share of time, talents and treasures? Yet, many take the dominant ethics of the Bible with such a flippant attitude, while making a mountain of Christian ethics from a mole hill of verses. Bono’s prophetic cry, though laced with the F-word, is often more biblical than many feeble attempts at the pulpit across our nation every Sunday morning. If anyone even tries to honestly exegete the Prophets, he would sound more like Bono than my friends whose message is simply not to use the F-word. Such is evangelicalism.
If anyone has ever been to South Africa, they can see with their own eyes the effects of colonialism. It is not pretty. It has done irreparable damage to the gospel and the African family structure as well as tribal relationships. In the University of the Free State where I once visited and lectured, there was not one local black divinity student in the audience. It is not so much that they don’t have the heart to serve God. Lots of our African brothers and sisters love to serve the Lord. However, their educational setback will take years to catch up due to apartheid. It is not that many of my white European colleagues in the university do not care to train up black divinity students to be ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church, they simply have to (rightly) keep up academic standards. It is not the fault of my white colleagues, but the beautiful environment of those lecture halls is worlds apart from those who are in real need of the gospel.
This focus on Bono’s F-word (or any other trivially distasteful acts) is more of an indicator of evangelical decay. For popular evangelicalism, the “evangel” is more about social respectability than social responsibility. It is more about “I’ve done enough (because I don’t use the F-word)” than about “what else can I do?” Oftentimes, Christianity is reduced to “don’t drink, don’t dance (don’t cuss) and don’t hang out with girls that do.” This popular form of religion sells the gospel way short till there is no more good news left, other than a bunch of petty do’s and don’ts. Moral legalism has often distracted the evangelical Church from her real responsibility to the world. Many evangelicals are more concerned that they do not use the F-word than about the condition of the world. While Bono continues to talk to international dignitaries, these irrelevant Christians talk ABOUT Bono (or Rick Warren or anyone else who’s trying to make an impact beyond our comfortable but dysfunctional little upper middle class first-world evangelical community). What this underwhelming evangelical Christianity needs is a swift and hard kick in the posterior, even if it takes Bono’s F-word to do it.
If Christianity is reduced to cultural respectability (aka the small stuff), I think we should stop calling ourselves “Christian” (not that there’s anything wrong with that term, but that it has lost its true meaning of being a witness per Acts 11.26) and start being REAL Christ followers because Christianity has turned into a load of “BS (i.e. bachelor of science).” Can I say that?
This week, Mike Huckabee has made a few people angry because he missed the “big stuff” (aka the big picture) and replaced it with the “small stuff” (aka the religion in our own image). His context is also wrong. Now is not the time to talk about pet issues. A bunch of people died and bunch more of other related to the victims are suffering unnamable grief. Context, in this case, is part of the big stuff. This is not the time or the place to discuss his pet issues.
What is the bottom line? I think it has to do with how every Christian cares about the way every other Christian thinks about him or her. I know this inside and out because I was rocked in the cradle of evangelicalism. We have created such an artificial culture of hypocrisy that only upper middle class respectability now defines popular evangelicalism. It is more superficial than substantial. It is more about face than about grace. It is more a civil religion than an authentic faith. The difference between the two is like night and day. Yet, many treat the inferior as the superior. This present pretence of morality is more about holier-than-thou-ness (i.e. self-righteousness) than holiness. Our focus on this appearance of morality is in fact disgustingly and remarkably immoral. It makes us look more like whitewashed tombstones than white robed saints. Words only have meaning in context. Some can use religious vocabulary to do violence while others use coarse words to make peace. Sadly, unlike Bono, Huckabee dropped his “god-speak” into the context of a bunch of underaged murder victims, nearly causing more grief than comfort. In a sense, Huckabee is the anti-Bono in this case. I conclude by asking with Bono’s lyrics in “Silver and Gold”, “Am I bugging you? Don’t mean to bug ya.” Keep on bugging, Bono! Words matter… timing also.
 For a serious discussion on obscene speech, see Jeremy Hultin, Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (Leiden: Brill, 2008).