P.O.D., “I Am,” and Living in Culture

One of the most successful bands who managed to maintain popularity within Christian circles, P.O.D., released an album this last July, entitled Murdered Love. I reviewed the album with my good friend Nick, which you can listen to here. We talked a lot of about the album, and ended up spending a decent amount of time on one particular controversial track, but we were overall pretty much in agreement: the album works for what it is, and in some ways is a return to form for the band. It may not be up to the caliber of Satellite, but it comes closer than anything else they’ve released. I’ve already alluded to it, but there is one track that will have people up in arms (and, in fact, has already done so): the track is called “I Am,” and might be the most explicitly Christian track they’ve ever released.

And it uses the word “f*ck.”

Well, sort of. You see, the final version of the song left it censored, and the track itself was pulled from the album in the Christian market. This week, however, the track has apparently been on my buddy Nick’s heart, as he’s seen fit to write up a blog of his own on the topic. He cited a few reviews from Christian outlets (Jesusfreakhideout and Plugged In) who took strong issue with the usage of the word. Before I dive into the track itself, take a look at some of the lyrics:

I am the murderer, 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 leecher
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 wanna die for me?
They say you are the cursed man, the one who hangs from this tree
But I know this is the one and only son of God, so tell me, who the f*ck is he?

That’s the first verse and the chorus, and it hits hard. The track writes from the perspective of sinners personified rather generally. The intention is to identify with these descriptions by pointing out the universality of sin, and then to remind us of how absurd the Gospel seems to us, at first glance. A man came, son of God, and died for me? For me? Really?

Nick makes a few points in response to the negative reviews of the album (full disclosure, in case you didn’t read his post: he is a fan of the song). First, he suggests that words shift often enough that we shouldn’t get so hung up on them: maybe “floops” will be our ‘worst swear’ tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I should feel guilty for saying it today. There’s some truth to what he says here, of course: words change meaning, even in the course of a single lifetime. But I’d argue something different. There’s something to be said for cultural sensitivity, and that something is that maybe we should have it. I’m not suggesting we pull punches to make people feel better, but we should certainly think long and hard before we go out of our way to offend people. A comment on Nick’s blog suggested “Jesus Himself allowed his name to be dirtied for the sake of the sinful and broken.” That rings true, but it doesn’t mean we have the right to damage Jesus’ name; let’s damage our own, if necessary, but not His.

Nick’s second point–that P.O.D. has never really been concerned about what Evangelicals think–is difficult to argue with. It wasn’t P.O.D.’s primary focus, but they do seem to care, at least some. Their primary focus with music isn’t fellowship or edification of believers, though. The goal is evangelism, I suspect, and the track should be evaluated in those terms. This functions as Nick’s third point.

Here’s my point, and my argument, so that you don’t miss it: When we choose words, we need to carefully consider the way those words will impact our listeners, whoever they may be. In theory, an evangelism message should be as impactful to a believer as it is to a would-be-convert. If the message is milk, rather than meat, we should still be edified. Likewise, we should carefully consider how we listen to the words around us. If a friend came to me, in utter despair, and used the language of that song as a movement towards Christianity, I wouldn’t plug my ears and run; my job, in that moment, is to reach into the filth of this ugly world and help bring people out. As Christians, we are to be lights; how can we be light if we only point ourselves at other sources of light. It’s worth spending time edifying one another (Galatians makes this point a number of times), but if we never turn and face the sin of this world, if we never eat with non-believers, if we never step towards the darkness, how will we ever cure it? How will they hear?

When it comes to this track, the analysis becomes trickier. I hear Nick’s arguments, particularly his exposition of the many Christian themes and allusions throughout the controversial track, and I’m sympathetic. Really, I am. I’m not opposed to the track, whole-sale, even if I’ve got plenty of reasons to pause before any sort of endorsement. Let me clarify this, briefly.

I was fortunate enough to talk with Sonny on the phone for an interview; we spoke about his album, I told him that Satellite was better, and we laughed about it (I would link to the interview, but the audio came out pretty poorly). We got to speak about the track “I Am,” and he explained his heart on the subject. Sonny explained that this was a reflection of the sort of discussions he had regularly had with fans of his; they would come up to him, and say things like “Man, I f*cking love your show, and your music is f*cking awesome, Christianity is f*cking weird, and why the f*ck would someone die for me?” It stopped registering for him, at some point, but it had become something of a symbol; here was a clear way to say “I am one of you; I understand.” The concept here was novel for me: I found a way to (if a bit weirdly) fit in without using language like that all through my public high school (even talking about and listening to P.O.D. with my friends), but I also have a far more limited experience than Sonny did. It seemed worth pondering.

And that’s where I want to leave this: at the point of considering, pondering, and thinking. It’s possible that P.O.D. was wrong, that they’ve made the wrong decision in releasing this song upon the world, and that it will more harm than good. But here’s one thing I can’t very well doubt: Sonny and the boys from San Diego carefully considered this track, thought it would be helpful in the demographic they are intending to evangelize to, and released it. Our job is to further the Gospel.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).