The Little Drummer Boy Responds to Denny Burk

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The elders of Kenwood Baptist in Louisville recently publicized three classes taught at their church by Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk, the point of which was to warn their members against certain errors that they saw emanating from our Moscow project here.

The first two classes were taught by Jim Hamilton and addressed postmillennialism and theocracy respectively. These should be located in the doctrinal disagreement category. The third class was taught by Denny Burk, and addressed my use of the “satiric bite” (and the use of certain words), alongside my repeated defenses of such usage.

The first class was ably answered by Jared Longshore, a response you can find here. It is my intention to respond to Denny Burk’s critique here in this space, which you can start reading if you just give me a minute. The one on theocracy might have to wait a little while . . . this is because while we were all in the middle of a hot debate over Christian nationalism, the baptistic anti-CN critics went and established a Christian prince as Speaker of the House of Representatives, which I call a dirty move. We trust that you will be willing to give us a moment to collect our thoughts. We might need to regroup on that point.

Recommended Background Reading

I have been answering objections on the topic of satire/language for about forty years years now, and so the territory is certainly well-covered. There are various conclusions you might draw from this. One is that here I am, stubbornly doing my own thing, insisting over the course of decades that it is the rest of the army that is out of step, not me. That is one possibility. Another possibility, and the one that I clearly prefer, is that the pietistic tradition really is deeply ingrained in the conservative evangelical mindset, and that we need to work ever more diligently to let the text confront us when it comes to our traditions. The besetting sin of pietism has always been that of wanting to be holier than the Bible.

I have written one book on this topic, which can be found here. In addition, there are a number of other places where I have needed to answer objections. Once was the time when John Frame reviewed the aforementioned book, and I responded to him. He wrote the review for Reformation and Revival Journal, but I also published his review here on my blog. And my response to that review is here.

I have had multiple occasions to address this subject. Indigniladies was one. Understanding Bad Words was another one. A Temporizing Baa-Lamb was yet another. And here would be yet two more—on the nature of prophetic language and on the prophetic voice.

And as if that were not enough, added to all this, my rejoinder to Denny’s critique is below. The astute reader will notice some overlap in all these responses, but there is also some new material. This is because Denny has brought forward a substantive argument that I had not encountered before. This is remarkable, and much to his credit, in that I have been dealing with FAQs on all of this for many years now.

Appreciation First

So allow me to express my appreciation before getting into it. First, the elders of Kenwood Baptist clearly take their responsibilities as shepherds seriously, and they believe they have an obligation to warn the sheep about dangerous teaching. It is a responsibility they have clearly taken on, and I applaud them for it. The fact that we believe them to be sounding an alarm unnecessarily should not keep us from acknowledging that they are the kind of men who are willing to stand in between their flock and what they believe to be a problem or a threat. For that, they should be heartily commended, and so I do—no guile.

Second, Denny is obviously an honest and capable critic. He did a good job summarizing and representing my position, and in terms that I could largely own. This was not a straw man critique, in other words. He followed my break-down of objectionable words in English into four categories (cursing, swearing, vulgarity, and obscenity), and he ably reproduced my argument that Scripture forbids all four—and yet we can find examples of Scripture using all four. He plainly pointed out my conclusion that this means—since Scripture is not contradictory—that there must be both lawful and unlawful uses in each category. In short, Denny took up this debate in a way that is essential to all productive debate—he represented his opponent in terms his opponent could own. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jim Hamilton’s representation of my views on theocracy, but that needs to wait for another time.

Denny accepted the structure of my argument across the board, and accepted my argument entirely when it came to cursing and swearing. He agreed with me up to that point, in other words. Where he objected was that he believes my scriptural examples of godly vulgarity and godly obscenity were not as crude or as crass in the original as I made them out to be. His response was that the Scriptures did in fact refer to such “matters,” but did so by means of euphemism, unlike me. And he is correct that, if this is so, then my argument fails at those two points, especially since I was objecting to our tendency to use euphemism to clean up the Bible.

Thus far, his presentation was strong, and well worthy of an answer. I will get to that below. The question thus rides on a question of exegetical fact, which means there can be hope that we can actually get to an answer. After all, the text says what it does.

And it would be nice to be able to get to that solution because the men at Kenwood are the kind of men we would like to be allied with. We would rather not be in a conflict with them, believing as we do that we both have bigger fish to fry. But here we are, and I hope this response helps clarify for them why we function the way that we do.

A Few Wobbles

There were a couple places where Danny’s critique was misleading, but these wobbles were not central to his argument. But wobbles they were, and I should briefly note them. This was because he made it sound like I was arguing for the liberty to talk like this all the time, and it was made to seem likely that I can oft be heard asking Nancy to pass the &%!#*! potatoes. It sounded like he thought I wanted our people here at Christ Church to feel free to let fly whenever they felt like it. For example, he said several times that the elders at Kenwood did not want their people to start talking this way, as though the saints at Christ Church did talk this way. He did seek to ameliorate this impression with a very brief comment right at the the end of his talk, but by that point the picture was done and the paint was mostly dry. I bring this up because the point needs to be drastically modified.

So before going on, let me explain myself on this point, and let me defend my people. I will start with the latter first. If somebody from Kenwood Baptist had just heard about this disagreement, but they were already in the process of moving from Louisville to Moscow, one of the things they might be surprised to learn when they arrived is the fact that the Christians here talk the same way conservative evangelicals do everywhere. They would not find that they had moved from one style of discourse (that of maiden aunts) to another (that of two machinist mates on a tramp steamer trying to repair a broken-down engine). They would not have gone from a world of powder blue to ultramarine. Our fellowship times here are not festivals of verbal antinomianism.

And with regard to my own behavior, I really think that some perspective is in order. I think it is safe to say that I have written millions of words. While keeping Proverbs 10:19 in mind, out of all those millions of words, and the scads of books I have written, I can think of maybe ten particular instances where I have used a word that Denny would put in the corrupt category that he is addressing. And when I have written something like this, I have made it obvious I have not been doing it to entice Christians to loosen up and cuss a little bit more. Rather, I have done it in order to attack sin, and to make sin reprehensible in the eyes of the reader.

“Nine times out of ten it is the coarse word that condemns an evil, and the refined word that excuses it.”


In fact, I have done it for the very same reasons that the elders of Kenwood Baptist asked Denny to teach this class. He referred to some of the words I have used in the past in his talk, employing euphemisms and short-hand as he did so, but he also had a collection of examples in print that he offered to show folks after the class if they wanted to see the full text.

Now then, would it be fair for me to say that Denny Burk once had a handout of crass words and phrases that he showed people after a Sunday School class? That would be technically accurate, but it would be leaving out the most important part, wouldn’t it? The important part was why was he showing people these objectionable words. What was the context? What was the intent? What was the purpose?

Ah. Context. Purpose. Intent. What I am looking for here is equal weights and measures. If we take context and intent into account when we talk about Denny’s Sunday School talk, then we should also take it into account when looking at the times when I have done it. If the context can be dismissed or ignored when we are talking about my usages, then we can dismiss the context that indicates that Denny was warning people away from a sin, instead of just distributing objectionable words or phrases at church.

A second wobble. A couple times Denny said I was trying to encourage something like “angry, bitter, and biting” speech. I don’t know what passage he was citing there so I couldn’t go look up the context, but taken as a generalization, it is the very opposite of the kind of attitude I am trying to display. And this is why I once outlined the creed of a happy warrior. Not angry, bitter, and biting. Jolly and biting.

Start at the Deep End

So let’s take the example that probably has the highest alcohol content—my use of the c-word in the course of my rebuke of Nadia Bolz-Weber. Immediately following my use of it in that post, here are some other things I said, providing some context. In other words, I was very clear about my purpose and intent.

“And in response to this horrifying declaration . . .

“You take issue with my language above? You sat through the presentation of that little gynecological statue, and applauded dutifully? You wrote a respectful and dialoging interaction with Bolz-Weber for a respected Reformed publication? And naturally you think that perhaps Phineas was insufficiently respectful of the erotic traditions of others with his spear? Very well. Phineas didn’t care about that either.”

“So if you are worried about the impending degradation, you should be worried about the reality first, and descriptions of that reality second. That is not my position, nor my language. It is their position, their language, their degradation, their impurity, their sin, their shame, their logic, and their wormhole destination.”

In short, I didn’t call any women that name. Rather, I rebuked two women for in effect reducing themselves to that name. In addition, I also rebuked the evangelical soft soap that was refusing to acknowledge what was happening, on stage, in front of everybody.

And I said some other pithy things too. You really ought to read the whole thing.

My Rejoinder Proper

The heart of Denny’s refutation of my position is that when it comes to vulgarity and obscenity, the Scriptures actually don’t talk the way I do. One of the examples of godly obscenity that I had pointed to comes from the prophet Ezekiel.

“For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses. Thus thou calledst to remembrance the lewdness of thy youth, in bruising thy teats by the Egyptians for the paps of thy youth.”

Ezekiel 23:20–21 (KJV)

Denny quotes this passage, and points out that the word for flesh here is simply basar, which is just the word for flesh. He grants that contextually Ezekiel is referring to the male member of donkeys, but argues that Ezekiel is speaking here euphemistically. And he would have a reasonable point if the only thing the prophet said here was basar. But to point to this word in isolation is to skate very lightly over the surface of the passage. What does Ezekiel actually say? A lot more than just basar, as it turns out.

The prophet is rebuking the sins of the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem with the figure of two sisters—Aholah and Aholibah. The problem started early, back when the sisters were losing their virginity in Egypt. There their breasts were pressed, and their bosoms handled (Eze. 23:3). Aholah later on veered off into whoredoms with the Assyrians, who had really smart uniforms, and the Assyrians had a good time with her breasts also (v. 8). Aholibah saw all this and decided to become even worse than her sister. She went after the Assyrians and the Babylonians both (vv. 12, 15). She multiplied her whoredoms, daydreaming fondly about her first sexual adventures back in Egypt (v. 19). She did this while doting on her current lovers, who had basars like donkeys, and who ejaculated like horses (v. 20). She did all this while fantasizing about what the Egyptians did to her breasts back in the day (v. 21).

Now if you think that all this is just euphemism, I really don’t know what to say. And if you want to try to make the case that it is all euphemistic, then you really need to deal with the flow of the whole passage, and not just find one word in it that isn’t crude necessarily, provided you look it up in isolation in a lexicon.

So let me give you an example of real euphemism. Look at what Ezekiel says a few chapters earlier.

““You built yourself a high place at the top of every street, and made your beauty abominable; and you spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry.”

Ezekiel 16:25 (NASB)

Here we can see euphemism in action on the part of some translators. How is this “spread your legs” rendered elsewhere? “Offering yourself” (ESV). “Offered yourself” (NKJV). That’s how euphemism works.


I also need to interact with Denny’s treatment of my skubalon argument from Philippians, and I want to begin by granting that I overstated my case in A Serrated Edge. There I said that skubalon “means in the first place some kind of animal excrement” (Loc. 52). I now think that the phrase “in the first place” claims too much for it. This means that I do not think that the semantic range of skubalon and dung is identical, or even that the primary meaning of skubalon refers to excrement. I now believe that all dung would be skubalon, but not all skubalon is dung. Skubalon could also refer to rubbish, off-scourings, wet kitchen garbage, and dumpster scrapings. I do think my basic point remains, but I also believe my overstatement in the book was an error.

That said, even that particular passage in A Serrated Edge had a couple of qualifications that Denny passed by without mentioning. Right afterwards, I said this:

“Paul does teach elsewhere that we are to avoid filthiness in our speech, coarse jesting and so on (Eph. 5:4).

Loc. 520

And a page later, I add this:

“Of course, there are boys in junior high who delight in bathroom humor, and they need to memorize Eph. 5:4—so that they might win Christ. No one is maintaining that Christians should routinely speak or write in some foul fashion. Paul prohibits it.”

Loc. 525

In short, I believe that Denny and I would actually agree on this subject around 99% of the time. Here is a sermon of mine on that text that I believe Denny would have no trouble with. Where we would differ would be that I believe that there are times, about 1% of the time, when a well-chosen pointed stick might be the best instrument for puncturing a hypocritical self-righteousness. And I believe Scripture models this for us—both with regard to manner and frequency.

So returning to an earlier point, I would like everyone who is following this debate to realize that the instances of my usage where we differ would be instances I could easily pick up with one hand. And I will get to why it sometimes doesn’t seem that way in my conclusion.

Straining the Gnat: A Side Argument

Another statement of mine that Denny responded to was this one:

“And depend upon it—modern evangelicals will be far more upset with my use of a certain phrase in the passage above than they are by the fact that many of our popular religious practices, customs, and superstitions smell like that phrase.

Loc. 530

Denny objects to this, and he uses the illustration of a boy who opens an email from his school to discover that he has failed a class, and he responds to this by exclaiming the s-word. When his parents rebuke him for that, Denny asks what kind of sense would it make for the boy to reply, “why are you so concerned about the s-word, and not concerned about me flunking the class?” Denny says that it should be possible for the parents to object to two things at once—their son’s inappropriate language and his poor performance in the class. And of course this is quite right—if I commit a big sin and a little sin right alongside each other, it should be possible for an insightful observer to object to both at the same time. This is correct because their son shouldn’t have failed the class, and he shouldn’t have responded to the failure by cussing.

But it is also appropriate to point out when the guardians of Christian ethical standards have lost their sense of proportion—when they think that the gold sanctifies the temple (Matt. 23:17), when they strain out a gnat and swallow the camel (Matt. 23:24), and when they decorate the tombs that their great-grandfathers filled with dead prophets (Matt. 23:29). Always keep a sense of proportion. Jesus does this when He rebukes the Pharisees with their big sins and small virtues in juxtaposition.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

Matthew 23:23 (KJV)

And so if I were guilty of a big sin and a little sin together, I have no objection if they were both pointed out, and pointed out at the same time.

But the issue we are debating is whether or not I have done anything like that. Denny’s illustration only works because the boy was cussing with no biblical justification at all. I have provided the justification for what I do, and Denny’s counter-arguments have, in my view, failed. I am not granting Denny’s point, in other words.

My position is that for decades I have been attacking big sins—that many of our evangelical elites are busy making their peace with—and that on a handful of occasions I have done this with language that shocks even these elites. It shouldn’t shock them because you could find ten times worse in their Netflix queue, but it nevertheless does still shock them. They don’t mind that kind of language so long as it is being transgressive and is undermining Western civilization. But speak that way in defense of what is pure, noble, lovely, or virtuous, and they stare at you through their lorgnettes.

Remember that in the piece above when I was rebuking Nadia Bolz-Weber, the thing that set it off was an article in a conservative Reformed magazine that gave Weber the kid glove treatment. How many fingers does evangelicalism have to lose before we admit we have leprosy?

NB: Now precisely because this is not my first rodeo, I believe I need to mention that the evangelical elites found in the previous two paragraphs are not any kind of a reference to Denny and friends.

A Coda Concerning Wilson’s Apparent Lack of Self-Awareness

I thought it might be good to add a little postscript that described for everyone who I think I am exactly, and what it is that I think I am doing. This is not because I like talking about myself because I don’t, but rather because I think it may have become necessary here.

I don’t believe that all Christians should write the way I do. I don’t believe that all Christian teachers, pastors, or writers should do this. In fact, I think it would be really bad if they did. But I do believe that when it is done rightly and well by someone gifted and called to it, that other Christians should be good with it. It is a body life thing. The ankles do not need to perform the functions of the kidneys, but should be grateful that the kidneys apparently like doing it. And as the events of the last several years have demonstrated, what the kidneys remove from the body is kind of necessary. Evangelicalism is in the bad state it is in because the fastidious among us have insisted the kidneys learn how to do something more high-minded and edifying than produce urine.

Who am I? I am not an academic. I am not a scholar. I can read those guys, and I can follow what they are saying, but I am not a member of their club. So what am I then? I basically have two vocations. My central vocation and calling is that of pastor and minister. This calling governs my deportment with the saints at Christ Church, and outsiders can get glimpses of what that is like when I post sermon outlines, or when they watch a video of a sermon preached. That is right at the center of what I was called to do. I have also been involved in countless hours of pastoral counseling which, if we are being frank, involve almost no amounts of satire at all. I suspect things would go poorly if I ever tried that.

My second central vocation is that of being a writer. Yes, but what kind of writer? Annie Dillard is a writer too, and I don’t do her kind of thing. Two of my great models for how I write would be G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken. You should think of my writing as an attempt to be like Chesterton, if he wasn’t a papist, and Mencken, if he wasn’t a rank unbeliever. Now both of them were what we might call op-ed journalists, which is the same kind of thing I do in my blogging. And no, I don’t believe I am in their league at all—but while a farm team isn’t major league baseball, it is still baseball.

So I believe that I have been called to this, and I believe that I have been given the requisite gifts for it. What gifts might those be? I think that it would be fair to say—if it’s myself what says it—that I am a wit. And even my enemies can grant that on this point I am at least half right. Now if that skill set is what I’ve been given, and if there is a clear need for someone to step up and exercise those gifts, then I believe that I should just bang away at it—you know, like the little drummer boy.

But I am aware of the fact that this creates an optical illusion. Although my use of the kind of words Denny objects to is extremely rare, what is not extremely rare is a satiric eye looking around at all the regnant follies. I let fly with observations about that kind of thing on almost a daily basis.

“In this kind of debate, unless everybody involved watches his step closely, things can get pretty stupid—like a couple of dogs, neither of them very smart, debating quantum physics. ‘No! Arf, arf.’”

The Auburn Avenue Chronicles, p. 293

Now this kind of comment does not involve any kind of “bad words.” Arf is fine, and smart is fine, and physics is fine. But taken together they constitute a caricature of a foolish and stupid theological debate, one that is well beyond the capacities of either debater. I would ask you to remember that word caricature. So when people read such things from me, they routinely apply the adage “if the shoe fits,” and when they find that it does, they accuse me of singling them out. They feel singled out. They feel judged.

One of Denny’s objections was certain references I have made to women’s bodies at various times. I don’t know what examples he picked out because they were on his handout, only available after class, but let me guess at one. In one post about a decade ago, I made a reference to “small breasted biddies,” a phrase that was so offensive that my adversaries have since then put it on memes to give it as broad a circulation as possible. You can look up the original context here. In taking this approach, incidentally, they were doing the very same thing that Denny and I have both done, which is to highlight shocking language in order to oppose something we believe needs to be opposed.

But if I were a caricaturist who used cartoons instead of words, how would I operate? If I were to draw a cartoon of a pro-Palestinian protester, and I drew her with wireless sixties glasses, a tie-dyed t-shirt, sandals, and the whole regalia, I would not be aiming at a particular person. It is a caricature of a particular kind of person. In the same way, the expression small breasted biddies conjures up an image of a particular sort. No particular person is targeted. It is a caricature of a type.

The question is raised, however, as to why I feel a need to make references to women’s bodies at all. A more detailed explanation of all that can be found here, but for the present why can’t I just leave women’s bodies out of it? The answer is that we live in a time when a play is being run on us, and it is our duty to be as uncooperative with this play as we can be. All this language monitoring is nothing but a smokescreen to hide the fact that feminism is an essential part of their long game, which is to deconstruct and destroy the idea that there is even such a thing as a woman’s body. Feminism sounded so brave at the beginning—”our bodies, ourselves!” That’s how it began. How’s it going? Dudes in dresses is how its going. But enough about Caedmon’s Call.

Unbelievers object when I refer to women’s bodies at all. What they are really upset about is the fact that I am still defending the idea that there is such a thing. And believers object because they think my style of defense is unnecessary and tacky. They argue that evangelicals know their Bibles well enough to know this doesn’t require a def . . . but enough about Caedmon’s Call.

We live in a time when feminists revile scantily-clad beautiful women for participating in the objectification of women, while at the same time scantily-clad plus-sized women are applauded for being stunning and brave. On top of this, any men who see how ludicrous the whole set up is are prohibited from saying one word about it. Being male, they are regarded as having no standing. But perhaps their version of the male gaze is the only outlook that can actually see what is going on.

And so, returning to the point, the issue is not the bodies, but rather the kind of person that body represents. If I refer to a certain type of man as a “pencil neck,” is this an attack on men? Not all men, and not a particular man—rather, it is a sketch of a type. In the verbal arena, this is the same kind of thing Bunyan does with characters like Talkative or Pliable. He is not writing about Smith or Murphy . . . unless the shoe fits. So if Smith reads about Talkative in The Pilgrim’s Progress and feels judged, that’s as may be, but it is not Bunyan’s fault.

The Lord Jesus was a master of this sort of caricature. Did any Pharisee really try to get a gnat out of his iced tea while missing the camel in there? Did they actually blow a trumpet before giving alms? The Lord would draw an outlandish and unforgettable image, and He would then hang it around the necks of the self-righteousness. In vain would they plead that the caricature was technically inaccurate. Correct, but it still remained true.

I could go on. But perhaps, like the little drummer boy, I have trespassed upon your patience. Rum pum pum pum.