Shia LaBeouf, the "F-Bomb," and an Argument so Bad it Isn't Even Wrong

Dear _________,

I’m pleased to respond to your inquiry concerning the web article in question. The fact that you asked for my guidance shows a level of trust that I don’t take for granted. Plus, my great love for you makes me eager to help you think this through in any way I can. 

Before I deal with the argument of this blog post, I must plead a thorough lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. Specifically, I had never heard of Shia LaBeouf prior to this article. Yes, yes, I know—my ignorance of contemporary culture is truly profound and marveled at by many. 

Background

This being said, I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the article by Elvis Mitchell entitled (appropriately) Shia LaBeouf in Interview Magazine. In this article, Mitchell describes LaBeouf as someone who has a “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries [that] seems consonant with LaBeouf’s public conduct of late.” This behavior includes

…his 2013 dustup with Alec Baldwin during rehearsals for the play Orphans, from which LaBeouf was later ousted, and continues through his recent arrest in New York City for criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and harassment, after disturbing a Broadway performance of Cabaret. In 2013, when it turned out that the plot of LaBeouf’s short film HowardCantour.com (2012) had been purloined from graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’ 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano, the actor-director responded with a series of tweet apologies that also appeared to be shoplifted. 

The interview that follows is profanity-laced and utterly forgettable, at least from the point of view of someone who doesn’t share the culture’s view of acting as a noble profession. Still, one section of it is noteworthy. LaBeouf remarks that, during the filming of the movie Fury where he plays a religious character, “I became a Christian man.… in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control.”

Evidently, the two individuals most influential in this decision were Brad Pitt and director David Ayers. Brad Pitt was raised in a Christian environment but has since rejected religion as the “people’s opium, almost like a Marxist view on religion,” while Ayers is “a full subscriber to Christianity.” Nevertheless, according to LaBeouf, “these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot.” I’m not exactly sure how this works, but there it is. Such an explanation leaves much unanswered. It seems reasonable to presume that there was some kind of Christian tract involved as he didn’t just say “the prayers that were on the page.” But one really doesn’t know. 

While one never knows what goes on in the heart, and Christian charity goads one into taking LaBeouf at his word, one does wonder about the excessive profanity in his profession of faith. Even if his control of his language is … incomplete … one must assume that he had the opportunity to edit the interview after giving it. With a Jewish mother and a Pentecostal father, LaBeouf must know how offensive such language would be to his fellow believers. But perhaps this is the “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries” commented on above.

Enter Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle, (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the author of the blog Theology in the Raw. Dr. Sprinkle is evidently incensed that some believers wonder about the confessed conversion of Mr. LaBeouf. He has written about it under the provocative title “F-Bomb and Bikinis: What it Really Means to be a ‘Christian.’” (Note: This same article, with only minor revisions, is posted one year earlier under the title “Christians Are Quick to Judge this Famous New Believer, But How Different is He from the Disciples?” What is peculiar is that the earlier article has the byline of Brian Orme, while at the same time having a blurb about Preston Sprinkle at the bottom of the page. One is forced to conclude that either Dr. Sprinkle is a blatant plagiarist or that this is an issue he cares about deeply, having posted the same article under two different titles one year apart.)

In this article, Sprinkle’s argument is nothing more than one long, drawn-out straw man. Here is his argument in a nutshell: Different Christian communities find different activities not in keeping with applied Christianity (Note: Paul addresses this in Romans 14). In his argument, Sprinkle cites example after example of believers with differing values. From this fact, Sprinkle draws the following conclusion: 

When you try to cut out Christians with a religious cookie cutter, you not only tarnish diversity, but you trample on grace. It’s one thing for Christian subcultures to cultivate unique values. But it becomes destructive when those values are chiseled on Sinaitic tablets for all to obey. It’s even worse when Christians expect instant holiness from recent converts—holiness, that is, in areas where we think we’ve nailed it.

The statement “2 + 2 = 5,” is wrong. In contrast, the statement “2 + 2 = an egg sandwich” isn’t even wrong. It’s beyond wrong. It’s incoherent. Sprinkle’s argument is so bad, it’s not even wrong. 

No one that I know argues that the use of the “F-Bomb” is a matter of conscience. As Paul teaches, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Eph 4:29 NIV). Therefore, to expect some restraint in this area is not expecting “cookie cutter” Christians. It is clearly a matter of personal holiness. To ask LaBeouf to curtail his language in this regard is not trampling on grace. Grace should never be used as a license to sin.

What makes Sprinkle’s argument incoherent is that he suddenly shifts the substance of his argument and reasons from the contrary of his previous position. Instead of assuming that censuring such language tramples on grace, he argues that expecting restraint in language is to “expect instant holiness from recent converts.” Here he evidently concedes that the “F-Bomb” is not in keeping with personal holiness and not a matter of conscience. The fault lies in people expecting holiness from a recent convert. 

Thus, either those who object to Mr. LaBeouf’s language are seeking cookie-cutter Christians, or they are expecting instant holiness from recent converts. One appeals to Dr. Sprinkle to make up his mind. To which crime does he wish us to plead guilty?

But Dr. Sprinkle is not done. His final argument may be laid out this way: Shia LaBeouf is a sinner. The 12 disciples were sinners. Therefore, to condemn LaBeouf’s actions is to condemn the 12 disciples. This is a textbook example of the fallacy of questionable analogy. The logical structure is this: (1) A and B are similar. (2) A has a certain characteristic. (3) Therefore B must have that characteristic too. A brief review of his argument hopefully will make this more plain.

Sprinkle describes the 12 disciples this way: “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors, and few of them would have been let inside our churches today.” This is so wrong on so many levels that one hardly knows where to begin. 

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the 12 disciples were criminals. It is unquestionably true that they were flawed men. But criminals? Please. Second, the assumption is made that criminals wouldn’t be allowed in our churches? Really? Every pastor I know would LOVE to have criminals attend their service and hear the gospel. This type of negative stereotype isn’t worthy of a serious response. It is a straw man of the worst order. Third, even if the 12 disciples were criminals (which they were not), they didn’t remain criminals. And it should be remembered that Jesus didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were wrong.

I don’t want to misrepresent Dr. Sprinkle, nor be unkind to him, but it appears, at least to me, that he holds a deep contempt for the traditional church and finds its condemnation of sin offensive. This may be seen not only in his understanding of homosexual marriage and transgender pastors, but also in the summation of his article.

You cannot sanitize grace. You can’t stuff it into a blue blazer and make it wear khakis. Grace is messy, offensive and it sometimes misses church. To expect God to pump prefabricated plastic moral people out of a religious factory is to neuter grace and chain it inside a gated community. If God’s scandalous relationship with the 12 thugs means anything, then we should expect a variegated spectrum of righteousness and be patient—or repentant—when such sanctification doesn’t meet out expectations. God meets us in our mess and pushes holiness out the other side.

It is true that God “meets us in our mess” and “pushes holiness out the other side.” But grace never excuses our sin. The grace of God acknowledges our sin and loves us in spite of it. But such love never allows us to remain in it. And this is the distinction that Dr. Sprinkle has chosen to forget.

Conclusion

In the end, there is little to commend this article. It is filled with straw men, false “facts,” and borders on the incoherent. My advise is to pay it as little attention as possible. As for the conversion of Shia LaBeouf, I have little to say. I don’t know his heart and, to be completely candid, I’m not called to have an opinion. 

I hope this has helped.

Your affectionate friend,

Bruce