Focus on the Coldplay cover art!

Viva la Censorship!


Focus on the Family’s folks didn’t bother to cover up the corpses underfoot, or the bayonets that impaled the enemy.

But thank goodness, they spared our children from not one but two aspects of Eugene Delacroix‘s famous painting Liberty Leading the People.

They placed black bars over the woman’s bosom and an ever-so-slight bit of pubic hair on a dead man’s abdomen.

My friend John responds: “What’s next? Blindfolds for nursing babies?”

[UPDATE: A lively discussion has begun in the Comments below. I finally got around to responding.]

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  • Chip Cain

    Sheesh, I walk away for a few days and miss all the fun. There is nothing else to be said except “Well done Jeffery!”

    I am always amazed at your thoughtful comments, but not only yours, I must include your readers as well.

  • Timothy Grant


    This is some of the most fabulously well put-together material I’ve seen on this subject.

    Thank you for taking the time to write something so thoughtful.

  • rufflyspeaking

    Thoughtful response. Thank you, Jeffrey.

  • The folks at Focus are free to serve in whatever way they see fit.

    But I’m not going to lie and say I approve of this particular demonstration of their convictions.

    I was quite busy at a conference this week, so I didn’t respond right away. I did, however, have some time to think about the comments here as they progressed. Now I have some time to respond. Here are a few (okay, several) thoughts…


    If a non-pornographic image of certain body parts might cause someone to lust, isn’t it also true that a non-sensationalized image of men wielding guns in a revolution might inspire someone to seize and misuse a firearm?

    Isn’t it also possible that an image such as this might inspire someone to think it is a glorious thing to mow down one’s enemies in the name of liberty?

    Why not black-bar the whole image, then?


    When I was in elementary school, I found that my school library contained many classic books that had words — and sometimes whole lines — blacked out with a Sharpie.

    Books like Huckleberry Finn.

    Now, if they hadn’t been marked, there is a slim possibility I would have been influenced toward inappropriate language and racially inappropriate speech.

    But I doubt it. I was surrounded by teachers who were fully capable of teaching and counsel and correction.

    And when I reached high school, I found teachers who wanted me to engage with art and learn the virtues of self-control, restraint, contemplation, and interpretation. I’m grateful. If they had instead worked hard to shield me from anything that might offend or mislead, I would not have learned much about how to exercise discernment in the wide, wild world outside of the classroom.

    I was a typically curious child, and I loved to read books. So what what do you suppose I did when I opened books and found BIG BLACK BOXES concealing parts of the text? Why, I went looking for a bright light to try and see what was behind the black boxes! I pressed the pages against windows, straining to make out the words, so I could learn which words it was evil to use, evil to type, evil to even encounter.

    If I was a child today and saw the black box on Coldplay’s Viva la Vida cover, I would immediately Google that cover. And I’d bet good money that many have done just that, driven by childish curiosity to know what’s so dangerous, so obscene, or so misleading and frightening that it’s been covered it up. That’s typical kid behavior.

    But the BLACK BOXES I found over certain lines in Huckleberry Finn did much worse than merely stimulate my curiosity. It created a certain impression… that it was bad not only to use crass language in common speech, but it was also bad to acknowledge that kind of speech in art. It created an impression that artists are not allowed to deal with the real world, but must turn a blind eye to the uglier elements of our world.

    Moreover, if we use black boxes to indicate that what has been concealed is bad, imagine what it does to an impressionable young person to see black boxes placed over non-sexualized images of certain body parts. I think it’s likely to *increase* their impression that those body parts can only provoke bad thoughts. And in a way, it skews them toward only responding to those images, when they are exposed, sexually. They lose the opportunity to learn to use the eyes God gave them in a better way.


    By the way, the copies of National Geographic in the school library often had pages torn out. No, they hadn’t been mistreated by students. The pages that included photographs of African native women had been ripped out so young people would not see them in their various stages of undress.

    Worse, I was taught that the issue of “undress” in those cultures was just one of the ways they demonstrated that they were extravagantly evil people. Their “exposure” was one of the reasons we needed to send missionaries. To teach them not to be so pornographic.

    I know my experience isn’t that uncommon. No wonder so many young Christians grow up confused about their bodies and their hormones and the world around them.


    I believe that we do more harm than good when we “black out” something like the “details” of the Viva la Vida cover. It is not a pornographic image. It is a symbolic image. By blacking it out, I believe the editors:

    A) *intrigue* young people… and probably a lot of adults as well… so that they no longer see the image and consider interpreting, but immediately start thinking about tits;

    B) strengthen a misleading impression (whether they mean to or not) that there is something *nasty* about certain areas of the human body, and thus they should not be revealed or considered in any situation;

    C) spoil most people’s chances to encounter the beauty, or consider the meaning, of that work of art;

    D) and worst of all, while they may protect a few people from details that would distract them, they send far more people directly into thoughts about sex, because they have drawn attention to that subject.

    I would much rather see the Focus folks post the full cover, along with some guidance about how to look at, how to appreciate it, and how interpret a work of art like this.

    Or, if the Focus folks are so certain that the image, sans bar, will spread destruction, then I recommend they not post the picture at all.

    Posting it and “barring” it will, I am quite certain, send many curious teenagers off to see the full thing, and when they do, they will already be inclined to “sexualize” their encounter with it.


    My concern with that Coldplay “review” goes beyond the image, of course.

    Read the “review,” and you’ll find that it does not measure up as an actual music review. There is no discussion of the music, and only a cursory engagement of the lyrics. There is no discussion of whether these songs are intended as direct “statements,” or whether they might not be stories, or perspectives from different “characters.” The tone of the review is this: “Why don’t these songwriters just come out and state their message clearly?”

    I’m more impressed with Russ Breimeier’s thoughtful examination at Christianity Today. Or this pro/con debate at Paste. Or Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s consideration at AllMusic.

    I understand that there is honor in informing parents about which music is inappropriate for teenagers.

    But reviews like this one actually do parents a disservice by failing to offer them any education in how to look at, and interpret, a work of art. Thus, parents are unlikely to learn how to talk with their youngsters about art. And we just perpetuate this model of training young people to look at art and rate it according to a “morality checklist” and a filter of “objectionable content.”

    I’ve spent most of my life in recovery from that kind of teaching… teaching that hindered my ability to grow in my appreciation of art; teaching that made me judgmental, that made me feel guilty for reading and seeing things that were not at all evil.

    It is true that we should not lead “the weaker brother” to stumble. But it is my opinion that this kind of extreme censorship is not the answer. It prevents the “stronger brothers” from growing and moving on, and unnecessarily disrupts their engagement with art. This kind of censorship prevents us from setting a good example of responsibility, maturity, and discernment.


    Many are tempted to lust by the sight of bare feet, or ankles, or shoulders. Shall we black-bar them too?


    I began to outgrow my own reckless, adolescent preoccupation with sexuality when wise teachers made me feel very silly about my immature focus on the wrong details in a work of art. They did so not by putting me down for my childishness, but by engaging great art with enthusiasm, setting an example of mature contemplation and interpretation.


    When I was seven, my pastor told a story about how he had once become a counselor to an alcoholic.

    One day, when he was shopping, he saw on his wife’s shopping list that he was to pick up a small bottle of cooking sherry. He felt deeply conflicted about this. What if his purchase were to be discovered by the recovering alcoholic? Wouldn’t that ruin all of the counseling? Wouldn’t he be seen as a hypocrite, and lose all authority on the matter of alcohol?

    He went ahead and picked up the sherry. He put it in his shopping cart. He got in line for the cashier.

    Lo and behold, the alcoholic got in line next to him! And when the poor guy saw what was in my pastor’s basket, he became upset, and his expression spoke of betrayal.

    What’s the lesson here?

    My pastor told us, “That’s when I learned my lesson. We must do whatever we can to protect the weaker brother! We must abstain from anything that might become a temptation to others.”

    He went on to say that we should avoid movie theaters.

    Even at age 7, I remember recoiling at this lesson. What? We must draw back from reasonable behavior? Simple because we’re afraid that someone might see our reasonable behavior and misinterpret it as reckless indulgence? Heaven forbid!

    If you’re counseling an alcoholic, don’t take him out and buy him several drinks. That’s reckless. But by all means, don’t punish those who drink responsibly by making Prohibition the law! And don’t cast out God’s good gifts because there’s a possibility somebody might abuse them! Otherwise, what’s left in life? For almost everything we can imagine can be abused, and as we are all very different people, different things can be turn-ons and temptations.

    Yes, the Scriptures tell us to avoid temptation, and to care for “the weaker brother.” But they also tell us to grow, to be strong, to be salt and light in the midst of a culture full of temptation.

    I don’t want to be a Christian who walks around slapping black tape on things. I want to be one who inspires by example, and by thought-provoking dialogue that encourages growth and discernment.

    Otherwise, I guess I have to take a Sharpie to the Bible as well. Read Exekiel 23 sometime.


    I remember something else about elementary school. One of my classmates became fond of sniffing Elmer’s glue.

    In retrospect, I’m surprised that the school didn’t forbid our arts-and-crafts teachers from having glue in the classroom. I mean, isn’t Elmer’s Glue a gateway drug?

  • mollychristina

    Point well taken, jinxmchue. A good reminder that there are many sides to these complex issues and that we should remember to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes when looking at them.

  • No, the painting should not be classified as pornography and I never said it was or that I did. None of the images that got me hooked on looking at naked female flesh could be classified that way, either. Nonetheless, they started me down the path towards addiction. Focus on the Family websites, surprisingly enough, are viewed by families. (Who’d have thunk it!) They took the step to protect their readers and readers’ families from unexpected material that they might not want to see. You certainly have the freedom to criticize them for it, but the fact remains that they took an appropriate step that is in line with their professed values.

  • I’m sorry for the previous poster but glad he finally overcame his addiction. That said, I hardly think the Delacroix painting should be classed as pornography. Focus on the Family has a right to censor things as they see fit, and the rest of us have the right to comment on their choices. I myself think the “black bar of shame” approach is a bit heavy-handed, and opens them up to criticism.

  • jinxmchue –

    True, the porn industry is a big problem in our modern time, and true, many young people are involved it whether purposely as a voyeur or by the hand of another.

    However, we are also at war. This is a violent planet with no immediate signs of change. Young people are inundated with violence in music, TV, movies, video games, etc.

    Violence breeds corpses.

    But moreover, I think we must, as thinking “experiencers” of art, not insist on examining only that which is bad or foul in art, but instead seek that which is True and Beautiful and Right – we must actively look for that in the work, and not only the negatives.

  • Hey, is there an epidemic of people being addicted to viewing corpses in this country? Is there a vast, powerful, rich market for viewing corpses? Are people used and abused in the corpse viewing industry? Does the corpse viewing industry work really hard behind the scenes to draw in younger and younger fans? Is corpse viewing considered by liberals to be empowering to people or helpful to married couples? Is there a not-so-secret, not-so-difficult-to-find underground market in viewing corpses of underage kids?

    The beginning of my story of how I became addicted to pornography was that it started at an early age with “art” images. If only someone had blacked out things for me back then! Perhaps it would’ve saved me from over two decades of living in that hellhole of addiction.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog immensely, Jeffrey, but I don’t read it to see you pettily nitpicking fellow Christians who don’t agree on certain non-essential, non-important issues. You would not stand for it if Focus on the Family did that to you, would you? I doubt it, so why is it okay for you to do it to them?

    Let me know if this is going to be a continued focus of this blog or not so I can make the judgment whether or not I want to keep you on my blogroll. Thank you.

  • mollychristina


    This reminds me of when my alma mater booked Over the Rhine to play and then cancelled on them because some student saw a naked statue in their liner notes and objected to the line “I’m a slut with a mission” in “I Radio Heaven.”

    I was frustrated in so many ways about that.

    Although, I do understand on one level that when you have a platform like that you have to be careful or you’ll get all kinds of flack….we know that from experience since my husband works in Christian retail and often has to make decisions on what to sell in the stores according to what the most conservative customer might find offensive. As our pastor often says, as Christians, we need to learn to be better than that.

  • nathanshorb

    I can honestly say I never noticed there were bare breasts on this album cover.

    Now that they’ve pointed it out, it will be the only thing I can see on the front cover.

    Way to go, guys. Thanks for ruining it.

    Another illustration of Madeleine L’Engle’s lesson: What are you looking for? Because that’s what you’re going to find.

  • chessncoffee

    Blacking out part of Delacroix’s beautiful painting was awful, but the actual content of the review was pretty bad too. They say “there’s not much to get excited about” the album, but they only have one, inaccurate, two-word sentence to say about the actual music.

    (I’ve actually suspected for a while that Plugged In doesn’t listen to the albums they review, they just read the lyrics.)