“What are my initials?” my friend Billy asked in response to my ludicrous comment. The obvious answer—apparent to anyone who knows him—is: “BS!” It’s not that I was spewing lies, though they most certainly weren’t truthful. It’s just that it carried no concern for the truth whatsoever because the statements were given for a different purpose: I said them only to get a rise out of him. And Billy saw right through it.

So at the risk of oversimplification, one might say there’s truth, lies, and the ambiguous middle known as bullsh*t. This is what philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullsh*t explores. He explains that both telling the truth and telling a lie have truth or reality as their reference point. Not so with BS. Its purpose is a means to an end and is thus speech that is devoid of content altogether. As he explains,

385When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullsh*t. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance, any more than hot air can serve those of communication (44).

About the time I was reading this, I had the pleasure of meeting longtime Mockingbird contributor Matt Schneider at a church service he was leading. Like many church services, there was a time for the congregation to confess their sins and shortcomings together. Once the congregants had corporately confessed, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone…”, Matt gave a divine word of pardon:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

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It did not take the acute observer to notice the obvious: the congregation had received an altogether, radically new word. They heard a word of absolution, forgiveness, grace. But surely, one must have thought, “Whatever this proclamation is, an announcement of free grace it cannot be! Certainly this unmerited promise must be a disguise for something else, a mere part of the formal church ceremony perhaps, but not divine forgiveness at no cost to me. Just another case of bullsh*t!”

Yet again he spoke, this time bringing the “Comfortable Words”,

Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him: Come unto me, all who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you (Matthew 11:28). God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). This is a true saying and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). If anyone sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is the Propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1-2).

So was all this, after all, just a bunch of hot air? Frankfurt says that shooting the bull is like lifeless excrement, words that have no nutritive substance to them. In stark contrast, the Christian recognizes that God himself encounters us in this proclamation of forgiveness. As a means of grace that communicates life and sustenance to the hearers, the absolution is a word unlike any other. This divine promise is Another’s interrupting announcement that performs what it promises. This forgiveness actually grants life. Yet in its bestowal of life, it must kill the old self. The promise of absolute pardon is too much for the old self to handle, and it will do whatever it can to silence it (“Forgiviness of sins? Baloney!”). The absolution renders you passive, for it is here that it unloads its full arsenal at any remaining attempts at self-justification. No strings attached. Unmerited grace that costs you nothing and everything at the same time. “Want a little grace, but who’s gonna say a little grace for me?”