5 Thoughts on Profanity in Christian Fiction

As a kid, I put down the book JAWS because I reached a point where one character was cussing out another character. Nowadays, I probably would’ve kept reading.

Why? My thoughts on the issue of profanity have changed.

Yes, kids. It was a novel first.

In my opinion (and that’s all this post is, folks), the use of profanity in fiction–even in Christian fiction–isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it can enhance a story in ways that other language cannot.

My goal here is not to be inflammatory but rather to inspire a meaningful, respectful discussion about this topic. You, the reader, don’t have to agree. In fact, I welcome your respectful disagreements to these thoughts.

(WARNING: This post contains some profanity.)

1. There’s plenty of gratuitous content in the Bible.

There’s a lot of crude and graphic writing in the Bible. Google it, or flip to Ezekiel 23 for an example of some ridiculously obscene language.

Pastors, try preaching a sermon on that passage without reading the text aloud to your congregation. Congregants, try listening to it! Most American churchgoers would lose their collective minds if someone read that passage aloud on Sunday morning.

I’m just going to leave this here.

I won’t go into too much detail about the Ezekiel 23 passage, but suffice it to say that the author told a story to make a point to his audience–and he used some really colorful words in the process. And that text made it into the Bible–God’s inspired, Holy, infallible Word.

So if you’re going to throw out a Christian novel because it has the word “damn” in it, then discard your Bible right along with it.

2. Cultural Meaning Matters.

While other words may have comparable meaning, only one word carries with it the cultural impact and punch that “shit” does. That’s its inherent value/infamy in our contemporary American-English vernacular. In other languages, that word just doesn’t carry the same impact.

Consequently, it’s that same reason why some people don’t think that word should be used: it carries a lot of meaning that other words don’t.

So the use of that word (or any word deemed profane) needs to happen in an appropriate context because of its inherent impact. (More on that in #4.)

3. An author shouldn’t avoid profanity just to keep someone from “stumbling.”

If we’re bound to apply Paul’s call to not cause anyone to stumble to our writing, we might as well stop writing now. Writing, by nature, is provocative. (And writing fiction, by one definition, is the telling of an extended lie.)

At some point, no matter how much I sanitize or censor my writing, I’m going to offend someone or “cause them to stumble.” This is especially true for authors who write speculative fiction.

On the other side of the coin, let’s not forget that Paul also advocates maturity. In the case of writing, this maturity falls on both the author and the reader.

In my opinion, authors should use profanity sparingly and only for necessary impact when writing fiction. I’m not a fan of authors dropping F-bombs every third sentence, for example. Instead, I prefer that authors use profanity only when it will have the greatest punch in their writing (if they use profanity at all).

As for readers, if someone is offended or verging on stumbling because of something they’ve read, then they need to let the Holy Spirit guide them to put the book down, or turn the page, or find some other solution that doesn’t involve protesting until the book (or other content) gets banned from their local Christian bookstore.

The key here is mutual respect: readers, don’t blast authors for including bad words in their stories. Similarly, authors shouldn’t blast readers for being prudes or not “getting” their writing.

And at the end of the day, it’s not the author’s job to babysit someone else’s Christianity.

4. Above all else, context is king.

If you have a pastor swearing and cursing in your story, sure, I could see why that’s a poor representation of Christ.

But if you’ve written a drug dealer holding a gun to another guy’s head, he’s not going to say, “I’m done fooling around with you and your doo-doo. I’m going to blow your gosh-darned head off, you son of a biscuit.”

If you whitewash that scene, you’re lying to your reader. You’re not telling the truth or writing authentic fiction.


The truth is, life is ugly. Sin is ugly. We as authors don’t have to paint egregious depictions of sin, but sanitizing it for “sensitive readers” won’t help them either.

I believe our primary mandate in writing fiction is to tell the truth through story. I also believe we should be afforded the freedom to tell that story in the way we feel it needs to be told. If someone disagrees with what an author writes, there’s a solution for that, too…

5. Know your audience.

If you’re writing for today’s Christian market, plan on nixing extreme content altogether. (Except for violence–for some reason, Christendom doesn’t seem to care as much about that.)

Why? It’s because today’s Christian audience doesn’t want that content in the fiction they consume.

If you, the author, choose to include profanity in a story and a reader doesn’t like it, kindly let them know that they’re not that book’s target audience. Then go out and find another reader who is in your target audience.

But readers, please stop hating on authors if they include such content! It’s not solely the author’s fault that you don’t like what they wrote. As the old saying goes, “it takes two to tango”–the author AND the reader.

Conclusion

Point #4 is the most essential element of this whole debate–specifically the part about authors needing to tell the truth in their fiction. I think that if we can apply Galatians 5 to our approach to writing (and reading), Christian fiction will be better off going forward.

What do you think about this issue? Where do you draw your lines with profanity in Christian fiction–or in your everyday vernacular? Do you see an argument that I missed, either for or against this idea? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.

Posted in Storytelling, Writing Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
18 comments on “5 Thoughts on Profanity in Christian Fiction
  1. Good luck getting it published. The gatekeepers won’t do it…at least not the ones that
    matter.

    • Ben Wolf says:

      I agree, Michael, if I’m aiming for Christian publishers. I know I’ll have to write things a certain way to satisfy them. But for general market fiction, perhaps I have more of a chance.

    • Very interesting discussion. I write for a secular audience, but with a Christian background (sort of like CS Lewis, but he was purposefully blatant with his metaphors. I have to be more sneaky). I have a 13+ YA series that I try to keep almost all language out of because parents don’t want their kids reading profanity in their books. However, I would absolutely agree that as writers we need to write really characters, and real people swear, so characters are going to swear sometimes too. I do think, though, that it is profitable to find ways to not say the actual word, if possible, like saying “he swore loudly” instead of saying “fuck!” JK Rowling uses this method in the Harry Potter books, implying that her characters use very colorful profanity at times, but never actually writing the words down. It can be a way to show the truth of the character while not offending readers.

      • Ben Wolf says:

        I really like how you’ve laid this out, Lydia. I think the “disguise-the-profanity” method can work at times, and I try to rely on that when I can, but sometimes a stronger expression is needed. That’s where we circle back to the context part of this post, I think.

  2. I am in full agreement. On pretty much every level. I have always laughed about the fact that a book can be super gory but if a Christian character acts like a human with passion such as anger or sexual attraction it’s not accepted. I just write what I am led to write. Some people described one of my books as edgy, yet tastefully written while another say it’s like reading soft porn. To me that speaks more of the readers interpretation of the events alluded to and one could say the offended reader has a dirty mind. If I say someone unbuttoned his pants and ended the scene with no other description, then whether you are offended or not is often due to what you think (as a reader) is going to happen next since I never actually wrote about what happened in detail. I have also used creativity in describing cussing to make it original. In one book the character’s wife gives him the finger and proceeds to call him names, some of which he had never heard before. I never have him actually stating the words or repeating them in his thoughts. In another section the cheated on wife calls the other woman a whore. It has more impact that hussy – just sayin’.

    • Ben Wolf says:

      You’re hitting on some hard truths, Michelle. The idea that some people have different levels or qualifications for “extreme” content is a big issue, but in my opinion, it’s not solvable in any workable way. We can only do as you’ve said and write what we’re led to write. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I write from a Catholic Christian worldview, and, interestingly, (most) Catholic audiences seem much more tolerant of “edginess” than evangelical Christian audiences. But, a large segment of Christian publishing is only interested in very sanitized portrayals.

    I write what I write. I don’t bat an eye at mild cuss words used here and there, and I’m still perplexed by a kerfuffle in Christian romance circles a few years back over an author’s use of the word “crap.” Really?

  4. EJ McCay says:

    The last book I published, the character started out using some language. I felt like I was led to clean it up and take it out because the message was more important. People would have missed what was being said because the language would have been distracting. I think as Christian writer’s we need to seek and depend on the Holy Spirit. If language will stop someone and make them see what the Spirit is doing then we use it. God works all things to our good. There is no list of exceptions. And if He works things to our good, he does that for other–even unbelievers. They are His kids too. I think following the leading of the Holy Spirit is more important than what language we use.

  5. Carisa says:

    There is no way to please everyone so it’s best to be true to your story. I have a short story in an anthology where the MC is invited to a strip club at a bridal shower. She declines the invitation! Yet, a couple of reviewers thought it worldly and didn’t belong. Their eyes should have never fallen on such a scene. *Gasp!* Gimme a break. Fortunately, the comments do not bother me other than making me roll my eyes. I don’t lose any sleep over them and I’m still grateful they read my book and something impacted them enough for them to remember to gripe about it.

  6. Linda Zern says:

    Thanks for the conversation. It’s much needed. I write “prepper fiction” which is a realistic depiction of the collapse of civilization. Try writing that scenario with good golly gosh. Sigh. Maybe underneath the surface, this is really a conversation about realism vs. fantasy. Maybe. Good golly gosh.

  7. Shoba Sadler says:

    The topic of discussion here is “profanity”. It is interesting to note that the synonym to this listed in the dictionary is blasphemy or showing no respect for God. Ben your discussion as well as some of the comments here seem to have overlapped onto the issue of being prudish when writing Christian fiction. I believe both are entirely different matters.

    As an author who writes edgier Christian fiction I admit it is sometimes frustrating to come up against prudish road blocks that don’t want us discussing the messy things in life like sex, prostitution, passion and so on. That makes Christian fiction irrelevant and less realistic.

    As you mentioned Ben “Point #4 is the most essential element of this whole debate–specifically the part about authors needing to tell the truth in their fiction.” So I’m all in favour of edgier Christian fiction as that is what I write. It is unfortunate that there is even such a category because all authors Christian or otherwise are expected to create stories and characters so real that the readers are blown away by the book.

    In your article though, Ben, we are talking about profanity which deals with language and personally I don’t like reading it nor do I like watching movies that contain profanity. I totally understand your argument about keeping things real which is why I write edgier Christian fiction too. Language though is a different story.

    Several decades ago there wasn’t such profanity in our language. The media is very powerful. The more people watch these in the movies and probably read it too, the more society mimics what they see and read. So if the material out there is profanity, the language adopted is the same.

    So I think authors have a responsibility to keep the language clean not only because I agree with the dictionary synonym to profanity but also because as a writer I value the beauty of wonderfully crafted language and don’t want to be part of degrading it. The more we read high quality books with excellent use of language the better we speak and express ourselves. There is nothing more impressive than having a conversation with a person who is eloquent.

    • Jeannie says:

      I appreciate the distinction you made in your comment between edgy and profane language/situations. I think each person’s line is different and appreciate it when someone warns me about the level of profanity in a book. Considering the populations I work with, I don’t think I am avoiding reality, but I might be a prude. 🙂

  8. Cindy M. says:

    I have two thoughts on this. It’s true, the Bible would never be published in our Christian publishing houses. Incest, rape, prostitution, murder, profanity, slaughter, adultery, polygamy, slavery, deception etc. I may have missed a few…

    Look at the Book of Ruth. Her mother-in-law tells her what to do to get Boaz. He’s drunk. Her actions are nothing short of seduction- laying at his feet is like giving herself to him – why would he have her sneak out if not that?

    To keep things clean, I use the profanity in my first draft (sometimes). Then I clean it up as much as possible. In a scene in one of my WIPs the MC and his team were on a mission, failed, and a reader told me, really? That big of failure and anger brings out the worst language (try fracturing something without profanity. Go ahead). So I added the f-bomb and he said, LOL now you can tone that back just a bit…

    And, Hell is a real place. Used in context. What about two people not sleeping together, but in the same house for security sake? Gives a bad rep. Again, look at Ruth. Much more scandalous than someone laying on a couch making sure the MC isn’t attacked etc. Swearing in one of my novels is ‘I swore under my breath,’ or ‘I was trying to get that swearing habit under control.’ The mMC in wartime was edgier.

    I might add, I am not yet published, so … it’s just my op.

    But getting it into a PH is another story.

  9. Travis Perry says:

    I wouuld say the Bible has no “gratuitous” content while it does have some very graphic content. The difference being gratuitous is just unneeded to the story and thrown in to shock or stimulate.

    The Bible uses graphic language when it’s central to the point and avoids it otherwise. Which is why “Adam knew his wife” and cities are described as destroyed by the edge of the sword with no other details. But Ezekiel 32 is a passage whose point is to show how disgusting spiritual idolatry is to God. It uses strong language as a result.(Note language that strong is very rare in the Bible.)

    Perhaps that suggests a possible approach. Perhaps the use of profanity makes sense when there simply is no other way to tell the story. But ought to be avoided at all other times.

  10. Leeanna says:

    I’m curious about this whole topic, not only in regards to profanity, but just generally non-squeaky clean content. I wrote a three-part novel about a Christian widowed mother and son, a non-Christian man (who converts) and a pretty nasty kidnapping. The first part was predominantly about the growth of the man’s faith along with their relationship, whereas the second part is both showing his struggle and the kidnapping of the kid. It’s not pretty, and to whitewash it would make it feel more like a Scooby Doo cartoon than a realistic story of people getting shot and a kid killing his kidnapper in self-defense. How does a Christian write that without crossing a line? Can they? And how in the world would it be categorized? (Self-publishing, for sure, but I don’t even know the genre to put it in.) Any advice?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*