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.
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.