A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

Today’s post is the result of a question asked of me last week when I gave an abbreviated presentation on editing. The group I addressed was composed of Christian writers, some of whom are striding into edgier territory than is comfortable to many of the traditional Christian publishers.

This question probably would not have been asked, or even considered worthwhile, had I spoken to a group of writers of no particular faith, but it did stretch me to present a cogent response, and is worth discussion, especially since it brings up the notion that every word we write must have a purpose:

In writing the conflict between good and evil—what words are acceptable? Damn, hell—how graphic can a Christian writer be?

My immediate response: as graphic as your conscience allows and the story requires.

My modified response: what is allowed depends on your publisher.

But what about a Biblical response? I’m so glad you asked.

A) What about offending a “weaker brother”?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Romans 14:1-3

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (NLT

“Receive him that is weak in faith, but not for passing judgment. For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him who eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.” (KJ2000)

Although we need to be mindful of others, don’t let the possibility of offending someone keep you from telling the truth. Don’t let weaker readers weaken a strong story.

Evil exists. Bad things happen—even to good people.

Consider the oppressed, tragic lives of many persecuted believers around the world. Try telling them a squeaky-clean, neatly-packaged, everyone-is-saved-and-happy-at-the-end kind of story.

That may be our ideal, but is it reality?

Use discernment.
Is evil glorified in the story?
Is it present in order to reveal truth?
Prove a point?
Provide a comparison between darkness and light?

There can be, and often are, redemptive elements in harsh stories. Context is everything. Consider your audience, and your reason for including the foul language, the violence, etc.

And remember: Everyone has to grow up sometime. One cannot always cater to the weaker believers, else they’ll never have a reason to “man up” and grow stronger. Disciple them. Show them how to be strong.

B) What about the admonition to avoid unclean speech?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Colossians 3:6-9

“Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.” (NLT)

“For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience: In which you also once walked, when you lived in them. But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth. Lie not to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (KJ2000)

Not all unclean speech consists of four-letter words.

There’s gossip, slander, blasphemy, lies, name-calling, belittling, boasting, abusive speech, anything that’s meant to tear someone down. An insidious form of foul speech is the backhanded compliment, or the well-spoken but ill-meant piece of advice.

Again, context: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. And how you mean it.

Do characters lie or gossip or use sarcasm in a story? Do children on a playground call names? Or is everyone in your story a perfect specimen of civility?

Remember: A major storytelling necessity is character arc, the term for the changes a character undergoes during the course of the story. The main character may begin as a foul-mouthed, brawling drunkard. By the end, however, he may have cleaned up his speech, overcome alcohol, and be working on his temper. That character’s arc/change is essential to the story.

As stated earlier, we don’t have to glorify the evil—in this case, the foul language—but we do need to tell the truth. It’s an unfortunate fact that we humans have difficulty controlling our tongues (James 3:8). If the characters in our stories act like saints in all things, they lose believability, and we lose credibility with our readers.

C) And, finally, ahem, what about avoiding unclean thoughts?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Philippians 4:8

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (NLT)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJ2000)

You may not dwell in evil thoughts, but there are people who do, and therefore there are characters who do.

Those thoughts can range from wishing someone would die to actually planning a murder; from thinking oneself superior to actively working to keep others down; from thinking someone other than one’s spouse is attractive to lusting after that person; from harboring anger to plotting revenge; and so on.

Realism and character arc require room for characters to begin in a place of weakness, trouble, misguidedness, even outright evil, and then progress toward strength, peace, wisdom, goodness.

(Not all change is improvement, by the way. Some characters regress, or begin from a place of goodness or strength, and end in weakness or villainy.)

“Holier than thou” syndrome is a turn-off to believers and non-believers alike. If a non-believer reads the work, will they be offended at the presence of God in the story, or at the too-perfect falseness of the characters (Christian or otherwise)? If they’re offended by God, then tough luck. They’ll just have to remain offended. However, if the author hasn’t done his job as a storyteller, and created believable, flawed characters, then he needs to rewrite them.

Just as we living, breathing humans have shortcomings, so too should our storybook humans. Lives transform as they turn from darkness to light, and therein lies powerful storytelling. The light would not be so bright without the darkness in which it shines. A happy ending is not quite so powerful without all the struggle that came before it.

Something to consider: Perhaps the story doesn’t belong with a traditional Christian publishing house, or with a Christian publisher at all. Perhaps the work requires a secular publisher—and there are many Christians who do publish in secular rather than religious venues, simply because their work is not in keeping with the expectations of a Christian publisher or of a Christian audience.

Is the intended audience the Church, with readers who want their beliefs affirmed and don’t necessarily want to be confronted with certain words or ideas? Or is it the world at large, everyone who wants to be given hope or shown a different way?

Final thoughts

A friend read this on Facebook Monday afternoon; it was posted by E. Stephen Burnett (whose excellent post on spiritual villains can be read at Speculative Faith), who was quoting another writer:

From fantasy author Kat Heckenbach: “I was thinking about the continuing war among Christian writers. The whole, ‘Christian fiction needs to be this,’ vs. ‘No, Christian fiction needs to be this,’ war. Clean vs. gritty. Righteous vs. real. Hide in the light vs. plunge into the dark. What I think is being missed in this whole situation is this: When we say Christian fiction needs to be of a certain type, we are really saying Christians need to be of a certain type. […] God is able to meet all of those needs, and fortunately He is willing to stoop to our levels to meet them. He stoops.” So should stories.

Update (12/1/14): Another good article about foul language in Christian fiction can be found at Randy Streu’s blog, An Unfinished Life.

Update (1/20/15): An excellent piece discussing how one actually takes the Lord’s name in vain, and how profanity has nothing to do with it, can be read at Mike Duran’s blog, Decompose — “On Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain“.

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3 thoughts on “A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction”

  1. I am not a fan of CBA rules. I think so much CBA fiction reads watered down and unrealistic because they don’t even want to show real sin, real sinners, etc. And as a result, we never see the true, real power of grace and the changes it can bring to a sinner through faith in Christ. At the same time, I think sometimes the use of foul language is laziness. Readers fill in gaps and participate in the story if you let them. I know that I and Faith Hunter who is published via ACE use limited language and have heard no complaints about the stories not wringing true. If you say “so and so cursed” readers will fill in the blank automatically with their appropriate curse word. For some it may be more severe a word than others, but it actually draws them in and they pass it by without even taking notice. Sometimes people overdo it and that bothers me more than the use of it generally. So I’d urge people to always be very thoughtful in choosing language. Does it really add anything to your story that can’t be added in other ways? Or is it just something you’re doing to add grit or to be edgy? I think it’s too often used more as a protest against “language police/thought police” than because the story needs it by all too many writers. There are many ways to say the same thing and readers are smart and their minds will add things that add to the power of your words if chosen wisely.

    1. Bryan–

      I agree, most foul language is either laziness or rebellion. I’m sympathetic toward neither, especially as an editor.

      I’m reminded of the Mark Twain quote regarding use of a particular adverb: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

      That’s pretty much how I view curse words in general. However, I’ve been known to tell a writer, “A well-placed ‘damn’ can say much more, and say it better, than this paragraph does.”

      Unfortunately, that puts me at odds with many other writers of faith.

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