My most recent post got me to thinking about a post I wrote about 4 years ago, called Dirty Deeds and the Christian Author. The following is an updated version of that post:
My characters are generally bad people. The whole stinkin’ lot of them simply reek of original sin. Which is to say, they’re perfectly awful which is only perfectly natural given the general state of humanity. Even us Christians are only sinners saved by grace.
But how do we write it?
Take swearing. [Those with gentler constitutions probably should stop reading and go do something else now.]
|Foul-mouthed heavy metal Tony|
My characters never really swear. Oh, they use the words “friggin,” “sodding” and “crap.” In the Otherworld future-verse, they also use phrases like “Black Void,” “Edger’s Void” and “By the black!” I suppose some would consider that cussing of a sort.
As someone who wasn’t always a Christian, someone who sang in a horrid little metal garage band and spouted and sang the F-word at every available opportunity, I can honestly say that the pastor of the church I got saved in found these tamer substitutions immensely preferable! Did you know that if you sing something, it becomes second nature? That’s why congregational singing is so important and should not be neglected for the sake of current musical trends in worship; congregational singing helps to form our shared liturgy! In any case, I swore in song and was in such a habit of swearing that I did it as unconsciously as breathing. I’d raised it to an art form. Of course, my favorite profanity was the F-bomb. The F-word in particular has always been versatile for the more brazen soul: a noun, adjective, verb.. you could even add new syllables to common words for added effect: for example, out-friggin-rageous! I digress.
So if you were to ask me if words and phrases like dang or frigging were cussing, I would’ve laughed. I did laugh! I laughed when people used such tame “pseudo-curses” back when I peeled the wallpaper off the walls with every profane utterance! It wasn’t really swearing at all. It was hinting at it at best.
OK, enough backstory. I just wanted to give you some perspective on where I was coming from.
To someone who’s gown up in church all their life or has become acclimated to Christian social norms since their conversion hears those words, some of them are convinced that I may as well be cussing. (Note: that the term “may as well be” indicates that it’s not quite the same animal, but it’s pretty close!)
The point is: we have a great divide in Christian fiction brought on by an is/ought contradiction in societal behavior that must somehow be dealt with. People ought to refrain from filthy communication, but swearing is a fact of reality. Not everyone does it, but when we’re writing about the type of persons who would, how do we write it as Christian authors?
As I understand it, there are two camps on the subject [I’m oversimplifying, I’m sure]: the Realism camp and the Idealism camp.
The Realism party thinks we ought not sugar-coat sin. We ought to paint it as it is so real people can then see themselves reflected in the pages of our books and then be pointed to a real Savior. Something to that effect anyway.
The Idealism camp thinks we ought not do anything of the sort. We ought to write our characters as role models. A sort of “what would Jesus write?” crowd.
Anyway, two camps, overgeneralized. And I don’t really fit into either.
I think the Idealism camp authors write saccharine pieces that are a little too gilt-edged. They don’t show people as they are, but how they prefer them to be. Are we really to suppose these fictional worlds contain no cigarettes, alcohol or dice? The characters seem too plastic. If any of them have flaws or sins, they are either destined for conversion or they’re the villains. No one struggles with a thorn in the side. Yet I know Christians who struggle with addictions. I know Christians who don’t always do the right and proper Christian thing. I know Christians who often act self-righteously instead of graciously. One of them looks me in the mirror every day!
On the other hand, the Realism guys can be equally unappealing. Take gore and violence. In Johnny Came Home, there are super-powered fist fights, guns, rockets, alien death rays and all of the high-flying action you’d expect out of a classic good versus evil brawl through downtown. In Luckbane, I have a character called Copper Gallows who wields a saw disc weapon called a render. Now, given these two scenarios, I could write a scene with lots of graphic gore and blood with people spitting out teeth and what-have-you [I don’t] and that would be honest, but it would also be unnecessary. To be honest [and brutally so, as is my custom], I do have a scene where I note that someone’s shin bone is jutting out of their leg. That’s my goriest scene and it’s simply necessary so that you know the extent of the character’s injuries at that point and that, well, its a serious leg injury, not a sprain or a mere fracture. That sort of medical gore is necessary in a case like that, but I think that there’s a line that can be crossed where it becomes gratuitous. Where we might as well follow that act with lions and Christians…
So what’s a Christian author to do about swearing?
Here’s our options in a nutshell:
- We can pretend like swearing doesn’t exist and pretend that all of our characters speak like born again Christians who’ve never used a day in their lives [so there couldn’t be a moment of backsliding] or who’ve never even heard a swear word [Pleasantville, anyone?]. This is the Idealist position at its purest.
- We can have folks cuss “off-camera.” In other words, write, “He swore” or “He cursed.” There’s Biblical precedent for this. Matthew 26:74, speaking of Peter as he denied Christ, says: “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.” So here we have a concession to reality with a Biblical example.
- We can hint-ify. “George then uttered a word so foul that my dear sainted Aunt would have fainted on the spot had she not felt it her duty to shield us children from such profane utterances. Later, Kitty told me that he’d implied Jed had unnatural relations with his mother and that he had no father at all!” Hint, hint, wink. You get the idea. Some hint-ified phrases are already common. For example: “Well, H E double-hockey sticks!” For some, even getting the reader to figure it out for themselves will be just as bad as saying it outright.
- We can make up filler cusswords. Battlestar Galactica used the word “frack” as a stand-in cuss word. Harry Harrison also used a made-up cuss word in Bill the Galactic Hero to great effect. Since his book was a futuristic military book, he needed a way to portray the way the customary flowery speech of military personnel without finding himself censored as an author. (This is a pretty big problem for those writing realistic military fiction. Christian author Sean T. Smith has even had some military fiction fans criticize his military apocalyptic work, Objects of Wrath, for not containing enough cussing!) Harry Harrison’s creative solution to this dilemma was to coin the word “bowb.” Here are a few examples of how it was used:
Don’t give me any of your bowb!
Get over here, you stupid bowb!
What is this, “Bowb Your Buddy Week?”
Some will object that this is the same thing as #3.
- We can stick to watered-down versions of actual swear words: darn, friggin, crap, et cetera. Some will object that in the spirit of the law, we may as well be saying the word we’re dancing around. Either way, there’s no denying that teens and adults who are sensitive to children use these words.
- We can stick to pulpit cussing: the sort of words your minister can utter from the pulpit but are otherwise deemed impolite. Star Trek and Gone With the Wind use them.
- In print, we can use hyphenated or cartoon versions of cussing. For example: “@#%*!!” (the classic Qbert curse) Or… “D– him!” Jed shouted. “D– him all to h–!” It reads a bit confusing, but it is what it is.
- You can just flat out do it. This would be the pure Realist position, but is there any Scriptural warrant for it? Perhaps there is a precedent. In Philippians 3:8, Paul says that he counts his former life as “dung” [skubalon] compared to the knowledge of Christ. The word there is literally excrement or, well, SH-ut my mouth! According to New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig L. Blomberg, the terms Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 4:13 (perikatharma “filth” and peripsema “off-scouring”) are “fairly vulgar in the original Greek; their closest English equivalents would offend so many people that modern translations use euphemistic language like this instead!” [From Pentecost to Revelation, p. 173]. And when Isaiah says our righteousness is as “filthy rags,” the Hebrew word for “filthy” (iddah) literally refers to menstruation, so the modern equivalence would be “bloody tampons.” Ew, right? It should be said that all of these uses are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and that they are used to edify by way of comparison.
Each author will have to answer to God alone for the way he or she handles the gift of writing. Personally, I think there has to be a balance between portraying life realistically and being unnecessarily graphic, but if we can show people as they are, warts and all, we can also show them a Redeemer than can save them just as they are.