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Is It Dishonest for Christian Fiction to Disallow Cussing?

Honesty is supposed to be one of the bedrocks of the Christian author. Then why don’t we allow our characters to be true to character? Intentionally scrubbing our cast members of their necessary nastiness can compromise a story. I mean, if we’re not telling the truth about our characters, what else are we fudging on?

The absence of profanity in Christian fiction has always struck me as a bit dishonest — especially when the characters call for it.

Let’s say I’m conniving a story about a hit man whose conscience is catching up with him. Sure, he entered the profession as a means of necessity, not inhumanity. But whacking guys has taken a toll on him and his religious roots are starting to re-emerge. He wants out. If I’m writing Christian fiction, however, his resignation might lead to dialog like this:

Conflicted Hitman: “I got blood on my hands, Joey. I’m done, quittin’ the ‘fellas!”

Mafia Boss (Christian version): “The heck you are! I’ll be darned if I let ya fly the stinkin’ coop. Try it and we’ll kick your butt!”

Okay, so it’s a little over the top. But does this not strike you as, uh, unrealistic? Mob bosses cuss. A lot. And I don’t mean poop, dang and shoot. So how in the world can a Christian write honestly — and that’s the operative word here — about mobsters without portraying the profanity? Nevertheless, Christian fiction is notorious for sanitizing the sacrilegious and filtering the filth. But isn’t this untruthful?

In speaking about character dialog, Stephen King, in his book On Writing says:

As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic. In the majority of cases what my correspondents are hot under the collar about relates to something in the dialogue… (pgs. 185-186 emphasis mine)

Maybe that’s why Christian authors can the cussing — we’re just trying to avoid “criticism.” We don’t want to appear “foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic,” etc. That and, if we’re aiming for the religious market, every expletive takes us one step closer to the rejection pile.

Hey, I have no problem with limiting curse words. Sometimes IT IS lazy writing to let the expletives fly. I also think it’s appropriate to say He cursed or She swore in order to avoid an R-rating. But one can only do that so much without appearing, uh, dishonest.

Which leads me to another question: How can Christians ever hope to persuade the unsaved when we can’t even stand to listen to them talk? Many of my co-workers cuss. Hard. Like f-bombs every other sentence. Am I supposed to pretend they don’t talk that way, walk around with earplugs in, so I’m not bespoiled by their nastiness? Likewise, why should we not expect our non-Christian characters to act — and talk — like non-Christians?

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Heather February 27, 2009, 9:08 AM

    I agree with you.

  • Michelle Pendergrass February 27, 2009, 9:49 AM

    Dialogue and cussing aren’t the only areas Christian Fiction tries to avoid criticism, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  • Xdpaul February 27, 2009, 1:06 PM

    Cussing: I don’t like it, so I don’t write it.* But what my characters say? That’s on them!

    *Except for “scit.” But that’s more an expletive than a curse. Plus, it’s in a dead language, so I can skate a little.

    On the other hand, I do want whatever little art I can contribute back to the world to be rich. I don’t think, for example, that Peter Lorre in “M” is any less menacing because he doesn’t utter a curse. I can’t recall a single swear word uttered by the Joker in Dark Knight, but I was menaced by him in a way that curses couldn’t have touched.

    There are a hundred scenes of classic, memorable, meaningful dialog that don’t include a single curse word. And then, of course, there is Steve Martin’s dialog at the rental car agency in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Also a classic.

    So I guess the guideline that I use, artistically, is that if curses are brought out of the toolbox, use them with wisdom and care. Get rid of as many that are unneccessary. In other words, good editing cures many problems, including excessive cursing.

    As for “under-cursing” I think it is best to use the “Dopey” rule. If it sounds dopey, find a better word. The better word might just happen to end with a hard, and harsh, consonant.

  • Xdpaul February 27, 2009, 1:12 PM

    Oh, one other thing, self-censorship isn’t just a Christian writing issue. The secular producers of Battlestar Galactica had to coin their own frakking term in order to outmaneuver the frakwit censors at the network.

    The issue of cursing in literature is one of decorum, not theology.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 28, 2009, 1:43 PM

    Well, I have my pet peeves, too, but it does amaze me at the amount of emotional energy expended on the topic of publishers not wanting to print cussing and cursing in fiction.

    Becky

  • Nicole February 28, 2009, 1:51 PM

    Dishonest? Hmmm. If the author writing the story chooses to leave the specific cuss/swear words to the imagination of the readers without plugging in “darn”, “heck”, or “shoot”, etc., when it’s obvious the character would express his/her displeasure otherwise, no, I don’t see it as “dishonest”. I see it as a matter of principle/choice. One can implicate foul/vulgar language without having to print it out.
    And it’s kind of absurd to demand anything from publishers since they’re the ones calling the shots as to who and what they publish. Writers have a lot of choices–whether they like them or not is up to them.
    No one is demanding a writer forego language choices. It’s a matter of which battles they’re willing to die for to get published where and how they want to be published.

  • Glynn March 1, 2009, 3:59 PM

    I’ve been reading a lot of Christian novels lately, mostly in the contemporary genre but a few others as well — contemporary romance, suspense/thriller, and mystery. Yesterday, I completely switched gears, and started reading a secular contemporary romance — the story line looked intriguing. The contrast with what I had been reading couldn’t have been more stark — and the most noticeable thing was the gratuitous use of profanity. It was jarring — and totally unnecessary; it added nothing to the story and it had the effect of cheapening the characters.

    • Tim May 19, 2009, 11:51 AM

      Right on, Glynn!

  • Kaci March 2, 2009, 9:40 AM

    I honestly don’t know that many people who cuss. And if they do, it’s in limited situations – for the most part, anyway. It sort of depends, for me, I guess. There’s a line between staying ‘true to the character’ and falling into the line of the grotesque – regardless of the origin. There’s a movie I truly enjoyed but will never see again because the language fell into the grotesque. And I can hardly imagine that characters of such brilliance and verbosity would be reduced to such crude forms of oral communication.

    But that’s me.

  • Kaci March 2, 2009, 9:43 AM

    Addendum: Hehe. And I’m really glad your mafia boss wouldn’t say it that way.

  • Mike Duran March 2, 2009, 5:43 PM

    There’s an inference in some of the objections that I’m suggesting we can’t write realistic characters without the gory details. I don’t believe that. Xd, you’re right, Peter Lorre in “M” is no less menacing because he doesn’t utter a curse word. Furthermore, as Glynn mentioned, the “gratuitous use of profanity” in many works IS totally unnecessary, adds nothing to the story, and cheapens the characters. I agree.

    The problem is when we swing to the opposite extreme, become intolerant of ALL cussing in “religious” literature, and assert that Christian fiction should not contain ANY expletives. This leap is equally wrong-headed.

    We do not live in a G-rated world. So when Christians demand G-rated fiction, there’s a sense, at least to me, that they’re being dishonest about the way things really are. Am I suggesting we place the censors before the firing squad and let the epithets fly? No. But when we label something “Christian,” what are we saying? Are we saying it’s safe for the entire family? Is that what Christian fiction is, safe the entire family? To me, Christian fiction must be about telling the truth. Of course, some of it SHOULD be sanitized. There are readers that want that. But to suggest — yea, demand — that all Christian fiction be characterized by an absence of expletives, is legalism. It is representative of the narrow cultural mindset that seems to drive much of the industry.

    • Tim May 19, 2009, 12:10 PM

      I don’t think it is dishonest or legalistic to heed the following verses, Mike:

      "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, *let it not be once named* among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks…Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them…And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame *even to speak of those things* which are done of them in secret.” (Ephesians 5)

      "…As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy *in all manner of conversation*; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:13-16).

  • Xdpaul March 3, 2009, 12:51 PM

    We should be virtuous in what we write – that might include the virtue of Phineas, who broke decorum and entered the tent of a man and a woman so that he could drive a spear through both of them as they, well, as they frakked. God blessed the humiliating execution and spared the plague.

    Phineas was ruthless, bloody, direct and right. I think you have to have all four elements in order to properly employ the stronger epithets in a character’s mouth.

  • dayle March 4, 2009, 8:52 PM

    no.

  • Xdpaul March 5, 2009, 9:11 AM

    Dayle, are you quoting Rorschach from the Watchmen?

  • Dayle March 19, 2009, 11:04 AM

    Very perspicacious of you, XD. Although I would posit that Rorschach has, in fact, quoted me.

  • Anthony Mathenia November 3, 2011, 12:54 PM

    Christians totally miss the plot. They condemn calling something shit but have no real issues with calling someone an idiot. According to Jesus one of those will put a person in danger of being condemned to hell. Guess which?

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