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Why Do Christian Publishers Tolerate Violence, but Not Profanity?

If you’re an author aiming for the Christian market, it is far easier to write about one character shooting another than cussing them out. Rather a quart of blood than a cup of expletives. Just peruse the Christian fiction section of B&N and you will find your share of serial killers, hit men, assassins, abusers, and wannabe anti-christs plying their trades. But I dare you to find one character who ever says “damn.”

Why is this? Why does it seem Christian publishers are more tolerant of violence than profanity?

Now, by being “tolerant” of violence, I am in no way suggesting that there is a glorification of violence or an excessive amount of it. Indeed, in relation to the general market, violence and gore in Christian fiction is minuscule. Cursing, on the other hand, is non-existent. So while there has been much discussion about violence and profanity in Christian fiction, somehow, somewhere along the way, a concession was made for violence and against profanity.

I have two theories about why, in Christian fiction, violence is more tolerable than cussing.

First, the presence of violence and bloodshed in the Bible allows us to condone the presence of violence and bloodshed in our stories. The typical argument is that the world is a violent place. Christians aren’t immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture tells of wars, dismemberment, torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath’s head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Either way, it happened and our minds are left to fill in the gory blanks.

Furthermore, the Christian life is often viewed as a fight. We are described in militaristic terms, as soldiers and warriors; our lives are a real — sometimes viscous — struggle against forces bent on our destruction. The inclusion of violence in our fiction is an expression of our often hellish struggle to follow Christ in a dark, evil, world. So my first guess is that Christian publishers tolerate violence because the Bible contains bloodshed and violence, the Christian life is a battle, and Christian aren’t immune to the evils of our fallen world.

But why is there a more liberal approach to violence than profanity? Why show a hit man stalking his prey, a serial killer fulfilling his sadistic urges, without so much as a single expletive? I’m sure there’s several possibilities, but the one I keep returning to is this:

Contemporary religious fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry — Christian film / fiction / music — is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism’s withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of “negatives” — no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Christian art became an alternative to “worldly” fare. As such, it was defined as much by what it didn’t have, as what it did. I think that’s still true today.

In this Fundamentalist “hierarchy of holiness,” some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing… well, let’s not go there. Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this “hierarchy of holiness;” we’ve come to see the presence of profanity in our fiction as worse than the presence of violence. In the same way that we inflate certain sins like homosexuality or smoking, we have inflated certain words. The flip-side, however, is that by cultivating this hierarchy we inevitably “deflate” or “diminish” other evils. Like violence. Either way, we have come to believe that it’s worse to read a single expletive, than to read about murder or abuse. That’s why, for the Christian author, it is much easier to portray a drowning, a strangling, an electrocution, an assassination, or a mafia-style execution, than to simply have a character utter the word “damn.”

I’m just not sure how else to view it.

Anyway, I’m interested in your thoughts. Do you think Christian publishers tolerate violence over profanity, and if so, why?

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Guy Stewart January 21, 2010, 3:58 PM

    I've OFTEN given this some thought and the conclusion I've come to is the Greek, "ha logos'…"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…" (Jn 1:1)

    As Christians we have ALWAYS put great value on the Word, hence great value on words. The thought I have is that "word awareness" is so deeply ingrained in us we overlook butchery but fanaticall "guard the word". Jesus said this about the Law in Matthew 5:18 and we've taken the message to heart: THE WORD IS POWERFUL (sharper than any two-edged sword)…so WORDS are powerful. So powerful that we can't use naughty words in our Christian fiction…

    Them's my thoughts…

  • Meg Moseley January 22, 2010, 1:15 AM

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Mike. I have nothing against fundamentalists (some people would call me one) but I don't like that "hierarchy of holiness," as you called it. It's a trap.

  • Jay January 22, 2010, 1:43 AM

    A lot of movements within the church have a kind of hierarchy holiness, based on the surrounding, secularized culture. Not sure if that's always good or not (I'm sure at the time it help people to emphasize certain ways of living more than others).

  • Nicole January 22, 2010, 3:25 PM

    To answer your question: yes. However, I have seen the minor "cuss" words such as damn in modern CBA novels but very few of them.
    For whatever reason this is the case. At least the corny substitutes aren't employed. The f-bombs are implicated and written around by expressing that expletives were involved. I appreciate that when done well.
    Certainly it can't be explained from the standpoint of sin inequality because that doesn't exist, but I will admit when reading secular novels, I'm not fond of reading all the cuss words because I left using them behind and most of the time they're unnecessary to demonstrate character traits/expressions. They can be written around skillfully.

  • Mike Duran January 22, 2010, 12:20 PM

    Guy, I think there's truth to your observation. Christians, to their credit, aren't cavalier about bad language. The guys I work with still joke about me not cussing (but with them dropping F-bombs all day, it's easy to look like a saint). And Jay, I do think a hierarchy of holiness can "emphasize certain ways of living more than others." The problem is two-fold: One is where we arbitrate one sin over another w/out Scriptural authority (for instance, when did gluttony and pride become less important than homosexuality?). The other is when our personal / institutional hierarchies become gospel. Hey, thanks for your comments!

  • Mike Duran January 23, 2010, 3:28 PM

    Nicole, I'll concede that "most of the time [profanity is] unnecessary to demonstrate character traits/expressions." But what about some of the time? That's the issue I'm raising here. Even in causal societal interaction we cannot escape hearing profanity. Heck, just listen to AM talk radio for an hour and you're bound to hear mild expletives. So why must we scrub it completely if, in day-to-day life, it is fairly commonplace? Sure it "can be written around skillfully." But must it ALL be "written around"? And, if so, why?

  • Nicole January 23, 2010, 7:27 PM

    You know, Mike, we used to train race horses. If you lined up 20 trainers, you'd get either 20 different opinions or 15 different ones with intersecting ideology borne out by successes and/or failures with each method.
    So you line up umpteen writers and the same thing happens. Mild expletives don't bother me, and I don't consider them a stretch. Like I said, you do read them in some CBA novels, and as always it depends on the publisher.
    I would say those publishers which allow them have decided they can afford the fallout from those readers who will certainly assault them with complaints (sans expletives) and vow to never again buy another book put out by them. Those publishers who cater to the Amish/prairie romance readers most likely will not venture into profanity precisely because of their audience. It's logical, practical, and business-smart not to offend the primary buyers of your product.
    Hey, I don't hold the choice of language used against those in the world unless they just can't seem to figure out how to say a simple sentence without two or three f-bombs in it. Give me a break.

  • Nicole January 23, 2010, 7:28 PM

    (cont.)
    I used to use profanity. I hear profanity. I'd rather not read it the same way I'd rather not listen to it in a movie: unless it demonstrates a poignancy to the character or plot. I think that's your point. If it's used when nothing else seems to suffice rather than "just because I can" or for shock value, it can have its place. JMO.

  • Mike Duran January 24, 2010, 2:42 PM

    Nicole, so… you're agreeing that profanity should have a place in Christian fiction? Or are you saying that the reason it doesn't exist in Christian fiction is that Christian readers just don't want to read it? If it's the latter, then it may prove my theory that the current CBA marketplace is entrenched in a Fundamentalist — even puritanical — value system. Thanks for your comments!

  • Nicole January 25, 2010, 4:15 PM

    Profanity should have a place? A very narrow place. Just because either violence or profanity are common or "real" doesn't make them right. The Bible contains examples and accounts of graphic violence and hideous crimes. Rape, murder, incest, adultery, references to homosexuality, and how all of it registers as sin. As Christians we are cautioned about our verbal expressions and the "use" of our "tongues". Putting profanity in novels is a choice we must make as authors and another choice for editors and publishers. To each his own.

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