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Why Do Evangelical Fiction Readers Tolerate Violence But Not Profanity?

No-cursingA grisly death occurs near the end of my first novel The Resurrection which leaves a bad guy a bubbling heap of intestinal lard. During the final edits, feeling relatively self-conscious about this over-the-top retribution, I suggested to my editor that I tone that scene down, make it less gruesome. She replied, “I’d leave it like that. He deserved it.”

Interestingly enough, I almost pleaded with the same publisher to allow one of my characters to say “go to hell.” To a demon. They refused, saying that that phrase was unacceptable. My publisher refused to allow a character to say “go to hell,” while applauding another being melted into a mass of organs.

Yesterday over at Speculative Faith, Austin Gunderson reviewed a book entitled “The Apocalypse Door.” He concluded: “The Apocalypse Door flings open a rousing-yet-religiously-grounded entryway to the spiritual-thriller subgenre.” What I was not clear of was where this book stood in relation to Christian fiction. So I asked Austin on Facebook and he replied:

Theologically, the novel operates under a Catholic paradigm, so while *I* don’t consider it theologically sound, a Catholic reader likely would (the author, at least, has declared it to be doctrinally accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, at least from his perspective). While I interpreted its thematic gist to be overt (at least by the end), the novel *does* contain a heck of a lot more ambiguity than I’m used to in “Christian” fiction, and it’s possible to view the protagonist’s interpretive conclusion as just that: his interpretation.

As for objectionable content, the novel contains graphic violence, mild language throughout (and a smattering of stronger language), and a scene of non-graphic sex (along with pervasive humorous innuendoes). So in that sense, it’d probably fit at the “edgy” extreme of the “Christian” fiction cleanliness spectrum.

I found it rather interesting that Austin used that phrase — “the ‘edgy’ extreme of the ‘Christian’ fiction cleanliness spectrum.” *Not commenting on whether “edgy extreme” is redundant. 🙂 ) For a “cleanliness spectrum” does indeed exist in the Christian publishing world.

One of the questions I had is why Catholic theology is less conservative regarding the “cleanliness spectrum” than evangelicals.

A while back, one of my posts got linked by a Catholic writers group. My post was about “clean fiction” and how that’s a defining factor of today’s Christian fiction. Anyway, I lurked the conversation and was a little embarrassed for us evangelicals. You see, the consensus among these Catholic authors was that

The issue of “clean fiction” is a uniquely Evangelical concern.

Then they proceeded to rattle off names like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene as examples of how Catholic novelists managed to write “spiritual classics” without having to niggle over the issue of “clean fiction.”

A while back, in a discussion about Christian speculative fiction and where it’s heading, I suggested that “‘bad theology’ has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.” Or as Tony Woodlief puts it his article Bad Christian Art, “poor Christianity” inevitably “yields bad Christian art”:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

After almost a decade of involvement in the Christian fiction industry — reading Christian novels, writing Christian novels, interacting with industry reps, authors, and readers, attending Christian conferences, and blogging — I’ve concluded that a larger set of presumed “biblical tenets,” a religious worldview, aggressively shapes mainstream consumers’ understanding of Christian art.

The Evangelical art industry, as it exists today, is reflective of bad theology.

One reflection of that “bad theology” is our tolerance for violence, but intolerance of profanity. Or in regards to the book Austin reviewed above, the language and sexual innuendo would disqualify the book from the “Christian fiction” ranks long before the “graphic violence.”

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 your favorite bookseller 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 “shit.”

So why is this? Why does it seem Christian readers 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 readers 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 touches on theology, namely the “cleanliness spectrum.”

Contemporary Evangelical 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 “cleanliness spectrum,” some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing? Let’s not go there. Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this “cleanliness spectrum.”

On the Evangelical “cleanliness spectrum,” profanity in our fiction ranks worse than 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 “cleanliness spectrum” we inevitably “deflate” or “diminish” other evils. Like violence. When you need to browse vaporizer products, visit migvapor.com for more information.

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 cuss. It is much easier to liquify your bad guy than to have him say “shit” as he’s melting.

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{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Nissa Annakindt July 24, 2014, 6:07 AM

    I’m a Catholic and I’ve noticed my fellow Catholic authors often allow themselves one really bad word in a novel and that’s it. Perhaps to distinguish themselves from Evangelical fiction. (Personally I think all we need to distinguish ourselves from Evangelicals is our sound Catholic theology.)

    I think there are good reasons not to fill fiction with f-words and s-words, and as Christians we ought to be particularly concerned about actual blasphemy in fiction. But when you can’t even tell a DEMON to go to hell, then you are going way too far.

  • Travis Perry July 24, 2014, 6:23 AM

    Mike, it is certainly worth asking if Christianity dominated by Evangelical thought doesn’t have a sliding scale for sin that’s inherently unfair or focused on the wrong things. But the use of profanity is a poor example of the phenomenon.

    You came so close to answering this question correctly–I’m really astounded you didn’t get all the way there. After noting that the Bible contains violence (which at times has hints of graphic details, like “wallowing in hs blood,” 2 SAM 20:12), you did not ask the follow-on question, “Does the Bible contain profanity?” There are in fact some passages that talk about the spiritual prostitution of Ancient Israel that contain words that could be translated as profanity (and perhaps a tiny handful of other examples) but which, guess what, are NOT so translated in English-language Bibles with profanity. The Bible in the hands of the overwhelming majority of Christians contains numeroous references to violence and not ONE SINGLE curse word. So a greater tolerance for violence over profanity is not at all surprising for people who routinely read the Bible. The riddle you posed was in fact extremely easy to solve and you actually got something like 90% of the way there. For some reason I can’t fathom the final bit eluded you.

    As for the contrast with Catholic writers, sure, Catholics are culturally different in a number of ways, some of which I think if I pointed them out in detail would not be too flattering to Catholics. Instead of doing that, let’s just note that the “Sola Scriptura” idea, the notion that the Bible and the Bible alone is the source of Christian faith and practice, has never been a Catholic ideal. So is it surprising Evangelicals are more influenced by the tone the Bible sets? No.

    Besides, there is an underlying presumption in your bit that violence under all circumstances is “of course” worse that profanity, or equally bad at least. Could it be the Bible sees the one as an inevitable part of living in a fallen world (as you noted yourself) and the other as ALWAYS gratuituous, at least in the way our current culture throws it around? In other words, are you so sure your presumption is correct?

    • Mike Duran July 24, 2014, 9:44 AM

      Travis, I believe there’s plenty of salty language found in Scripture, some intended, others the result of cultural moors. For instance, in Philippians 3:8 Paul writes:

      What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowingChrist Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (NIV)

      The word translated “garbage” in the NIV is the Greek word skubala. It is an emphatic word that is rarely translated into English with the force it has in the Greek. The Greek word is vulgar. It literally means excrement or dung and can refer to human or animal excrement. Literally it means “shit.”

      In 1 Samuel 20:30 Saul rages against Jonathan his son and calls him a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman.” Again, our translation does not capture the force of the language, which would be something akin to “You son of a …..”

      Jesus used harsh language against the most respected leaders of His age when He called them a “brood of vipers.” Ezekiel 23 uses very graphic words to describe Israel’s whoring, images likes bloody sanitary napkins and dogs sniffing the air for the female in heat. Would that language be tolerable in most Christian fiction? I don’t think so. Then there’s the “official” KJV translation that describes males as those who “pisseth against the wall” (I Kings 16:11) and employs the word “bastard” on occasion (Deut. 23:2, Heb. 12:8). Again, would these words be tolerable in today’s Christian fiction? No.

      Furthermore, nowhere does the Bible tell us what words are out of bounds. In fact, when Scripture commands us to watch our mouths, most often it refers to not being a gossip, a talebearer, a liar, or tearing people down with our tongue. So as to your point that the Bible does not contain “ONE SINGLE curse word,” I’d have to disagree.

      • StuartB July 24, 2014, 4:52 PM

        Excellent, Biblical, mature answer.

      • Alastair August 1, 2014, 12:34 PM

        On the skubalon question, closer study suggests that it doesn’t carry the same force as ‘shit’. Many Christians are far more precious about such things than the biblical authors, who are far more earthy in their language (perhaps surprisingly to us, the Bible has a lot to say about such things as sweat, blood, and nocturnal emissions). However, the use of such words in Scripture doesn’t underwrite the popular use of curse words either. Such words are given great weight in Scripture and don’t serve merely as expletives liberally deployed for emphasis or humour.

    • StuartB July 24, 2014, 4:57 PM

      “Instead of doing that, let’s just note that the “Sola Scriptura” idea, the notion that the Bible and the Bible alone is the source of Christian faith and practice, has never been a Catholic ideal.”

      Well that’s twisting things quite a bit, also a nice veiled backhand to Catholics as not truly being Christians. Ignoring the latter for the former, I’m pretty sure Jesus himself is the source of Christian faith and whereas the Bible lays out what he and others said as well as some tips on good practice. As Michael Patton and others have noted, we’re all dealing with the same issue, that of authority. Peter and his successors and peers had it, as does the Bible. They are being consistent and obedient to the Holy Spirit just as much as Protestants and Orthodox are.

  • Donald S. Crankshaw July 24, 2014, 6:26 AM

    My theory is that there is greater cultural agreement on violence–when it is wrong and when it is necessary. This explains a higher tolerance in media for violence than sex. You can describe violence, and everyone assumes that you’re not condoning it, since most people share the same cultural assumptions about violence. People aren’t too sure when sex is described in fiction. That likely works for profanity as well.

    • Lyn Perry July 25, 2014, 4:14 AM

      Donald, I think the wider cultural acceptance of violence plays a large (the largest?) part in the Church’s acceptance of violence. We’ve simply grown used to it and have been inoculated against it. (Trot out stats about children viewing x-million examples of violence before they attend school, etc. etc.). I’m not sure I agree with you, however, about the assumption that we aren’t condoning it. The world accepts violence so easily because it has no worldview that respects life: it surely condones violent death in the cases of abortion. Of course, this is tangential to our discussion, but something I’ve been mulling over.

  • Alan R Joiner July 24, 2014, 8:03 AM

    A couple of things…

    You can describe violence without committing violence. You cannot say profanity without saying it (or write it without writing it, I guess).

    As noted, the Bible has areas of fairly graphic violence.

    The “well he deserved it” comment wasn’t necessarily a bad/unChristian response IMHO. Yes, as Christians, we are called to grace and communicate grace. But does grace make sense without justice? Are we to abandon the doctrine/attribute of justice in favor of grace? Does grace belittle justice, and justice grace?

    Jesus made a point of offering grace to the humble, and the law to the upright. He actually told a story that ended with this: “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    (Note: Perhaps the response is that it is God who judges…)

    OK… More than a couple of things. Perhaps it’s just self-rationale why I am more prone to allow violence in a story than profanity.

    (Funny thing… In my current project, I have a demon threaten the good guys: “Hell is coming.” Response: “Yes, and you can’t escape it.” lol We’ll see if that makes it through the final cuts!)

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) July 24, 2014, 10:00 AM

    Yes to Alan’s first paragraph. As with sex scenes, reading about violence that has nothing to do with my daily life does not tempt me to violence. Graphic sex and profanity, um….. I really don’t want to go there.

  • Jill July 24, 2014, 10:08 AM

    I’ve long posited that there is an underlying classism occurring when we eschew words of Anglo Saxon rather than Latin origin, but I usually get reamed for saying so. There is “proper” language and then there is “crass” language. It doesn’t begin to explain all issues with Christian fiction. It’s a fair observation, however, especially when you begin to observe that churches have unwritten prejudices towards people who are middle or upper class and against the poor and the misfits. James wasn’t written in a void, after all.

  • Ramona Richards July 24, 2014, 10:27 AM

    Extremely well done, Mike. I appreciate the insight. The idea that the “cleanliness” comes out of bad theology intrigues me, but it paints the entire evangelical world with a pretty broad brush. Remember that editors’ drive to keep the books clean is a market response – what people buy and criticize about what they buy – not from a personal choice. I have few issues with foul language in any forum (especially if I trip over furniture at 3am), but my last Love Inspired Suspense (which is about as clean and light as I can write) spawned this review:

    “I have read quite a few of these [LIS] and most have been a good adventure. I read them for the suspense and that they are clean. Most of the books I’ve read seem to convey a menacing bad guy without having to go dark. I felt this story dealt heavily on the dark nature and the evil in the hearts of men. Too much detail in the events of Lindsey’s past and what was done to Ruthann. While evil is a reality, this book made me want to quit reading. Hopefully this review will help others who are not expecting the kind of dark mood permeating the story.”

    Bad theology or not, as long as readers hit books with one or two stars because they have foul language or are too “dark,” then the restraints will remain on the editors and the writers.

    • Mike Duran July 24, 2014, 2:36 PM

      Hi Ramona! I used to blame the evil gatekeepers. But the longer I’ve been in the business and got to know publishers, the more that opinion has changed. This is reflective more of the Christian market than it is what editors are “forcing” on readers. As such, it’s more of an evangelical culture thing than it is the industry twisting our arms.

  • Nancy Kimball July 24, 2014, 3:18 PM

    Mike, I can only speak for me. I tolerate the violence (and my debut novel, a 1st century gladiator historical) better than the language because I’m not likely to lop someone’s head off with a sword or set them on fire. I am likely to pick my potty-mouth back up when I hear/read those words and simply lack the self-control to have it present without unconsciously making it part of my own vocabulary. Just my two cents, but it does seem counter-intuitive in some respects.

  • StuartB July 24, 2014, 4:51 PM

    Don’t forget that Jesus said that if you even think about violence it’s the same as committing it.

    • Alan R Joiner July 25, 2014, 11:19 AM

      Stuart, not to needlessly nit-pick, but I don’t think Jesus ever actually said that. [If you’re referencing Matt 5] He said to be angry at an *actual* person is to come under judgment. To insult an *actual* person puts you under earthly judgment. To call them a fool is to be in danger of hellfire.

      He never even mentioned thinking about violence, and He never said thinking about violence per a fictitious character is the equivalent to committing it. I think it’s a stretch to try to apply to this to violence in fiction.


      • Kessie July 26, 2014, 12:11 PM

        Yeah, if thinking about violence is bad, what do we do with all of those Psalms, with David calling for violence to be done to the wicked? 🙂

  • StuartB July 24, 2014, 5:03 PM

    Mike, you are definitely on the right track when you say it comes down to bad theology. But there may be more than two points.

    Just to be cheeky, perhaps one of the reasons violence is ok but profanity is not is because too many Christians love the world and not Christ. And we especially hate grace.


  • StuartB July 24, 2014, 5:05 PM

    Another theory…how many people who are 2nd or 3rd generation believers were ever truly sinners? Living in the church, cradle to grave.

  • StuartB July 24, 2014, 5:06 PM

    Final theory –

    The suburbs. And all that that implies.

  • Lex Keating July 24, 2014, 5:22 PM

    It’s not that I disagree with your point (because it’s well made, and something I sometimes complain about with Christian fiction), but the question of demographics begs addressing. When the “Christian” market is targeting church-going women between the ages of 25 and 55, the perceived standards of these ladies should be considered. When the moms guarding the gate want “safe” fiction, there is a best guess policy in place. It doesn’t always work, as you noted with your editors who condone violence but not language. But these church ladies are, in general, more sensitive about language than they are about violence. Women respond to words differently. We can throw away murder or insanity, but language someone might repeat at home sticks with us.

    For people sensitive to violence or cruelty, this doesn’t make Christian fiction any safer. But I miss good theology. I don’t find it often in fiction, Evangelical or secular. For a lot of Evangelical writers, the control over their fictional universes gives them the freedom to write God the way they understand Him. And then the gaps in our education come through. Hebrews 6:1-2 outlines six “elementary principles of Christ”, half of which are *not* typically covered in the modern church. If we’re going to write God into our fiction, the truth of Him can be bigger than what we’re prepared for. As writers AND readers. I don’t think we should stop trying, but a lot of imperfect vignettes of Christ can still communicate powerful truths about him.

    Maybe not the whole truth, but all the books in the world couldn’t express that….

    • D.M. Dutcher July 25, 2014, 4:51 PM

      I think it also needs to be said that the same group isn’t all that keen on graphic depictions of violence either.

  • Lucas July 26, 2014, 10:18 PM

    Mike, for me personally, I feel a little guilty when I write a cuss word in my novels. My first novel had a few characters say “Damn.” I don’t know if that’s passable, but since Christian publishers are so against it, I’ll probably have to take it out. I think Christians get more offended by swearing than by violence. I get offended when people use God or Jesus as a cuss word more than by the s-word or the f-word, but I still don’t like to read either. As for the violence, I’m not a big fan of that as well. I like Ted Dekker’s novels, but he’s as violent as I like to go in my reading. Plus violence can be evangelical, but cussing isn’t going to lead anyone to the Lord. Violence can be used to show how evil the world is, and how much we need a savior, whereas cussing isn’t going to get people thinking of anything having to do with God.
    As a side note, I haven’t yet read the Resurrection, but I’m reading the Telling now, and I’m absolutely loving it. It’s good, creepy stuff.
    God Bless.

  • LeAnne McKinley July 29, 2014, 9:07 AM

    I think violence is fundamental to story telling. There are a tremendous amount of stories that simply wouldn’t exist without it. And once the violence is present, it’s hard to draw clear lines about what is acceptable.

    Cussing, on the other hand, is kind of a stylistic choice on the part of the author. Sometimes it’s appropriate, but it isn’t typically necessary. It usually comes into a story for the sake of realism, and I suppose we all have different ideas about how important realism is.

    I’ve been surprised to find that my characters cuss sometimes, even though I typically do not. Since I’m self-pubbing I can theoretically do what I like, but I risk alienating readers and losing promotional opportunities. Not sure its that important to me.

  • Zomby Poet April 6, 2015, 8:44 AM

    Why Do We Tolerate Violence Against Women?

    Maybe this is a teachable moment.

    We need more people to speak out against:

    1) Female genital mutilation
    2) Punishing rape victims
    3) Honor killing
    4) Strapping bombs to children
    5) Sexually enslaving women
    6) Murdering homosexuals
    7) Child marriage
    8) Domestic Violence
    9) Disciplining or Punishing Wives

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