Authors Fault Christian Fiction’s Swear-Free Zone

News | | Friday, Mar 21, 2014 at 11:37 am
“Not enough swearing” may be only a surface criticism.

stuffmychristianfictiondoesntsay_logoChristian-speculative publisher Grace Bridges and paranormal novelist Mike Duran were last spotted in this ChristianToday article: “No swearing, please, we’re Christians.” This is the second in the website’s1 series about “what’s wrong with Christian fiction”; part 1 was last month.

Bridges and Duran both lament (I think rightly) the symptoms of poorly made evangelical stories.

“A story with no naughty bits in may be accepted ahead of a story that may be better written and more brilliantly beautiful, but might have a couple more gritty things in it that Christians don’t want to see in their fiction,” says [Splashdown Books founder Grace] Bridges.

[…] Christian speculative fiction author Mike Duran believes there is an unwillingness in the Church to face up to some of the ambiguities in the Bible when it comes to things like suffering or difficulty.

“Think about the book of Job, possibly the oldest book in the bible.  There’s all these horrible things that happen to Job, and at the end there’s no resolution. I mean yes, he gets all his things back, but there’s no resolution,” he says.

“God answers by asking questions of Job. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?’ What fascinates me about that is the ambiguity of it.”

I recalled that last remark about Job when I read this review of the Divergent series. Among other criticisms, reviewer K. B. Hoyle says:

Where [Divergent author Veronica] Roth has had great success, she has also obscured much of the Christian message by asking her readers to accept questions without answers and forcing them to wade through a murky morality, which is otherwise weighed down by a lack of artistry. I only see redeeming value in the Divergent series by using the books as a springboard for answering some of the questions Roth herself leaves unanswered, or incorrectly answers, in the dystopian trilogy.

I haven’t read the Divergent series, yet I would understand any critiques of its artistry.

But if you fault all stories for not answering enough questions and only raising them, well then, you have not faulted a particular story but one of the goals of story itself. Even God as ultimate Author of the single books of Scripture does not answer all our questions. He points us elsewhere, to Jesus Christ His Story’s fulfillment, the rest of the Story described in His Word. If He had given us all His answers all at once, we would never have accepted them (not that the answers He has given are easy to accept now).

Still, I can’t help but remark that lamenting the lack of swears, Gritty and Realistic™ content, etc., in Christian fiction, does only touch on the symptoms, as I said above. Such complaints are a good start, but they must lead us elsewhere and upward. We cannot assume we already know and share the purpose of fiction altogether, the purpose under such criticisms. If we do, we’re doomed to revert to more content “checklists.” Instead of declaring “no swearing allowed” we’ll swerve into shouting “swearing mandated!” — mere photo-negatives of the lists that we dislike now.

  1. Not to be confused with Christianity Today.
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28 responses

  1. I think there are a couple of things at work here. One is that content and quality are getting stuck together in these types of discussions. Cussing and good writing don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We definitely don’t need to push for cussing or other content just for the sake of it.
    But what Grace Bridges said is very true–too often good writing is turned down because it contains CBA no-nos. And then bad writing begets bad writing as new writers look at mediocre-but-clean books already out there as their examples of what to aim for.
    One thing I also believe is that too many Christian writers are afraid to learn from secular authors. It doesn’t mean we have to include elements we’re uncomfortable with in our own writing, but there is real talent out there that we can learn from, which may in turn help to raise the quality of Christian fiction. Imho, one of the biggest things we could learn from secular writing is subtlety. 

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    • Spot on!
      To hopefully put what’s going on in the larger picture of a broad biblical context, the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28) is something that the pagan pursues in spite of himself and for himself. He is able to do so because he is made in the image of God, part of which is his ability to be creative. Because the secular writer has turned the focus of the mandate in on himself and the horizontal plane of this world, he seeks to get the best he can out of it for himself, in particular,  and for mankind, in general. So he avidly devotes time to it, developing his God-given skills and expertise. Writers of Christian fiction, I think, forget that the pursuit of the cultural mandate for the glory of God in our writing should be no less fervent – in fact, it should be superior to our secular peers. Indeed, we can learn not only from their zealous example, but their work as well.

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  2. The term “content checklists” is the most telling in this whole article. Because that’s exactly what CBA rules do. Mustn’t do this, must have that…I’m as big an anal-retentive checklist maker as anybody, but when it comes to art — and the novel is an art form — even I have to say, “Story trumps checklist.”

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    • Exactly. Yet if we only oppose the checklists — rather than the questionable assumptions behind them — all we will do is set up another checklist. There’s not much improvement in “Thou shalt have swear words” over “Thou shalt not have swear words.”

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  3. merechristian says:

    I would say that the biggest advice is to learn from secular counterparts. I know from comments on FB I saw last week that Mrs. Heckenbach is a fellow Brandon Sanderson fan. I can get more edification out of reading his stuff, or watching stuff like Agents of SHIELD or Star Trek than I can from much of supposedly “Christian” stuff. The only exceptions are some authors I’ve read the past two years, who also happen to comment on here occasionally.

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  4. merechristian says:

    It is instructive that the authors we look at, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who are considered the progenitors of both Christian fiction and fantasy (secular and Christian) did not set out a specific message to “force” the worlds they created to meet. They wrote and it happened organically. I truly believe that “organic” process of writing is what is missing from much Christian fiction. We are too enamored of our silly strictures and exact morals of the story. Some of the recent books I’ve read in Christian Spec Faith have managed this, but so few do. We’re still bound too much by the CBA ridiculousness.
     

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  5. What gets lost in this debate is the fact that in-story swearing and other varieties of “grit” should never be ends in and of themselves. They’re means to greater ends, namely verisimilitude, character consistency, and/or emotional resonance. Those are the things at stake here, not the “purity” of the reader (seeing as what defiles a man comes from within, not from without). The operative question is: would a given story lose something meaningful were its characters to constantly guard their tongues? If not, then there’s no need for swearing. But if so, then the author must decide what’s more important to him: the integrity of his work, or his personal unwillingness to let his characters be impolite.

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  6. There are non-Christian books without swearing (or not much) too.

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  7. merechristian says:

    I’m not saying we have to have a cluster f-bomb or other huge amounts of swearing. But when I see someone commit rape, murder, so on, and then guard the morality of their tongue, I get pulled far from the story. Newsflash: Murderers, rapists, fantasy versions of genocidal folks like Hitler and Stalin, etc., don’t care about morality of speech. I’ve seen authors not list swear words, but just say “he cursed”. Even that is gone from most Christian fiction.

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    • And that’s exactly what I mean when I talk about “character consistency.” If I as a Christian reader or writer am okay with watching villains murder and pillage and lie and covet and worship idols and consort with demons and engage in whatever other activities are acceptable for villains in Christian fiction nowadays, but quail at the sight of a four-letter word, something’s wrong with me. How does it make any sense that the barbaric bandit or evil executive who’s supposed to incur my terror is less concerned about the lives of those around him than about maintaining a PG rating?
       
      It feels forced. We all know it feels forced. Heck, not even Peretti can jam bars of soap into his villains’ mouths without muffling their personalities. The badder they are, the cornier their dialog seems. They aren’t allowed to be true to their natures. The reason this feels forced is because it is forced. The author isn’t allowing the characters to be themselves. He wants all the plot-device carnage without the depraved hearts which perpetrate it.
       
      And that’s assuming that only villains swear! Anyone ever heard a non-villain swear in real life? Well, characters in spec-fic stories typically experience a thousand times more peril on a daily basis than I’ll ever know in my entire life. If they were real people instead of idealized automatons, you think they’d give verbal vent to their frustrations from time to time? You think they’d “let unwholesome talk proceed out of their mouths”? I’d seriously question their humanity if they didn’t.
       
      And that level of verisimilitude needs to concern me as a writer, because I can’t help but notice it as a reader.

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      • In an early draft of an uncompleted story, one of my villains had a horrible attitude and a murderous rage, but he wasn’t one for dirty language. Part of it was that he had been brought up in a cleaner environment, but also he valued action over words, so why talk dirty to someone you can kill?

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        • And to me, that’s an acceptable rationale for a character to have, because it’s the character’s rationale, not the author’s rationale.  The character has faced the issue, dealt with it, and is therefore sufficiently motivated to behave in an unnatural way without shattering the story’s verisimilitude.  But a murderous villain who avoids cussing for no apparent reason … that’s just poor characterization.  It’s the author arbitrarily imposing his own sensibilities on a character who wouldn’t otherwise share them.

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      • merechristian says:

        Good point. Folks in military/law enforcement settings often swear. I would say that you need to be realistic to the character, as you said. Putting in swearing just to be “gritty and real” would be just as off-putting to a reader (at least it would be to me) if they detect that. It has to be true to the character, I guess I’m trying to say.

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  8. merechristian says:

    Christian fiction reminds me of the maturity level of some children’s shows that have you never say certain things, so they go to absurd lengths to do otherwise, or they have a monster of a villain who is a paragon of speechly virtue.

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  9. It’s such a trifling debate. I’m ashamed that we have to have this conversation at all. While the secular writing world is discussing characters, amazing plots, and epic story, we’re over here in a corner whining about cuss words. It’s shameful.

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    • It’s symptomatic of larger issues, as I hope I’ve made clear in my other “whinings.” Until Christian authors are willing to put the needs of their stories and the nature of their characters before the censorous sensibilities of those who believe good storytelling must kowtow to moralism, our subgenre will continue to languish in the Christian Ghetto.

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  10. merechristian says:

    I will caution that there are some good writers among our own occasional SpecFaith commenters and so on. It’s not a hopeless genre, just one that is being stifled by the silly moralism Austin pointed out.

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  11. HG Ferguson says:

    My personal favorite example of what happens to a story when one of “those” words is  altered may be found in the first chapter of a well-known and lucrative franchise relating to eschatology.  The “Rapture” has just occurred aboard a plane in flight and the flight attendant witnesses this event.  People literally vanish in front of her right out of their seats.  She bursts into the cockpit and makes a statement in words no unbelieving person of the world would ever use.  No, she would say it quite differently indeed.  That is, in the real world.  But this is not the real world, this is the CBA’s world.  The unreality of her remark — for me — resulted in the entire book being just as unreal in every way.  I’m not talking about the touted “F-bombs,” which is an attempt to pick the worst example so we can maintain the taboos.   Even “period cursing,” i.e., epithets and expressions common to historical eras for those of us who write in those eras, is “forbidden.”  It’s not Christian to cuss.  But neither is it true.  And whatever is not true…makes the rest look the same.  There.  There, now, as Marnie said after she shot the horse.

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  12. I suspect that this comes up so frequently because people either do not understand or are not able to articulate the real issue. It may well be that people in the early stages of writing read good secular literature, notice that it has “content,” and that poor CBA does not, and conflate the two. While it is true that the CBA has a checklist of constraints that the secular market does not, I do not believe this is the real issue. I think that the problem is that people can read constriction between the lines of a novel that doesn’t feel “real” to them.  Authors deal with “content” (cursingviolencesexnudity) differently. Most of the authors we most admire are so story focused that whatever content their story contains is so elegantly dealt with that we are scarcely aware of it.  It becomes the most obvious when the storytelling itself starts feeling artificial, and I have seen this on both ends of the spectrum. “If I can include a graphic sex scene or profuse swearing, it will be more REALISTIC.” “If I skirt around or completely eliminate anything from my writing that could possibly offend, it would be more CHRISTIAN.” 

    Nothing could be further from the truth. And the truth, I sense, is what is truly at stake here. Truth in storytelling. Not verisimilitude. We write fiction, which is an artistic representation of reality (SOME reality, no matter how fantastic). Art always follows different rules, no matter how closely it reflects life.  So is the problem too many rules, or is the problem one of not truly understanding the nature of the beast? 

    Granted, I can sympathize. My own indie-published book is, in my own eyes, too secular for Christian publishers, and too Christian for secular publishers. But there are now options for authors who do not fit the mold. We instinctively know the audience we are writing for, and generally shoot for it. If no one is interested in what we have to say because we’re saying it in a way that is unconventional, then we can say it in an independent forum. Why strive to please those who cannot or will not be pleased?  We don’t have to kvetch about how we aren’t allowed to be realistic, because our primary goal as authors should be to be truthful. Truthful to our art, and truthful to our readers. Does that mean we should never have to curtail ourselves? Absolutely not; gratuitous content can feel just as unreal as excessive literary chastity, and as the famous line goes, you should learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. Instead of being concerned about what we can and can’t put into a novel (in a day and age when you can put ANYTHING in, as long as you are willing to accept the consequences of possibly having to choose a non-traditional publishing option), we should be striving for excellence, not ratings.

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  13. I’ve made the conscious decision not to include swear-words in my books because of the audience I’m trying to reach, although I did at one time try a more “natural” approach. I got slapped down for it, and on reflection, decided there was enough bad language in the universe without me adding to it.

    I’m not sorry now to not have those words in my books. I do try to make my characters and their speech real, but when they curse or swear, I put, ‘he cursed’ or ‘he swore.’ 

    My characters drink and get into all kinds of other trouble, especially the villains and those who trend toward the villainous. Several of my heroes appear to be overly fond of gambling and dice. Hormones are raging for a bunch of them, so now they’re having to wrestle with that too.

    Hopefully my characters are real enough without the words spilling out of their mouths every other sentence that would make me, personally, cringe to know them.

    Perhaps they’re still too real? My audience as of yet is disappointingly small. But I’m happy with my characters, and I think at the end of the day, that’s what counts most.

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    • Of note: I pose the swearing question first to Christian fans, readers, film-viewers, etc., not necessarily to writers. The fact is, we are often more capable of being exposed to the kinds of sins that don’t tempt us, more capable than we might think, and more sensitive to the kinds of sins to which we may presume we’re immune!

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    • when they curse or swear, I put, ‘he cursed’ or ‘he swore.’

      I  think there’s a lot to be said for this. I’m not a writer, but If I were I’d be uncomfortable writing words I wouldn’t say (at least, when others were listening…). Because If you write the word, you are actually  ‘saying’ it – if you write about murder etc you are not actually doing it.
       
      I guess it’s different for everyone. I’m quite happy to read books with swearing (if it’s not OTT) but if they didn’t that would be good too. I think sometimes it really does help to get across the intensity of the emotion.
       
      And then of course there’s swearing used as punctuation or mild emphasis (at least here in Glasgow). Literally several f-words per sentence. Writing like that would add realism, but…

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  14. What I’m wondering is why people assume that when swearwords are okay by “Christian” standards that we’ll suddenly be cramming them in sentences just for the sake of having them? Heck, I did that for the lulz in the comments section of another Spec Faith article on this subject and to my knowledge never got slapped down for it.

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  15. Here’s the thing: swearing (and sex, for that matter) is a realistic part of life…. So is peeing, pooping and farting.
    And still, I have yet to read a good novel that includes a realistic  depiction of time spent on the toilet.  Why?  Because it’s not necessary to the story.  Now, if descriptions of bodily waste functions were as thrilling to readers in the same way that sex scenes and graphic language tend to be, you can bet that mainstream  authors would be throwing plenty of bathroom scenes into their novels. But, the fact is, there just isn’t anything scintillating about using the toilet.
    So, what we’re really getting down to is this: Bad language evokes a feeling in the the reader. Same goes for descriptions of gore, sexuality, and so on.  So let’s call a spade a spade. We’re not talking about simply being “more realistic” in Christian fiction, we’re talking about adding elements that evoke a reaction in a reader.
    And who says it takes bad language to give a reader a thrill? Take movies, for example. If you think about it, long before bad language, sex, or gore were exceptable in the movies, there were some incredibly gritty films made about gangs, mobsters, & so on. The moviegoers of the 40’s and 50’s were certainly aware that real life criminals were far more foul-mouthed than the characters on the big screen, but it sure didn’t stop sales at the box office.

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