Authors Fault Christian Fiction’s Swear-Free Zone

Mar 21, 2014

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.

E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastical stories at Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, and Speculative Faith. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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28 comments on "Authors Fault Christian Fiction’s Swear-Free Zone"

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Kat Heckenbach

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. 

Thomas Clayton Booher

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.

Kristen Stieffel

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.”

E. Stephen Burnett

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.”


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.


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.

Austin Gunderson

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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