If I’m A Christian, Can I Swear?


christian swear

I have a problem: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to swear because I’m a Christian.

Actually, let me clarify that. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to swear in my fiction because I’m a Christian. (We’llleave the ethics and theology debate for another time.) This is something that I’m really struggling with, and it bugs me because I can see it affect my writing.

As a Christian, I tend to divide the world into 2 categories: NonChristian and Christian. In literature, this is adapted into Fiction and Christian Fiction.

What do I mean by Christian Fiction?

I mean all of those Amish romance novels that you really only find in the Christian section at Barnes & Noble. I mean stories that always, always end with a come-to-Jesus moment for at least 1 character. I mean novels that tend to follow the horror film rule: you had sex; therefore, you must die. [1] I mean novels that include a deus ex machina moment.

I want to write fiction that features realistic, fleshed-out characters. But I am a Christian. What do I do?

logan buttfaceThe Compromise

What if my “good” characters don’t swear but my “bad” characters do?

Will Smith once said that his grandmother got on his case for swearing in his lyrics: “She found some of my early expletive-littered lyrics and wrote on them, ‘Dear Willard, intelligent people do not use these words to express themselves.’” [2] What if my “unintelligent” people swear? What if my characters who are uneducated, low-income, country bumkins swear?

Wait… that’s a large majority of my characters. And stereotyping.

Okay, how about this—if writers are supposed to be conscious of every word they use, with each one building character and advancing plot, then a cuss word could reflect character or emphasize conflict, right? Right?

The Audience

Does it depend on my audience? I don’t want my target audience to be just Christians, and I don’t want it to be just nonChristians. Can’t it be both?

Am I A Christian Author, Or An Author Who Is A Christian?

(This is a spin on the question that every musician whomever so much as hints at Christian theology in his lyrics is asked.)

Do I have to pick a side? I do? Seriously?

Fine. I’m a Christian, and I’m a writer. There.

If I’m a Christian, do I Have To Write Christian Fiction? 

C.S. Lewis wrote for Christians and for nonChristians. Can’t I be like C.S. Lewis?

Or at least try to be that good?

John Marsden is Young Adult writer whose characters indulge in all manner of vices, yet he’s managed to create one of the strongest Christian characters I have seen in a very not-Christian Fic—Robyn. Her faith permeates her entire role in the story, yet she never comes across as a goody-two-shoes or a nagging hypocrite. In fact, it’s because of Robyn that Ellie finds herself becoming increasingly religious, even if she doesn’t know much about Christianity.

“I don’t know if Robyn or an angel or even God himself was in the boot, but I was starting to suspect that whenever I wanted Go, he was there. Only not necessarily in the form I wanted, or doing what I wanted. Very inconvenient and self-willed of him: I was fairly sure I knew better than everyone about everything, and when I say everyone I include God.”

Ellie in The Night Is For Hunting, Chapter 9

John Marsden

Can I be a writer like Marsden?

I mean, how do I write Christian characters without turning them into Mary Sues or giving them stories with no action? And if I decide that I am writing Christian Fiction, do I have to send my goodies to heaven and my baddies to hell?

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

The thing is, this isn’t just about profanity. Sex is a problem, too. I’m writing romance, and darn it, my characters have hormones and urges. Do I just ignore that and hope no one notices?

I once read somewhere that Stephenie Meyer refused to let Bella and Edward get it on until they were married in Breaking Dawn because of her Mormon faith. If that’s true, I commend her for sticking to her beliefs, but her characters are obsessed with sex I feel like she failed.  Plus that honeymoon in Breaking Dawn is so bad. So, so bad. The only time I have ever laughed that hard was when I watched Pamela’s Prayer with a group of friends.

I literally laughed while rolling on the floor.

I don’t think sex itself is sinful—and honestly, I don’t know many Christians who do, so if Hollywood could get with the times, that would be great—but I do believe that the way people treat sex can be sinful. That’s because I think sex is sacred, but I know that not everyone agrees with me.

My Name Is Gladiator

Christians frown on swearing and sex. Is that why we’re so in love with violence? I mean seriously, how many Christians do you know who love movies like Braveheart and Gladiator? And The Passion of the Christ—that movie is really, horrifically violent.

Why do we enthusiastically embrace stories with violence, murder, and betrayal?

I blame the Book of Judges.

Maybe I Should Just Write A PG-13 Novel

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, a movie receives a PG-13 rating when it contains the “single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive.” In addition to this,

[m]ore than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous. [3]

So… If I just limit myself to swear words that aren’t sexual, can I get away with a “hell” or a “damn” here and there? As long as I just make sure that everyone knows that my book is PG-13?

(Honestly, some books should come with ratings.)

The truth is, guys, that I don’t like swear words. When I read a book that uses a lot of them, or I watch a movie, or even if I’m just around someone with a potty-mouth, these words get stuck in my head and eventually make their escape when I stub my toe or spill my coffee or almost get hit by an idiot driver.

At the same time, my characters sometimes have a mind of their own. I’ve noticed that when I’ve restrained them and kept their mouths clean—or at the very least written something like, “He swore,” without actually telling you what he said—I find my characters become detached and flat. When I allow them to speak freely, I discover more about them. And sometimes they swear.

Gah.

12 thoughts on “If I’m A Christian, Can I Swear?

  1. no matter what, you’ll probably alienate somebody. would you rather alienate them by erring on the safe side (aka boring them)? or by offending them via profanity/sex? there’s really no right answer. it’s about your priorities as a writer, what you want to contribute to culture, and honestly, your relationships with your characters. have fun figuring it out! 🙂

  2. “Okay, how about this—if writers are supposed to be conscious of every word they use, with each one building character and advancing plot, then a cuss word could reflect character or emphasize conflict, right? Right?”

    Right.

    Here’s what I think. Writing, good writing, is all about truth. The stories that move us the most, that mean something. are ALWAYS the ones where the author is being honest about what he or she sees/feels/believes. When in doubt, ask yourself what is honest.

    You and I believe in God… that He is good and that he made the universe, yes? If so, then that will come out in our work. If we are honest, God will use that honesty. I cannot imagine God approving of dishonesty in our fiction, and if he did use our dishonesty for good, it would be in spite of, rather than through us. Does that make sense?

    In my opinion, what that means is this: Trust your gut and heart, trust your characters, and pray. If it feels right to use a curse-word, then use it, and if it feels right to gloss over it with “she swore” or something, then do that. I doubt you will find yourself writing anything with necessary amounts of cursing. They have more impact when used sparingly, but occasionally, than any other way.

    There are all kinds of characters. Some will keep close watch over their tongues. Some, like me, will find it difficult not to swear, but will want to have cleaner mouths (it’s hard to resist the language patterns around one). I have a few that will use swear-words, but won’t take the Name of their God in vain (because there is a difference). Some will swear sideways to Sunday and not care (and these are the ones where it is probably a good idea to gloss over most of their expletives). It’s honest to represent the variety, and you can do so in a positive way by being honest about the impact and implications of words. Plain and simple. You can also get creative about how you represent swearing with different effects.

    As for sex, it seems dishonest to ignore it. Again, there is variety in people, and honesty about that, and about the consequences (good and bad) of different life-choices is honest. Same thing goes for violence, though overly graphic violence and sex will usually result in my putting a book down simply because I don’t want more of those images in my head.)

    Long and short, if you aren’t honest, your readers will know it. It’s scary and vulnerable to be completely open on page, but I think it is the only way we can speak the truth, and what is literature worth if we only use it to lie to each other or preach?

    Lol! Sorry for the essay. Obviously I have thought about this a lot, and I feel passionate about it. I hope you can glean something useful from my rambling. Good luck in sorting this out, and don’t be afraid of sorting it on-page. Whatever else, write, and worry about the fine details later.

    • “If we are honest, God will use that honesty. I cannot imagine God approving of dishonesty in our fiction, and if he did use our dishonesty for good, it would be in spite of, rather than through us. Does that make sense?”

      Yes. Yes, it DOES make sense. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, so thank you.

      I think one problem I have with “Christian fiction” (and Christianese in general) is that Christians think that if they allow something in their brand of entertainment/art that reflects real life, then it will appear as though they’re okay with it. It’s not that at all – it’s that we’re human, and humans do things that God does not like.

      In truth, I’m not as worried about offending my Christian/NonChristian audience – I’m afraid of offending my friends and family. I don’t care what a stranger thinks of me, but I would hate for those who know me to be disturbed by my writing. (Although I suppose if they know me they would know better than to think that.)

      Sex & Violence: Don’t worry. I’m not going to be graphic. But I do have both. Plus, the setting of my story is one where both are rather accessible to my characters. If they were real people they would have these temptations, and whether or not they give in to these temptations is what I find fascinating.

      • Bekind Rewrite addressed one aspect of this in the most recent post. How does one show human fallibility and corruption without seeming to approve of (or simply accept) it? I think she puts forward some good points.

        I can relate to worrying about the reactions of our friends and family. At least we have some recourse with them, though. We can talk them through it, whereas readers will often only get the work itself. By the grace of God, though, we can do this! 🙂

        I didn’t think you would be graphic, I was just saying why writers who choose to be lose me as a reader even if they don’t approve of what they are depicting. I can see the value of sometimes using shock to wake people up, but personally it more often derails me.
        Yes, the struggles, and how we make our way through a world full of dangers and temptations is what makes a story. That is part of the Divine story, after all.

  3. Just so you know, you can write Christian Literature that doesn’t scream CHRISTIAN. The Lord of the Rings is often considered Christian Literature. Good versus evil, innocent characters (what did the hobbits ever do that was bad?), being greedy as the major downfall of the characters, self-sacrifice being necessary, etc. Not all Christian Literature is C.S. Lewis- obvious. Harry Potter has a pretty strong Christian theme (if you choose to read it that way; not all people do).

    So if you can write a few swear words comfortably, do so. It won’t make your book less Christian.

    One thing I would avoid is making ONLY bad characters swear. Christian romance isn’t my typical genre, but I’m not put off by C.L.. However, I would be very alienated if the only characters swearing were the “bad” characters because swearing in and of itself doesn’t make you bad, so if only bad people are swearing and the “good” people have language worthy of angels, I wouldn’t like it. They could swear less. Their words could be less-profane and not as frequent (and not all of them would have to swear), but if it is obvious that one group is swearing and the other is not, I might stop reading the book for that reason, just like I will stop watching movies or reading books if the only people committing any crimes or acting badly are minorities. It’s not realistic, and it can be offensive.

  4. I don’t have a problem with a few curse words here and there, but there are some that I would stay away from. Some are extremely offensive to even non-Christians (TV and movies may not think so, but they are). Be careful not to make this a priority so that you put more in than necessary. You could over think this. Of course if you have a big drunk with tattoos, who gets in a fight, it would be a little silly for him to say, “Take that you bum!” Something a bit stronger may be a more appropriate. Be real, but being real doesn’t necessarily mean using the worst words. Not every drunk will use the F bomb. And do keep God/Jesus out of it!

    About sex. I think it is fine to deal with this, but keep it from being sensual. Don’t cause your audience to get caught up in the act in a way that gives them vivid pictures or feelings. So many movies and books take it too far. The ones who basically take you just far enough to let you know what is going on, but then move on to the next scene are the best and most enjoyable to watch in my opinion. It’s part of life, but we don’t need to know the details. Let it stay in the bedroom between them. It is easy to get carried away, but you don’t want to be responsible for causing a teenager to be even more tempted when reading your book. They have enough coming at them constantly.

    The best advise you have already been given is to pray. Ask God to help you every time you write. In the end, who do your really want to please? Through Him, you can write the most amazing stories. After all, He created the most amazing story of all!

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