Swearing in Christian Fiction

Posted: March 12, 2014 in Christianity, Writing, Writing Philosophy

In recent months I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. During my J-Term this year, (for those of you who are unaware, that’s January Term, where students take one class every day for a month) I took a Writing Speculative Fiction seminar at Taylor University, which was conducted by author Jeff Gerke. During that seminar, one of the many topics we talked about was how we, as Christian writers, should address swearing in our fiction, and we discussed several methods of dealing with that.

Then, in the Fiction Writing class I’m taking this Spring Semester, the topic of swearing in fiction briefly came up; as we went through the syllabus, Dr. Housholder, the professor, clarified that it’s fine if we included swearing in our fiction for the class.

Throughout all of this I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, and I have my own opinions on this subject, which I’m now going to share. Hopefully this will be a useful addition to this conversation.

Before I do that, I need to provide some context. If you are not a Christian and you’re reading this (whether you’re following my blog or just happened to find this on the internet) you may be feeling confused. “Just include it in your writing,” you may be thinking, “what’s the big deal?”

Well, it has to do with this section of the Scriptures:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. —Ephesians 4:29 [ESV]

Many Christians interpret that as meaning, among other things, that Christians should not swear, the reason being that it is “corrupting talk” and does not help anyone. That’s why you may see many Christians refuse to swear, or at the very least dislike swearing.

That being said, there are some Christians who believe that this passage has nothing to do with swearing at all; instead, this has to do with other sorts of unprofitable speech. I certainly agree with them that this verse means more than a prohibition on swearing.

So that’s the rationale behind why this is a difficult topic for Christian writers to address. With that explanation done, I’ll now share my thoughts on Swearing in Christian Fiction.

1. I don’t believe Christians should swear

I still don’t think Christians should swear in their personal lives. Yes, I believe Ephesians 4:29 has to do with more than swearing, but I believe swearing can be counted as “corrupting talk.” The whole purpose of swearing (at least, in it’s classic sense, not how people misuse it now) is to deeply insult someone/something. That is not how we should live our lives as Christians, or, (ideally) how anyone should live their life.

In our modern society, we don’t really stop to think about what these words really mean. Consider the word, “damn.” In our society, that is considered a mild swearword. However, saying the word “damn” in relation to someone or something means that we are literally damning someone/something to hell. We are effectively wishing that someone/something should be separated from the love of God and endure His wrath for all eternity. I don’t care if you’re a Christian or not, that’s not something you should wish on anyone, and it’s definitely not something to be taken lightly.

Words have power; it sounds like a cliche but it’s absolutely true. It is especially true for swearwords. But that being said…

2. Swearing can have a place in Christian fiction

Before I go on and address this, let me clarify one point. I believe that any writer, Christian or not, can write a great story without using any swear words. I believe that the notion that a writer absolutely must have swearing in their writing if they want to be considered a success is nonsense. There are many great books that have been written without the use of swear words. Swearing isn’t needed to tell good stories.

Now that being said, swearing can be effective in story-telling—if it’s done right. Swearing can convey a lot of emotion in a few words, show how desperate a character’s situation is, and portray real life. After all, you cannot truly show the light unless you know what the darkness is. What cannot and should not be done with swearing in all writing (but especially in Christian writing) is used gratuitously, like our modern society does.

I’ve often wondered why that is, and I’ve come up with a theory of why people do this. Once upon a time (say, half a century or so, perhaps more) swearing was once considered socially unacceptable; only the rebels of society, those who would rock the boat, would do it. However, over a period of time, people who swore a lot were considered to be cool, and other people would swear more often in an attempt to be cool.

Over the years, more and more people would regularly swear in conversation and use those words flippantly in an attempt to be cool. This continued until finally swearing became ubiquitous. However, as a result, the pendulum swung the other way; swearing is now no longer cool, in my opinion. Therefore, no one gets automatic cool points from me if they throw swearing in their writing just for the sake of swearing and, worse, to “shock” the reader. The truth is, you will shock no one in this modern Western society.

As mentioned in the beginning of this section, I have a lot more respect for people who refuse to swear at all, and/or don’t use it in their writing. To me, that is cool, because now the people who don’t swear are the rebels; they are the ones going against societal conventions.

My point in saying this is that if you choose to use swearing in your writing, do so sparingly and deliberately. My high school English teacher and good friend, George J. Filip, once taught us to use swearing as one would use a spice. A little bit will the meal an extra kick, but too much will ruin the meal. Don’t ruin your reader’s feast.

3. How I use swearing in my writing.

Now, I’m going to give you all an example of how I use swearing in my writing, when I decide it is appropriate for the moment. This is from my work-in-progress novel The Traveler. [title subject to change] This is the first rough draft, and my novel is nowhere near complete, so please excuse any errors or imperfections in this sample.

The Traveler picked the picture up. The picture depicted a smiling family; a middle-aged redheaded woman, a black-haired middle-aged man, and a teenaged Alice. The Traveler looked around. I’ve only seen Alice thus far, he thought.
The Traveler heard Alice walking down the stairs, so he put down the picture and walked back into the living room.
Alice had descended the stairs. She wore a green, zip-up hoodie and dark blue jeans. Her red hair was now done up in a ponytail. “Well, what do you think?”
“Haven’t made up my mind yet,” The Traveler said, “I was thinking about something else.”
“Yeah?” she said, smiling. “What is it?”
“This is a fairly large house. A bit too large for only one person.”
Alice’s smile faded. “Yeah. It is.” She walked to the couch, sat down, and hung her head.
The Traveler walked to the couch and sat down next to her.
“I had a family,” Alice began. “My dad and my mom. Five years ago, we were walking out of the movie theater. It was a crappy propaganda flick, but we still had fun, it was time spent together.”
She began to sniffle. “Across the street, some of The Benefactor’s soldiers were coming out of a bar. They were drunk. They accosted us. They began making—” she stopped, breathed in, and continued, “rude comments, to mom. Dad didn’t like that.”
A single tear started to fall from her eye. “Dad told them to stop. They didn’t listen. They got angry. They—”
Tears began cascading from her eyes. She put her hands to her face.
“They shot him. And her.”
The Traveler swallowed a lump in his throat. He put his arm around her shoulder.
Alice leaned into his shoulder and cried.
After a while, she continued her story. “I was able to escape that night. Later, The Benefactor himself came to Shorewood. He personally awarded them for what they done. ‘Heroes of the People,’ he called them. I was there when he awarded them. I still remember his smirk when he saw me.”
She lifted her hands off her face. Her eyes blazed with anger, and her hands shook.
“I hate those bastards. All of them. And I’ll kill every single last one of them, till my final breath. That I promise you.”

That’s how it should be done. Alice’s story leads up to that moment, and when she swears, it actually means something. Above all, when writing a story, your words need to be meaningful.

That concludes my thoughts on Swearing in Christian Fiction. I hope this post generates some good discussion on this topic, and I hope this may help writers that may be struggling with using this in their writing.

What do you think about Swearing in Christian Fiction? Let me know in the comments below this post. Also, I am active on social media; don’t forget to:

Like me on Facebook.
Follow me on Twitter @SPhillipsWrites.
Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Send me a friend request at Goodreads.

Thank you all for taking the time to read this.

Veritas ex fabulatis,

-Scott

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Comments
  1. Bruce Burns says:

    Excellent thoughts. I like Orson Scott Card’s take on swearing in his fiction. “Sure my characters swear. They also go to the bathroom and wipe their butts and I don’t show that either.”

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