Editor’s note: This article is the fourth installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching these topics, read our introductory post.
Swearing, like most subjects in the Christian community, has created its share of controversy. Are English words, which are nothing more than subjective pairings of vowels and consonants, offensive to the Almighty, or only when combined with His name? Should we avoid saying certain words around children? What about typing them out?
These are all questions that Christian writers are forced to resolve at some point in their careers. You’ve likely grappled with them if you’ve ever read the language section of a Plugged In review. They boil down to one key quandary: Should Christians include swearing in their writing?
The answer goes beyond a simple yes or no. Since our goal as Christian storytellers is to glorify God in our speech and actions, let’s look at Scripture’s teaching on foul language.
Biblical Condemnation Against Swearing
Though Scripture doesn’t specifically list the words or phrases we should shun, the New Testament provides several instructions for godly speech.
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4)
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10)
We are to bless, not curse, and express our thankfulness, not indulge in rude or profane speech. But most importantly, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
This is not an optional recommendation, but a solemn command not to debase the holiness of the Lord’s name. Unlike curse words that fall in and out of use, this mandate is constant throughout the ages. Nowadays “OMG” is thrown about carelessly by even young children, but this habit should not be present among the redeemed.
Biblical Instances of Swearing
We should all be able to agree that profanity is distasteful. Ideally, man should speak with a clean, loving heart and tongue all the time. But dichotomy often exists between exemplary behavior and humanity’s sin nature.
In 1 Samuel 20:30, after King Saul discovers that his son was protecting David, he hurls this insult: “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame?” The euphemistic Hebrew translation can be easily understood by substituting the modern term, “You son of a *****!”
The Old Testament writer is being descriptive, not prescriptive. Far from condoning bad language, he’s emphasizing the degree of King Saul’s corruptness in verbally attacking his son (and by extension, his wife). The writer could have used a more general phrase, such as “Saul’s wrath was kindled against Jonathan,” but that might have lessened the emotional impact.
In Philippians 3:8, Paul contrasts the value of worldly ambitions with Christ: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
“Rubbish” seems a lackluster translation considering that the Greek word skubalon literally means “excrement.” Since the word appears only once in the Bible but much more frequently in non-literary historical documents, Paul seems to have deliberately chosen an expletive to shock his audience. Its offensiveness likely falls somewhere between “crap” and the s-word.
This cannot be passed off as vulgarity from a degenerate biblical character the way that Saul’s can. Paul is redeemed in Christ and still brandishes this term, whereas elsewhere he exhorts others to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29).
Paul employs this language for the purpose of teaching, not as an angry attack or out of laziness. Given the extreme flexibility of the f-word as a noun, verb, or adjective, swearing tends to replace creativity. But as the most prolific and educated New Testament writer, Paul was capable of producing a more genteel term. Instead, he selected a word that nevertheless accurately conveys the revulsion we should feel toward life apart from Christ.
The Bible contains several other examples of vulgar word usage, but out of consideration for the younger demographic in our audience, we will skirt them. In summary, two possible reasons to include swearing in fiction are: A) to demonstrate a character’s depravity, and B) to stress a point.
How to Depict Swearing with Wisdom
Now that we’ve established our biblical foundation, we’re equipped to tackle our next topic: How should we tailor our writing for our audience?
Since some Christians view swearing or misusing the Lord’s name as heinous, we should be aware that our work will be judged and perhaps boycotted if it contains anything questionable. But violence, drinking, or romance poses the same risk, so we must choose our battles wisely.
Being a Christian storyteller does not mean obscuring sin’s ugliness or portraying it inaccurately. But a strong element of discretion is involved. Children and adults alike can understand the stories of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and David and Bathsheba without displaying the grisly details of adultery. As we consider how to deal with language, we should ask ourselves whether we’re writing stories for adults to explore alone or to read aloud to the entire family. Having a clear vision of our audience should simplify content decisions.
Oftentimes, made-up exclamations in fantasy or brief statements that a character cursed can function the same as literal profanity. In cases to the contrary, apply the biblical guidelines discussed earlier. For the most part, conveying a character’s obscenity should be possible without spelling it out.
One frequent abuse of swearing in secular culture is the misconception that injecting an expletive into a joke’s punchline automatically makes it funny. This flippancy encourages people to see swearing as light and fun instead of filthy. Thus, “crude joking” as condemned in Ephesians 5 should be avoided if our goal is to provoke laughter instead of a cringe.
Another challenge is characters who compulsively swear, especially when the stories happen in real life (several military biographies I’ve read spring to mind). Omitting strong language will likely ring false to readers, yet its true-to-life form will oversaturate our pages with expletives. Vulgar language easily pervades our thoughts, so reading and writing it can be spiritually unhealthy for both writers and readers. Deciding to include it should not be taken lightly.
I would personally advocate using strong language in moderation (and only if the context demands it), with the frequency heavily determined by the age of the audience.
Some might argue that Christians should never blaspheme, but showing characters doing it is fine since they’re only mimicking people’s real speech. This is true to an extent (writing a character who commits murder doesn’t make the author a murderer), but out of concern for readers’ minds and as a stylistic choice, I would keep this to a minimum in my own writing.
I have an advantage in navigating strong language since I write fantasy, which allows me to invent words that are offensive in my fictional culture but not to readers. However, this doesn’t remove all potential quandaries.
When I’m evaluating whether to include swear words in dialogue, one of the first questions I ask is what impact I want the scene to have on readers and the characters. To reflect and showcase the power of language, I prefer to reserve cursing for intense scenes.
If I decide a scene needs forceful dialogue, I then consider whether the dialogue can be equally vehement without a swear word. If so, I’ll avoid using a swear word so I can exercise more creativity in my prose. If not, and cussing is the best way to convey the character’s emotions and personality, I’ll insert real swear words.
Though people don’t always restrain language in real life, literary dialogue never perfectly imitates speech, but instead seeks to resemble it in a way that emphasizes whatever needs to be communicated. As a result, I only bring out the “big guns” if I believe they’re necessary to the scene.
–Josiah DeGraaf, Editor-in-Chief
After much study, I’ve come to accept foul language as an appropriate writing tool in certain situations, but one area I still deem untouchable is blasphemy.
Because God’s name is holy and awesome, it’s inherently different from all other swear words, which are inappropriate, derogatory, or cruel. Defaming the name of our Creator is much more serious than employing vulgar words for vulgar purposes. In the Old Testament, blasphemy was a capital offense. Even if we distance ourselves from characters who blaspheme in our stories, God’s name, which should be precious to us, is still being dishonored.
Can we ever write a character blaspheming without violating the third commandment? I’m not yet ready to make an absolute statement. After all, I believe we can include other swear words in fiction. However, I must soberly ask, is God’s name so suitable for showing a character’s frustration or dismay that I can’t rely on another word? If I use God’s name when another word would suffice (and I think another option is always available), then that seems like vain and empty treatment of His hallowed name.
–Daeus Lamb, Community Manager
The Power of Words
Words carry weight, even when spoken by imaginary characters in fantasy worlds. Ultimately, we want readers to judge our stories by quality, not the quantity of expletives. Seeking to implement the principles laid out in Scripture regarding strong language should give clarity to our next word-choice dilemma.
Tune in next week as Josiah tackles writing about sex. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you determine when to include or exclude swearing in your stories? Share your perspective in the comments!