Is the use of four-letter words ever appropriate in Christian literature? By four-letter words I don’t mean, “love”, “hope”, or “work”.
Do swear words make a biography sound authentic, especially if the subject is known for their colourful vocabulary? Is the use of “stuff” in place of the s-word as in “Get you s-word together!” less real?
Does shortening such words as the “s” word or the “f” word sanitize and yet sustain a semblance of authenticity? Is there a place for words like “frick” or “effing?” For that matter is including all the letters of a swear word in a piece of literature actually swearing?
In the literary culture today does the use of colourful language hold a different meaning than it in yester years? Does the word s—t carry the same intent or value as it did one or two decades ago? And if it does, is that bad or good?
I asked some millennial Christians what their opinion was on using swearing in Christian literature. They swore they didn’t care. As long as the name of the Lord was not being taken in vain they had no problem with salty language or the odd four-letter word.
Writers groups are divided over the issue, however a majority lean towards inclusion. The Writing Cooperative and Story Embers reflect a liberal approach to the use of swearing in literature.
Surprisingly swearing is a literary device used in both the Old (Ezekiel 23 for example) and New testaments. The choice of words in Philippians 3:8 is informative. Paul contrasts the value of worldly ambitions with Christ: “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.” (see Bible.org for a full examination of the word’s meaning)
Since the word appears only once in the Bible but much more frequently in non-literary historical documents, Paul seems to have deliberately chosen an expletive to shock his audience. It’s offensiveness likely falls somewhere between “crap” and the s-word. Paul employs this language for the purpose of teaching, not as an angry attack or out of laziness. Does that sanitize its inspired use as a God-breathed word?
In my writing, I don’t use swear words for their shock value or in making a point. I do include them in a biography when they represent the everyday communication style of my subject.
What do you think about using four-letter words in Christian literature?
Rev. Bob Jones
As Bob thoughtfully articulates, there are several reasonable arguments for including expletives in Christian literature. For me, the most convincing one is the point about authenticity. In fiction, we may create evil “bad guys” who kill or otherwise wound our protagonist. Having that character speak in playground-friendly language may seem disingenuous. And, as Bob indicated above, when you are writing a biography you may cover scenarios where real people, in real life situations, used colourful language. Isn’t it our responsibility to be honest about that?
To me, it makes sense to take a step back and ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with the piece. Are you writing about your recent fender-bender in your journal? If so, accuracy may be top of mind. Are you writing your story with the hopes of sharing it with others? If the dream is for your book to become a best-seller, it’s important to note that swearing is non-negotiable for the Christian bookstore market. Period. Regardless of any writer’s case for creativity, or any publishers argument to the contrary, this is still a very straightforward no-no in our market.
An author may unequivocally insist that their grandma swore a blue-streak when she found out they were arrested for shop-lifting. They may refuse to remove the offending words, saying, It’s important that the reader understand how shocking this was. We humbly submit the reality for our market, If we can’t market or distribute your book, what reader?
Trying to break out and gain traction in the market is hard enough, never mind if our full arsenal is not at our disposal. And that’s what would happen. As a publisher, if there is swearing in a book, we could not send out an eBlast advertising it to Christian stores, send media kits out to Christian media, present the book to our sales reps, include the book in a flyer for churches, schools, and ministries, or send the book out to Christian bookstores in our auto-ship program. Word Alive’s sales reps in turn could not present the book to the buyers.
So, what do you to? Simply removing certain letters won’t cut it. The best thing to do is acknowledge that cursing has occurred without using the actual words or common replacements. (See grandma example above.) You don’t have to pretend that it didn’t happen, but you also don’t need to spell it out for us. Focus on creating tension in the moment to replicate the same physiological response that cursing creates (heightened awareness, perspiration, increased heartbeat, etc). When the scene is well-written, readers are smart enough to understand the emotion of the moment. In other words, most people can fill in the blanks.
Word Alive Press
Robert (Bob) W. Jones is a recovering perfectionist, who collects Coca-Cola memorabilia and drinks Iced Tea. His office walls are adorned with his sons’ framed football jerseys, and his library shelves, with soul food. He writes to inspire people to be real, grow an authentic faith in Jesus, enjoy healthy relationships and discover their life purpose.
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