Real, not Raw

There are discussions among Christian writers as to whether or not certain types of language belong in Christian fiction. The debate seems to circle around the question, “how far is too far?”

I happen to believe that there’s nothing wrong with vigorous debate, until that debate becomes disrespectful. The problem is we’ve raised a few generations of people who don’t know how to discuss issues without taking things personally. Such a beginning point makes “agreeing to disagree” a noble yet nearly impossible goal.

Another part of this equation–for me–is that I don’t know if there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of using strong language in our Christian fiction. The reason is I can’t find the definitive list on what is and isn’t considered improper. Oh sure, I know there are the “really bad” words like **** and ****** and even **********. But what about *****? In some parts of the country people consider that a compliment. But what about the terms that are only kind of offensive, like ******, *******, and ****.

In all seriousness, there are Christian people on both sides of the language debate. Each is just as committed to good fiction as the other. Each seeks to produce powerful stories that will honor the light of the truth without ignoring the reality of the darkness into which that light shines. Some want to write characters–especially non-christian characters–who represent accurately the fallen humanity that lives around us. Others believe that capturing the ungodliness of the carnal world can be done without resorting to their vocabulary.

Personally, I am not comfortable in using “curse words” or four-letter words in my fiction. My reason is simple: I just don’t need to use those words. I believe that I can be creative enough to find other words that will show the same emotion without planting unhealthy seeds in a readers spirit. Do they encounter–perhaps even use–such “bad/unchristian” terms in their daily lives? Perhaps. That’s something I can’t control. But I can control whether they’ll encounter them in my books.

Which is more likely to happen: readers will stop reading my books if I DO use “bad” words or readers will stop reading them if I DON’T? Does slipping these words into my fiction repel of draw a reader?

Friends, in the spirit of Christian unity, let us be very careful about how we treat one another while carrying on this uncomfortable discussion. And when it comes to how we talk about one another, and our choice of vocabulary words to place in our books, perhaps Ephesians 4:29 can guide us:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”



Filed under Christian Fiction, Christian Life, Writing

33 responses to “Real, not Raw

  1. kristal timm

    Very well said!!!!

    Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2012 10:25:08 +0000 To:

  2. Mary Gessner

    I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t had time to do more then skim through e-mails and fb lately, so I don’t really know the context. BUT…I do agree with what you’ve said. You said it very well. Good job, as usual!

  3. No, I don’t think that we, as Christians, should use curse words in our stories. Granted, we can have characters to curse, but, we can just say something like, “an unsavory word slipped from his/her lips.” Or something similar to that.

    What would happen if a reader, a Christian reader, were to think about buying your book? They flip through the pages, see the word f**k or something like that. They’d be offended, even if the character speaking said word is NOT a christian.

    I realize there are those who would argue with me, but, that’s my opinion. I do agree with your blog post.

  4. I agree with you. I’m not a fan of using curse words in fiction. I would rather not offend readers who have come to expect wholesome language in my books than worry about people who want what they consider “real” language. I don’t use that language, and neither do my characters – at least not on the page.

    We can’t please everyone, no matter what we do, so I choose to stay on the path I’m currently on. I like the fact that my stories are suitable for all age groups.

  5. I think it’s those on the fringe, known as “mild”, that are currently driving the heart of the issue. There are some who don’t consider those milder words profanity and some that do. For me, anything I wouldn’t say in front of my Pastor is a profanity, including c**p, p***ed, and sc**w, so I’ve been disappointed this year to find those very words in novels from CBA publishing houses I highly respect.

    The line of your post that jumped out at me was in essence, am I more likely to gain, or lose readers with this. From this author and reader, the answer is lose. And I would like to further add that fiction can still be real, vivid, and true to the tone and moment without these when a strong author can craft it in a way the reader knows something was said without spelling it out. I am not in support of sterile, sanitized and unauthentic writing. I am in support of leaving out profanity, even mild ones, in Christian fiction.

    • Nancy,
      Thanks for the reply, especially the part about saying only what you’d say in front of your pastor (since I’m a pastor myself..ha ha). And, like you, I also think that we can craft real, vivid, and true scenes without using profanity. I wish you the best in your writing.

  6. Well stated. I’m on the other side. I think curse words are fine.

    I have never really understood why people have a problem with curse words. I don’t like some words that are demeaning. I don’t like that we use violent word for sex.

    But I have no problem with someone saying I have to go take a **** as he heads to the bathroom, even though I don’t speak that way. To me, his saying that would be no more offensive then someone telling me he was going to have a BM. The offensive thing is that he feels he needs to tell me about his bodily functions, not the words he uses to describe them.

    • Sally,
      I respect your view, and am glad you replied. You are right to point out that there can be a fine line between profanity and “earthy” language that describes a bodily function. I still question whether such usage is necessary to the story. That, however, doesn’t mean that I’m right, and my goal is not to pass judgement on writers who do use terms that I wouldn’t.

  7. I agree that if we put foul language in our writing, or rather we continually read books with foul language, we are more apt to use them in our everyday life. I agree as well that we as Christian writers can be creative, and thus avoid using foul language, while creating characters that are fallen.

    The majority of books I read are Christian/inspiration, but I do read secular now and then. The ones that have several swears in them, and even more importantly, what I would consider the really bad ones, I HAVE to stop reading. I recently wrote about this very thing on my blog when I ran across such a book. But those with only a few “mild” swears, I can’t handle…but would still prefer that they weren’t there.

    The one that I have a problem with is when I read or hear of Christian writers, publishers or editors say that a Christian writer shouldn’t write in a way that even suggest a bad word. For me that makes no sense. I see no harm in writing, for example, “Tom, cussed.” I also disagree with for example, saying the word “darn” is close to close a swear word, therefore you should not use it. I feel that’s taking it a little far. Now we can’t use “good” words in place of swears? I mean how horrible would that be if we always used the word darn instead of the alternative foul language.

    We have to deal with foul language every day through media and others that use it freely. I don’t believe we are so easily molded and influenced that the mere suggestion of a swear words will turn us into a potty mouth.

    • Kym,
      Perhaps it is the cumulative and not the singular effect that is the most dangerous when it comes to using profanity in our writing. And, you have touched on a criticism that I’ve heard others say about publishing houses who refuse to allow writers to even “suggest a bad word.” I know that if I want that publishing house (whichever one it is) to print my stories, I have to submit to their preferences. I guess we have to decide whether telling a story or taking a stand is our priority.

      • I write what I feel God places on my heart to write, whether or not it sells, or it’s what a particular publisher is looking for. I wouldn’t submit to those that are too squeaky clean to allow even a suggestion of a swear word. I feel there is a place for those ones as well, so it’s okay. Just not for me. I feel God touches people in a different ways. One may get more from a squeaky clean novel, while another may be touched and have a live changing moment…for the good…through a not so squeaky clean novel.

    • Kim, I agree, and that’s what I mean about it doesn’t need to be sanitized, just don’t spell it out. If a combat soldier takes a bullet below the vest, he’s going to say all kinds of things. So write it well, like “Curses flowed from his mouth the way his blood was staining the ground, neither likely to stop until no more remained.” You can be creative and flex your author muscle that way and I believe preserve the integrity of what makes CBA different.

  8. This is an issue which has become increasingly alarming to me. Like Nancy, I read a CBA book recently from a publishing house I greatly respect and was shocked at the crassness of some of the words–not curse words, mind you, but simply vulgar terminology. Not surprisingly perhaps, this book has been widely heralded and praised. It’s also not without its controversy, especially from the publisher’s conservative fan base. I had other issues with this particular book beyond the language; however, these are my thoughts (and, purely for the record, my husband is a theologian and former pastor): as Christian authors, we are to be ambassadors of Christ and show hope and light in our fiction. Our characters need to be real but imperfect in order to show their journey and (hopefully) their personal growth throughout the course of our novels. It’s entirely possible to give the impression of profanity without using offensive language. I’ve done it a few times. Simply put, curse words are jarring for me and take me out of what I’m reading. That’s where our skill as a writer comes into play to make it seem believable and real without resorting to something which I believe has no place whatsoever in fiction labeled as Christian. My question? Once we open that door, where do we draw the line? It’s dangerous and again, I find it quite alarming when others are shocked as to why we find it offensive. As believers, we are held accountable for every word that comes from our lips and for what we put “out there” for the world to hear or read. We’re held to a higher standard, and I, for one, plan to uphold that calling. I want to give glory and honor to the Lord and be able to hold my head high and know I’ve done my best. Many blessings, Larry, and thanks for a good discussion.

    • JoAnn,
      I agree with you (& your husband). In fact, one of my first posts on this blog was on being an ambassador for God with my writing. (Your thoughts on that post would be appreciated also).
      I, too, am concerned about the possible slippery slope that we might be leading our readers–and our own minds–onto by expanding the gray area of vocabulary. I’m NOT pretending to have all the answers, but I have to follow my conscience.
      Thanks for your reply.

      • Thank you, Larry. I’ll check out the post you mentioned. None of us have the answers, of course, but like you, I’m going to follow my conscience. I had a reader tell me my second book changed her outlook on marriage (she even said it in her book review), a marriage from which she was ready to walk away. That book is a contemporary romance (like all my books). Some may call them unrealistic fairy tales, but it had heart and made at least one reader think. Praise God! Isn’t that what life and love-affirming Christian fiction is intended to do? I thank the Lord every day for the honor and privilege of writing for Him, and I know you do, too. Many blessings.

  9. I’m new to the CBA. My debut Christian inspirational, Love Notes, has been called into question by some because I used the word b–ch. I do not consider this word to be profanity. Vulgar or coarse, perhaps, as is the bad guy who utters it. But I couldn’t see, in a contemporary novel, in the villain’s POV, that an authorial intrusion of “he uttered an unsavory word”, was something that felt right. I also felt that if I said, “He swore,” that people would think much worse than the word I used. I was not trying to shock people or be edgy; nor did I glorify evil or gloss over it. There are repercussions to Billy’s evil. One thought – if there was a list of words that are objectionable, it might help people who are sincerely trying to follow the CBA rules. My second thought is more related to content than actual vocabulary choices. Read Ezekiel 23. Read the story of David. If you’re going to eliminate Christian books with graphic content and wording from your shelves, you’re going to have to stop reading some rather large chunks of the Bible or edit it before allowing your children to read it or keep it off your shelves entirely. I mean no disrespect, but seriously, we write in and about imperfect people living in a fallen world. There were many unique prophets and 12 disciples, each with different backgrounds, struggles, and missions, each with a unique style of writing and a ministry of their own. There was not one perfect disciple. Write and read what your own conscience dictates, but please don’t insist that the rest of shouldn’t do the same. There is room for all who love Jesus in the CBA even though our vocabulary word choices may vary on occasion. I have blogged about this topic twice, most recently, Is Real Really Perfect? on Sept. 26th. or Thank you for listening, and for sharing your thoughts.

    • Sherri, I appreciate your perspective. As with any divisive issue however, is overreaching and keeping profanity from my Christian fiction is not eliminating Christian books with graphic content and wording. I am very familiar with the story of David, both as it is written in the bible and portrayed in true excellence by author Cliff Graham in the Lion of War series by Zondervan. Those novels are gritty, intense, graphically violent and true to the realities of David and the Giboram, and did it all without foul language or author intrusion. Excluding profanity is not the same as sanitizing, and I grow increasingly frustrated that a few outspoken individuals on the other side of this issue maintain that.

      I am not questioning an authors right to write as they see fit or their heart for Jesus. I am questioning my publisher’s decision to allow this in their fiction when they have captured me as a consumer of their product precisely because I am trusting them to safeguard me from profanity on the page. When they violate that trust, I’m frustrated and disappointed as a consumer, and even more so as a fellow author. If a novel needs the language to work, that’s fine and I understand that, but take it to the general market where it is a better fit with reader expectations.

      • Thanks for responding to my reply, Nancy. I understand your frustration at feeling like your trust has been violated. I feel the same way when a TV show I have been watching for months suddenly introduces a new story line with a same sex relationship. I like the characters, I’m involved with the story line, I enjoy watching the show, but I don’t want to watch the new story line – wouldn’t have signed on in the first place if I’d know where they were going. So how do we appropriately rate every variation so no one starts reading anything they don’t want to be exposed to, and how do I find the right readers for my book without inadvertantly offending someone else who’s assuming because it’s an inspirational novel, it will have squeaky clean language? My experience with the general market is that they want few to no family or faith references. I’ve always joked that in most regular market romances, the parents are either conveniently dead or vactioning in Europe. Out of the picture. The other thing they want is sex. When I was trying to sell Love Notes, I had an appointment with an editor at an RWA conference who loved the story concept and characters, but she wanted me to add multiple sex scenes. I refused. Hope is a strong Christian and wouldn’t do what the editor was asking. So before you ask me to take my book to the general market… well, that’s an even worse fit. I dont’ want to offend anyone, but I know there have to be other readers like me who like inspirational fiction and Christian characters and themes, who like things to be a little more gritty and real life – as I – we – know it. or maybe I’ll always be a misfit.

      • Thank you, Sherri. I think the dialogue on this has been exceptional and after this, I’ll have to disengage because I could discuss this forever. Your reply was thoughtful but it’s the continued assertion that for those of us against any form of language in a Christian novel equating to an aversion to gritty and real life fiction you make at the end of your reply that chaps my hide with regards to this issue.
        I’m drawn to grit and hardness inherent in redemptive tails. Which is why I read Cliff Graham, and adore Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love, a novel that included horrible sexual atrocities against young girls, physical violence and adultery, and all without foul language.
        Both my completed manuscripts involve physical abuse, and the Genesis finalist novel involves a rape, and an authentic level of physical combat violence that gets it labeled edgy by most critique partners and beta readers. And I do that all without language and when a contest judge called into question my inclusion of the common term for an illegitimate child in a character’s dialogue, I chose to write it out.
        I don’t mean to make this a personal attack, it is not meant in that spirit, but I find it ironic you chose to not type out in full in your comments here the swear word you included in your published novel. Please don’t misunderstand, I appreciate that you did, but it does seem counter-intuitive. It’s not my intent to contribute to anyone being made to feel a misfit. It is my intent to declare boldly that while I embrace and appreciate edgy Christian fiction and want to see more of it traditionally published by the CBA, I want it without foul language and vulgar references that I’ve come across this year.
        If a novel is too Christian for the ABA, that’s a great thing. But I don’t want the stewardship of the CBA publishers to relax to the point of including profanity in their published titles because for me that crosses the line where it’s no longer edgy, but over the edge of appropriateness for Christian fiction.

    • Sherrie,
      Thank you for your response. You are right that the Bible contains sections/references that are pretty graphic. Allen Arnold mentioned this is his ACFW workshop (Christian Fiction Unplugged). There is something to be said about the fact that Christians in America having become a little soft-skinned and tend to shy away from the graphic references in the Bible (whether in the warfare sections of the Old Testament or the phraseology in Song of Solomon, etc…). And there does seem to be a wide range of opinions on the specific question of what is a profanity and what isn’t. And it certainly isn’t my goal to tell each reader what he/she can read. Nor do I want to be the “word sheriff” who rides around on my trusty horse with a list of unacceptable words in my holster.
      It’s also true that English translators have “softened” some words found in the original manuscripts, and have had to consider how to translate some words from one English translation to another, based on current usage of the word, and how that usage is viewed in contemporary society. In other words, they felt they had choices in word selection.And, no doubt, they had editorial concerns as well. Even though the various versions use different words in places like Ezekiel 23, these differences in words don’t detract from the intended meaning or disregard the immediate context of the passage.
      I think it’s very important not to blur the distinction between “content” and “language”. I may refer to a couple closing the bedroom door, but I don’t need to give a word-for-word report of what went on after that in order for readers to understand. I can write suspense, in which a murder plays a central role, without specifically describing the graphic nature in which the murder was committed. In showing a bad character, like you mentioned in your book, I wouldn’t use b****, but you would. Only you can decide whether that was the ONLY way to develop this character in the mind of the reader.
      While I disagree with your premise that using these types of words is only a matter of individual conscience, I respect your thoughts on this matter. Since we’re not talking about a private diary or journal, but about stories meant for public viewing, we must be aware of what will attract or detract readers (although I do think that readers need to be pushed out of their comfort zones now and again).Thank you for taking the time to read my post and craft a response.I wish you the best in all your writing for our Lord.

  10. Diana Grabau

    I have been a committed Christian for many years now, very active in quite conservative churches, but as life has progressed and my desire to write has become a reality, I find myself struggling with this issue because life (ours included) is quite messy, we have close family members who have quite colorful language, and a good friend as well. I struggle with the thought that Christians too often insulate themselves from being close to those ‘in the world and of the world’. I struggle with the stigma of being a ‘goody two-shoes’, the accusation that Christians are too judgmental. By our intolerance of anything remotely considered colorful language, others feel condemned around us. And I know you might say anyone feels that way around the purity of Christ, which is why we have the law at all, but what about Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:22 that say, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some.”

    I love the spirit of that passage. I, as a born-again believer in Christ and the power of God, the power of the gospel, do not have to continue striving to earn my salvation. But I do have a mandate to reach the lost. I do not live ‘under the law’ but I am to be ‘led by the Spirit’. I never use ‘four-letter language’ myself. I am not comfortable with it, and I do believe most of it is not honoring to God. Some I believe to be rather neutral.

    Life is dirty, messy and rough, and all humans, Christian and non, have strong emotions in relation to it. I’ve walked with God a long time, and have learned how to deal with my strong emotions, how to bring them under the sovereignty of my savior, the Lord of my life. But the emotions and pain are still there, and they are real. Even more so for those who have no hope. To me the issue is not whether the words are right or wrong, for they are just words. It is whether we are reaching the souls of those who do not know the richness and fullness of life with Christ.

    So will I use them in my current WIP, which deals with harsh times, death and the loss of hope for many? I’m still struggling to know, but I can say I will do my best to discern God’s will in the matter and if I can write without them, I will. Thank you for the discussion.

    • Diana,
      Thank you for sharing your struggle to find the best way to communicate to a dark world. I, too, struggle with how to find a balance between the pull to “be all things to all people, so that I might save some,” and the principle of “not causing a weaker brother to stumble.”
      From one who has made a mess of his life more than once, thanks for your words. In fact, everyone who has commented has been so straight-forward and open that I find myself with yet one more reason to a part of the Christian fiction world with such wonderful people.

  11. Her are a few comments from my essay “‘Strong Language’ in Fiction and Film”: We must not confuse realism with literalism. Fiction is not reality: it is an artistic construct that gives the illusion of reality. If every fictional day doesn’t have to begin with the hero shaving, it doesn’t have to get literal about foul language. However, lazy writers include bad language to give the appearance of conflict. But genuine conflict is generated by the basic structure of the story, not by throwing foul words around. The complete article can be found at Angie Arndt’s blog,

    • Donn,
      Thank you for your reply. I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that only lazy writers use foul language in fiction, although I understand the point you are expressing. I’ve felt that way regarding comics who feel the need to spew profanity in order to get laughs. But I think it may too broad of a brush stroke to paint every writer who uses questionable words as lazy. But I do appreciate your willingness to join in this discussion.

  12. The language was a question I encountered early on in my current manuscript. The villain has just admitted to a disgusting act, and the hero smashes him with his fist. As the hero draws back his fist, he says “You sick …” I know he would actually have said, “You sick sonofabitch.” Not even SOB, but I also have to consider my potential readers, so I leave it to them to fill in the dots. In this particular instance, I don’t want to slow down the action by inserting a tag explaining his curse.
    I personally have no problem with mild expletives like hell or damn, but some readers surely will, so I don’t use them. The language that I dislike the most is when the Lord’s name is taken in vain. I can’t stand OMG. I won’t listen to or read anything with this in it. I don’t like gutter language, but I don’t condemn people who use it. There are more important things in the world.
    I’m glad you brought up this topic. I’m sure it’s a question all writers face at some time or other.

    • Elaine,
      Thanks for your input. I think our readers will fill in some things in their own minds, which is something we can’t control, but we can control what words we choose to use. I think this is an important discussion too.

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