Profanity, Obscenity and Indecency

One of my students and writing colleagues brought up the age-old question the other day that many Christian writers struggle with: What to do about writing swear words?

I have had some professional colleagues tell me, there is NEVER an excuse for including swear words in your writing, no matter what. I know of other Christian writers who do include swear words in their writing. I am somewhere in the middle. Let it be known right here that this is an issue that I don’t have an answer for, nor do I believe there is one. In the end, I believe it is going to be the writer’s decision, based on their own conscience.

Why do I even bring this up? I had a Christian editor challenge me into more “honest” writing, and as I struggled to consider what that might mean, the issue of swearing came up. I have a difficult time writing around a character who swears by saying, “He swore,” or “He cursed.” In some cases, that works. But if you are trying to take the reader into the story, that kind of oblique reference puts up a barrier and reminds them that they are reading a story, rather than living a story. Further, if the swearing is meant to convey impact, the fact that “he cursed” just takes that away.

And then there is the issue of euphemisms. Is the power in the word itself–or in the idea behind the word? The word only has power if we give power to it. Those who know semiotics know what I am talking about. Words are only symbols. But compare these: Backside versus butt versus ass. All make reference to the same anatomical structure. Which are you more comfortable with? At the same time, which is a criminal more likely to say? They all mean the same thing…or do they?

Another splitting of hairs might help. We tend to put swear words all into the same bag. But there’s a danger of that. The Bible warns us of taking the Lord’s name in vain. And that’s one kind of swearing. In fact, media law refers to that as profanity. Any reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in a swearing mode is profanity. Even the word damn is OK in some situations, but is questionable in others.

Compare that with obscenity and indecency. Legally, indecency and obscenity have to do with visual images, sounds or words that have to do with (1) sexual acts or organs, or (2) excretory acts or organs. The difference between indecency and obscenity is one of degrees. Indecency is ok for adults, but not for children. Obscenity is not OK for anyone–such as child pornography, and other stuff I won’t go into.

So as far as the Bible is concerned, it only talks about taking the Lord’s name in vain. The rest of it is social propriety, as far as I know.

What’s interesting is when we talk about severity of swearing, our society (TV and movies) puts them in this order: (1) Lord’s name in vain is least severe, followed by excretory acts and then sexual acts. I would put them in reverse. I am a lot more likely to say something having to do with human biology than take the Lord’s name in vain.

As I mentioned, this is an issue that is not cut and dried, as far as I can tell. I am still trying to figure it out, and would appreciate input from you, especially if you’re a Christian writer or editor–or even a Christian reader.

3 thoughts on “Profanity, Obscenity and Indecency

  1. Hmm. This is interesting. I’ll have to ponder on this for a bit before I reply.

  2. Hey Glen,

    The following is rather long – sorry about that. I’ve just been dealing with this issue for as long as I can remember and wanted to post some of my thoughts and experiences. I hope you don’t mind, I know this is about as long as the blog post itself, heh.

    I struggled with this issue for many years. Do I swear? Do I not swear? Is cussing actually a sin? Does the type of ‘swearing’ the Bible speaks of actually reflect how it is perceived today? So on and so forth. I have come to the conclusion that often swearing is like meat sacrificed to idols – some people have issues with it, some do not. I have started to use some swearing in my stories, when the situation warrants it. For instance: I have a story where an engineer on an orbiting space dock around Jupiter is eye witness to a bunch of ships coming in and destroying the dock and killing most of his friends. In that situation I don’t think God is going to send the man to hell for uttering a cuss word.

    I also have come to realize, as you mentioned a bit above, that different words for one object have the same meaning. In my mind it is the meaning that matters, not the sound of the word spoken. If someone says shoot instead of the harder word, and he is talking about feces and not a firing a pistol…. It’s the same thing. It is also the situation – a story about a bunch of mobsters is going to have a bit saltier language than a story about a minister and his family. (Though, depending on your story, there could be a case for swearing in the last one.)

    I also have to think of my own life: I’ve met people with mouths like sailors that have had more faith in the Almighty than 90 percent of the preachers I’ve met. They are acutely aware of their sin and they know what God has brought them out of . They may have issues with swearing, but God has brought them out of so much and is dealing with other stuff in their life… I think to be real in writing we need to reflect the reality of the times we live in. We can even find people in the bible that are pretty rough people, but men after God’s own heart. (David wasn’t exactly a saint, for example.)

    All this has lead me to not worry much about using cuss words in my stories. I also know that I am a Christian, yes, but I generally don’t write for a Christian audience – there is a bit of a difference there as well. I remember reading Christian fiction in the 80s and 90s and just being appalled by the lack of writing skill and general sameness so much Christian fiction had. Outside of a few people (Gilbert Morris, Stephen Lawhead and CS Lewis) I could find very few “Christian” writers I actually liked. That may have changed in the last 10 years but that helped me to not *want* to write for a Christian publisher. I also felt part of the ‘vanilla’-ness of the books I read is because of the restrictions placed upon the writer – either through a legalistic idea of what a Christian could and could not write (Though CS Lewis obviously had no issues with that) or because of the publishers themselves.

    That being said – we always need to remember we are Christian. Our work should reflect that fact even if we are working through a secular publisher. But also we need to remember that God has seen much more depravity and sorrow than we will ever know. Jesus attracted followers because he was real, not because he was trying to be holy. Saying a swear word in a story – ultimately it should be an issue between the writer and God. Yet remember that making a character real means making a character human – warts and all. No matter what genre we write in, the characters do have to be believable.

  3. One of the reasons I write fantasy is to avoid the constant ugly language of our times. I know many people at work who quite literally can scarcely get through a sentence without an ‘f-word’ unless there’s a corporate VP standing nearby. And not always then. In using swear words in my own work, I created my own that have meanings that I do not consider blasphemous or crude in general, though there are a few exceptions. And for the most part they are more exclamations than curses, like one I use frequently: “Faith!” When I actually have someone curse, it’s a curse along the lines of ‘may you swiftly find your reward in the Cold Hell’ or that kind of thing.

    I find it harder to deal with evil deed than words. I don’t want to describe in detail the horrible things some people do, but at the same time I can’t get away from it entirely. Nobody reads a story with no conflicts, and if you want to have good guys that rise to the level of heroes, then the bad guys can’t be spitting on the sidewalk. And by heroes I mean in the Greek sense–demigods or favored of the gods or in Christian terms called of God.

    I think you’re right that each us must choose for ourselves, and I would be wary of anybody who claimed to have the perfect formula for avoiding error and/or sin in this regard. We each have to work our our own salvation in fear and trembling, and nobody else can intercede–it’s between each individual and Christ. I regard all perfect formulas as snake oil, other than the actual perfect formula given by Jesus Himself: ‘repent and follow Me.’

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