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.