Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Deal With Dirty Words (Part One)

Vacation is over. The writer's conference is over. And now, friends and fellow bibliophiles, it is my pleasure to introduce the next series of articles which you voted for: "How to Deal With Dirty Words".

Earlier this year, a reputable Christian website for young writers posted an article on whether or not to include swear words when writing novels. That's a legitimate question, and one they answered very poorly. Not only that, but I quickly realized that they were listing swear words to avoid. I know a small number; most everyone does. But these were ones I had never heard of before. I quickly exited, and the Lord was gracious enough to blank them from my memory. I couldn't tell you a single one, and I am grateful that He had that mercy. But those people will be held accountable for polluting the minds of their readers. And more than that, they are accountable for polluting the minds of young people.

I cannot express to you the extent of my displeasure at their shameful action.

I have gone through approximately 35 yards of correction tape in my literary quest to blank out foul language, which amounts to 105 feet and 1,260 inches. This distance is about the length of a city block.  Needless to say, dealing with dirty words is an important topic to me, and one that I think is taken entirely too lightly among Christian bibliophiles.

Before I start this article, let me say that all discretion shall be used, and while types of swear words shall be defined and referred to discreetly, no actual swear words shall be used or abbreviated. It is my wish that you walk away from this article knowing how to deal with them, without my being the instrument of polluting your minds with more than you already know.

So here are some principles to start on:

1. Authors Will Be Judged for the Words They Use.

We shouldn't excuse their sin. They know better.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
~Matthew 12:33-37
Every author is a teacher, holding the minds and hearts of their readers. Thus, they will be giving account to God for the result of their teachings:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
~James 3:1

And finally, authors who pollute the minds of young people are sinning grievously indeed:

“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck."
~Mark 9:42

2. Christian Authors are Equally Guilty.
Ironically enough, I have received most of my mental scars from books by Christian women. Much of the vulgar words I have to deal with are from conservative evangelicals or people who claim to be renewed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Let me clarify by saying that I believe these people's statement of faith. I believe that they are dedicated Christians who truly want to honor their Lord. But profaning the name of the Lord all for the sake of "authenticity" is dishonoring to our Saviour, and sends a poor message to those we are trying to witness to. If I find language in a book by a non-Christian, I am much more likely, while recognizing it as sin, to also make allowance for them, because they do not accept the fact that God has a law, and one that we must follow. But those who know the law of God and claim to follow it are without excuse.

3. "Authenticity" is Inexcusable.
At the writers' conference I attended, I heard one Christian speaker say that he included language to be "authentic". Otherwise, he claimed, his stories wouldn't be believable. This is a common misunderstanding among authors who honestly do want to reach a certain people group. The sad thing is, in our quest for authenticity, we're no longer safe from language anywhere. Christ is the most authentic story teller that ever was, ever is, and ever will be, and he never considered it necessary to swear to be authentic. Nor did his disciples. Nor did God himself, throughout the whole course of Scripture. It is wrong to have dedicated Christian parents protect their children from hearing these things, only to have innocence lost because of a pastor's quote in the morning service. And it is wrong, as an author, to pollute the minds of your readers when you don't know who they are or what they know. Perhaps some argument could be made for "authenticity" if you were only reaching the group you're trying to be authentic to. But if you're marketing your "authentic" book to help save gang members in Chicago, then keep it well away from conservative Christian high school students. God calls  Christian authors to be pure, set apart, fit for the Master's use (2 Timothy 2:21)

Before we leave this point, let's dig a little deeper into the reasoning. What are these authors trying to be authentic about? Are they trying to present an authentic picture of Christ's purity, to show a sinful and lost world the righteousness to be found in Him? Or are they instead trying to be relateable, presenting an authentic picture of the sinner needing to be saved rather than the Savior ready to cleanse? Authenticity does not call us to make excuses, or to sin. Relatability often does. As Christians, we are called to be "little Christs"--authentic pictures of a sinless Savior. We are never called to become sinful so our prospective converts might become saved. That's not how God works. He didn't include the words of the curses at the cross to make sure the Gospel had authenticity. Neither should we.

4. Don't Panic.
When I first noticed language on my bookshelves I panicked, and tried to throw out any that had swear words. While some may feel called to do that, and I fully support you if you do, God lead me down a different path. If you really start looking, you'll find precious few that don't have any. There are some authors I don't read any more because they had a hand in causing my problem. I'll be honest and say that Dorothy Sayers is one of them. While many others find her readable and enjoyable, and I fully understand why, I have to stay away because of the struggles her books opened up for me. Different books open up different struggles for each of us--that's why our journey's are unique. On the subject of language, if this is an area you struggle with as I did, you may want to avoid books with language for a length of time. But more on that later in this series.

5. Realize that You'll Be Going Against the Crowd.
People thought I was ridiculous for caring about language. After all, what's the big deal? I got blank stares, condescending smiles, and total disagreement. Fortunately my parents thought I was exactly right, and that gave me the perseverance to continue on. It's something you'll have to monitor yourself, because very few will think to mention it. I try to mention it in every book review I write, simply as a courtesy to those who have the same struggle I do. I was caught many times by books I never would have read, if people had mentioned in their reviews that it contained some pretty coarse language. However difficult, it is worth the effort, in spite of snide remarks, to have the peace and comfort of avoiding pollution.

Are some swear words worse than others? What about words that used to be good, and now aren't? And how's a poor bibliophile supposed to keep from swearing through ignorance?

That's all next time. Until then, I wish you happy and unpolluted reading.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady B,
    Wonderful post! I'm looking forward to reading more in the series! You have protected me in some books by the ever useful whiteout tape. It always seemed to me that it was almost like cheating to blank out words (not that I would want to read them.) What would you say?
    I love the picture! Is it representing purity?
    It's also so wonderful that I have a sister who protects me from dirty words. :D <3 <3

    Love, Sister

    P.S. Bleep!!! ;)

    1. Dear Sister,
      Yes, the picture is to represent purity. :) We want to keep our words pure.

      In answer to your question, what if I served you a nice gooey brownie with chocolate frosting...and it only had a tiny bit of mold in it. Would you want to eat it? After all, it would be cheating to cut the mold off.
      You asked a very good question. When we encounter sin, it is never cheating to protect ourselves from its pollution. It's taking the "mold" out of the books we read. :)

      Lots of love and cuddles,

      P.S. Bleep!! (Very clever, darling. <3 )

  2. Hi Schuyler,

    A very thought-provoking post! I really agree with you, that using language and swear words to "be authentic" is really not right at all.

    I do believe IF the author wants to say that some character was swearing he "tells" not "shows" that fact :). However, in regards, for instance to my novel-in-progress 'The Crown of Life', pagan Romans swore often by the pagan gods as this was a Roman realistic reality. I still need to think and pray about it more, but I do not personally think it is necessarily a no-no to record an unbelieving or wicked character swear by the gods for instance (as long as it is in moderation and discreet ) i.e. "by Jupiter..." etc... However, I would still use it with caution and sparingly so as not to pollute the reader's mind and definitely would not let any Christian character use bad language. Swearing and bad language should be obviously condemned or shown as evil. I think there is a verse in God's Word that says "flee any appearance of evil" or something like that. I have to check the reference!

    It was a very interesting post, Schuyler, and it made me think some. I especially appreciated the point you made about the author's responsibility not to pollute reader's minds and being accountable to God for every idle word spoken and written. Amen, dear sister!

    God bless.

    1. Hello Joy!
      Yes, I too believe that it should be "told" rather than "shown". :) I have no problem with an author saying "he swore" or "he cursed"--that's a fair representation of sin, and leaves the reader to fill in the blank without exposing them to things they may not know.
      You brought up an intereseting point, one that I had forgotten--swearing by the gods. I would say I'm right where you are. Not totally averse to it, especially when illustrating a pagan system. Take, for instance, the Christian Liberty Press edition of "Pearl Maiden" by H. Rider Haggard. They clean up the original, but leave such things as "by the gods" etc. And I'm much more comfortable with that then people using the Lord's Name in vain.
      I might just include that point later on. ;) Thanks for the reminder!


  3. Well done, Schuyler. I am looking forward to reading your series on this (I'm so glad I voted for it.). You brought up some very good points. It is so very important that we as Christians have Biblical personal standards while reading through a book. Keep pursuing Him! <3

    1. Thanks Kaleigh. <3 I'm glad you voted for it too! I must confess, I had a tiny hankering for it to win, which was why I decided to do it later on. ;) It is an issue which, unfortunatly, pervades much of classic literature. In fact, I can't think of a single book at present amongst my classics where I didn't have to white something out. It is very refreshing to come across books without it, however rare the find.

  4. I am very grateful for the heart you have on this matter. I have often observed that Christians, who should be set apart from the world, speak and act just the same as the world. I agree with your statement that "They know better." Almost always the words they use are followed by -excuse my language- which proves the point that they know better. The scripture verses in your post are excellent.

    1. I agree; I think it's tragic that no one calls it out. Many Christians knowingly participate in wrong speech, and those who don't are afraid to call out those who do. People think that curse words are impossible to avoid knowing about, but I think that if more Christians took responsibility, then children wouldn't have to grow up with that pollution. I am grateful that I had the blessing of homeschooling, or I would probably have had to deal with much more of it! :)

  5. Very well written Schuyler. I really enjoyed reading that, & I learned a lot from it.
    I agree with this part in particular "Christian Authors are Equally Guilty" I know Christian authors who have used swear words in their books & I do not think they are needed..you can still get your point across in a book without using swear words. I have wrote many stories before & I always make sure I never use them or go close to "okay" swear words! Thank you for posting, it was encouraging!
    -Sarah Stroink- <3

    1. That's good, Sarah. We were brought up in a "no slang" household, so I always try to be very careful what my characters say as well. I love writing stories too. :) I would love to see some of yours sometime! <3


  6. I have some tentative thoughts on this topic.

    Generally, I dislike the use of bad language and dirty jokes in books. I don't want to find myself using them, and I would point out that most of the world's great literature doesn't need them. There are also ways of describing bad language that doesn't actually use it: the time-honoured, "...he exclaimed with an oath." Or per GK Chesterton: "the use of theological terms to which he attached no doctrinal significance." Or Buchan in that joyous passage of Castle Gay..."he would be sanguinarily glad to see the immediate colour of his money."

    Also I abhominate (as Peter the High King would spell it) people using bad language because of authenticity, to say nothing of a need to shock elderly ladies.

    That said, I have a few principles that I would apply to this:
    First, we should never try to be holier than God. There is some pretty strong language in the Bible. Paul, for example, when saying that the benefits of this world are nothing but what the NIV calls "refuse" is actually using rather crude language. "Filthy rags" is not something we currently have niffy language for, but it was similarly shocking in Greek. In addition, the divinely inspired book of Ezekiel is in places quite explicit, and is not even about chaste married love. So in the Bible, we DO see obscene things referred to, sometimes in crude languge.

    Second, we should not break the commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain. This prohibits wrong use of the Lord's name and attributes: including, as Chesterton said, using them in a way that drains them of theological significance. I'd argue that it also includes euphemistic swearing: "heck" for example. However, I do not see that this prevents measured use of the terms in a theologically significant sense.

    Third, shielding children from bad influences is not the purpose of child-raising, thought it's an important method. It's also difficult to raise innocent children in a world full of foul language, which can be difficult for some children to escape.

    Fourth, I would have no problem with a book in which a clearly wrong character said, "I don't believe in God." I believe that it might also, in some circumstances, be appropriate to have a clearly wrong character use bad language. Just because a character says he doesn't believe in God doesn't mean that the author's saying that. Just because a character uses bad language doesn't mean that the author is. However context is also important: the language shouldn't be used in a book aimed at the young or immature.

    Finally, as a woman I need to be seeking a femininity, including gentleness and modesty. It would probably not be appropriate for me to use strong language like the prophet Ezekiel's, though it was certainly right for him. That would also be a consideration in my writing.

    Those are my thoughts so far. I absolutely understand why you would use correction tape and commend you for acting in a modest, feminine, and God-and-parent-honouring way. However these comments were just to say that I also see some good arguments for occasional responsible and prayerful use of strong language, especially in the light of the need not to be holier than God!

    By the way, when it comes to speech, I HIGHLY recommend Douglas Wilson's book, The Serrated Edge: A Biblical Defence of Trinitarian Skylarking, a nice short lively book which you can read in toto here on Google Books.

    1. Haha, love Chesterton's quote--actually, I did start a book of his, long long ago, and ran out of time when I had to return it to the ever-insistent library. It was called "Tales of the Long Bow"--witty, ingenuous, and someday I WILL check it out again to finish it.

      I agree with what you say that sometimes God uses very open and specific language on topics that many of us do not discuss openly today. But I think the difference between the two is that while He is sometimes shockingly open on "mature" information, He is never so with "profane" information. He refers to a lot of obscene sins, but never profane words.

      I absolutely agree here: "However, I do not see that this prevents measured use of the terms in a theologically significant sense." But I shall reserve my points, as I meant to address it in a later article. ;)

      So many good points, ones that I agree on, and ones which I cannot quite see yet. :) But I anticipate, as the series goes on, that my perspective shall be enlarged.

      Excellent input, as always.


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