Ask the Agent: Colorful Language

I’d like to discuss the taboo of cursing in Christian fiction. It seems that many writers and publishers are willing to include rape and murder, but shy away from the occasional well chosen curse word. Personally, I think it can be a great literary tool. I do understand that it is often overdone and that many people are offended by cussing. Yet I tend to think that sexual violence is much more disturbing. Forgive me if this seems naive (I’m still learning), but isn’t it better writing to have a character throw out a foul word than to say, “David cussed?” You know, the whole showing vs telling thing. Why is it ok to push the envelope with violence but not with language in Christian fiction?

Okay, I have to laugh, considering how I was called on the carpet last week for using a curse word on my blog: “cripes.”

If you want to know why Christian publishing still doesn’t allow cursing, look at how I was subtly chastised for using a word that seemed innocent enough to me. (I think it’s obvious I didn’t intend to use the Lord’s name in vain.) Imagine if a Christian book contained a word that was worse… an actual curse word or an actual use of the Lord’s actual name in vain… then multiply it by thousands of readers. Can you imagine the outcry?

Then ask yourself whether any Christian publisher or bookstore wants to deal with that. Do you think they can financially afford to deal with that?


Like my blog commenter who went to the trouble of looking up the history of the word cripes just to confirm that I was wrong to use it, MANY Christian book-buyers would return the book to the store and demand a refund if they found a “well chosen” curse word somewhere in it, no matter how true to the situation it is.

Once again, these restrictions don’t emanate so much from the publishers but from the consumers, sincere good-hearted Christians who don’t want to pollute their minds with bad words. Some editors agree with you about the “well chosen” curse word. But it simply can’t be done without a consequence.

Personally, I’m of two minds about this. One part of me chafes at the seemingly gleeful way in which Christians call each other out in the face of a perceived transgression. That scares me.

But at the same time, I’m also in the camp that believes this restriction forces you to be a better writer. If you’re replacing all your curse words with “he cussed” then you’re probably not being creative enough. And there is something to be said for scriptures like Philippians 4:8, Ephesians 4:7, Ephesians 4:29, Luke 6:43-45, Matthew 15:11, Matthew 12:34, Proverbs 10:31 and many other verses that speak to the idea that as believers, we not only represent Christ but we exhibit what’s in our heart by what comes out of our mouth.

Why do we allow violence but not cursing? Good question. There is a saying amongst CBA writers that you can have your bad guys kill all the innocent people you want—just don’t let them swear while they’re doing it. I think one Christian rationale is that the Bible contains plenty of violence. But Jesus didn’t go around using curse words to make his point.

Thoughts, readers?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Mark Graham on September 29, 2011 at 1:05 PM

    If it fits the scene and character…the cuss word has to happen. It is the only agenda – the only master for the writer. Freedom is required…or it is no longer art. The fact that this is a problem has made the Publishers like the Soviets…you wnat to publish? Do this or that. I get the money reality. But seriously, 99% of the people who complain about this in the book – spend the majority of their lives watching and reading very ugly secular crap. “Christian’ fction is a fantasy term. Just because I am Christian does not make my whole neighborhood a ‘Christian Neighborhood.’ It rains on all the houses down the street no matter who is in them. Just some have hope they won’t be getting struck by lightning. I write what I am told is Crossover fiction in the novel Land Run. And have completed second draft of a thriller. There are some cuss words…mainly, there is never any reason to use the crazy nasty ones. But to avoid altogether for like a scared in danger Christian guy..or mad mafia guy just sin’t possible. Realism, art, and taste are goals and the agenda. Someone needs to create an official ‘crossover’ seciton I guess…PG-13 publishers/readers. Man – see how crazy all this is? And its all about the money. And motivates by a demand of fantasy. I guess I ‘got opinions.’ 😉

  2. Serenity Now! on July 6, 2008 at 11:50 AM

    >I’ve thought about this since I was 7 years old and my grandma told me not to say “jeez” because it was short for “Jesus”.

    I try not to say it, though I have been known to mutter a “Jeez Louise”.



  3. Laurie on July 2, 2008 at 2:39 PM

    >To my mind, Jesus had alot to say a) about cursing, and b) violence against *anybody. He also knew we live in a fallen world. I agree with Timothy above; our audience has an unrealistic view of themselves. I know Christians who won’t read a newspaper or watch the news, so as not to pollute themselves with violence & mayhem. I think we need to decide if we’re writing for Christians, who have certain expectations in their fiction, or are we authors like John Grisham, who uses Christian themes as teacheable points, and who reaches a mass audience. Good writing doesn’t rely on sensationalism. I once had an undercover cop book rejected because the language wasn’t realistic for the criminal underworld. It was meant for the general public, but I refused to put in the language. (they wanted the big 4 letter words) As an ex-cop, I know how foul cops & criminals speak, but it seems to me that character develpment is more important than cheap cursing.To sum up, figure out who you’re writing for, and keep your perspective! 🙂

  4. Timothy Fish on June 29, 2008 at 8:03 AM

    >Here’s something to think about. The trend in writing seems to be to move toward a more realistic view of the world, but when we look back at some of the great authors of the past who wrote about the hardships of the world, such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Douglas Adams, we see a light touch, an idealized view. It is important that our readers be able to identify with our writing. What person, when watching My Fair Lady, identifies with Alfred P. Doolittle? He makes for an entertaining B Plot, but no one really sees himself as a drunk who cusses too much. Instead, people tend to identify with Eliza, who longs for something better, but has no one to show her how to obtain it. (Sounds like a bunch of writers.) Our audience has an unrealistic view of themselves. For us to connect with them, we need to present our story with the same unrealistic view.

  5. Mike Duran on June 28, 2008 at 9:19 AM

    >Discussions like this prove that the term “edgy Christian Fiction” is an oxymoron. Can’t say “cripes” now, huh? Need we say any more about what “safe” fiction looks like?

  6. Anonymous on June 27, 2008 at 12:33 PM


  7. Scott on June 27, 2008 at 10:14 AM

    >I very rarely swear, almost never. But, in my opinion as a fan of words, there are no bad words, just words used badly. A word in and of itself is harmless, but context is everything. Take a harmless group of letters and aim it at somebody in a certain way and the letters suddenly have power.

    As writers, we can use that power to great effect. It’s our duty, in fact, to exploit the power of words. It’s what we do, or should do. If you drop several “f bombs” on every page, they become meaningless. Use one well at a point where it is honest and powerful, and it draws attention and becomes meaningful. I haven’t done that in my writing, but I would, if the story demanded it.

    It’s strange to me that so many strong Anglo-Saxon words with perfectly harmless origins (look them up in the OED sometime–nearly every “bad” word has harmless origins) were outlawed and censored by the Puritans, and we still live with that today when we can look around and see the hypocrisy in it. For example, a certain “c” word was used frequently by Chaucer back when it was spelled with a q, because it was just the normal word for a body part. But then, we’ve become so ashamed of our bodies that we can’t mention bits that we all have (or that roughly half of us have and the other roughly half have something else that’s unmentionable).

    Like him or not, the recently departed word-genius George Carlin did a fantastic job of pointing out the hypocrisy of which words are allowed and which aren’t. But a lot of people don’t or won’t hear the message because they can’t get past the words. That’s OK. Life is hard, and nobody wants to be offended.

    But when it comes down to it, they are words. Groups of letters. Clumps of symbols that represent sounds and that have meaning only because we give them meaning. We made them up. They’re only real because we make them real. But the words themselves are harmless. It’s how they are used by some people that cause the trouble. That’s the fault of the people, not the words.

  8. Rachelle on June 27, 2008 at 7:11 AM

    >To Anonymous who commented at 5:42 AM —

    I rarely delete comments but yes, I deleted yours. Your information was outdated and completely untrue, not to mention a rude insult to many who read my blog. Sorry.

  9. Nicole on June 26, 2008 at 10:40 PM

    >”There are some very good reasons why the CBA market isn’t taken seriously by a lot of folks. This is one of them.”

    “A lot of folks” doesn’t include the publishing industry. Secular publishers buy up Christian publishers and give them new imprints because as a whole, it’s a thriving industry making the big bucks.

    As if using profanity makes literature “serious” or valuable.

  10. Anne L.B. on June 26, 2008 at 9:26 PM

    >Thanks, David Fry, for the excellent follow-up.

    Is a starving child in more pain than a starving soul? Does ministering to one mean we don’t ache for the other?

    If God doesn’t care about profanity, why would He say that we will give an account for every idle word? That a man is not defiled by what goes into him and is eliminated but by the evil that comes out of his heart in his words?

    Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander is not filled with profanity. But the instances of profanity that do appear are the most graphic I’ve ever witnessed, unabashedly directed against God in the strongest possible terms. Reading it did not make me stumble. The heartbreaking story instead gave me compassion for a man violated by religious legalism, starving to know the love of God. It gave me a valuable perspective. Yet the sex and profanity is definitely not appropriate for everyone, and would certainly violate a good many people who might read it. It is a worthwhile read for those with a strong evangelistic heart willing and able to see how dark it can be inside the soul of one unsaved.

    “To the pure, all things are pure”
    and “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

    A rating system might solve a whole lot of problems.

  11. david fry on June 26, 2008 at 9:12 PM

    >Anon 2:39 – You bring up a good point about my response to being “jarred”. At the end of my post I mentioned another story. That story contains baggage of a background that involves significant verbal abuse aimed at me (in my youth). That verbal abuse was then put into written form for emphasis – to make certain I guess that I would not miss the message. Me being a visual guy and all. 🙂

    I developed a knee-jerk reaction to profanity. Sticks and stones and all that … only the words did hurt as a youth at the time.

    I learned during those years that words are extremely powerful!

    Let me repeat that – Words are extremely powerful. When we wield them, we must do so responsibly.

    Now then, when I pick up a book that I’m ‘consuming’ – I have the choice to drop it. So in that sense, if the profanity jars me, or I’m concerned about polluting rather than renewing my mind, it’s easy enough to jettison it.

    You make a crucial point about encountering folks who might make me uncomfortable with their colorful language. I teach at a junior college – I hear everything (and I do mean everything) and I have learned over time to love all my students regardless of their communicative abilities. That was not me. That was the Holy Spirit working through me. Indeed, God has placed me in a mission field and I love how he can put you into an ‘uncomfortable’ environment to teach you love. I’m now a student of his grace. Yes, I’m still uncomfortable but as I tell my students … until you feel uncomfortable, struggle, or experience pain – you are not yet learning. The same goes for the teacher in this case. 🙂

    As to Rebecca’s comment about not being offended … interesting point. I’m thinking though in terms of that which is profane more than offensive. I’m reminded too on the other side of the coin that the gospel is an offense to the world.


  12. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 9:00 PM

    >I don’t think anyone’s carelessly tossing the “legalism” card into this conversation. I think those of us who mention it are doing so out of a (well-founded, biblically sound) fear that if “rules about language” (or anything else) become a measuring stick for faith, we morph the very people Jesus spoke out against during his ministry on earth.

    No one here seems to be saying “go out and swear like sailor, we’ve got grace, people!” What I read in these thoughts is more about bringing a grace-based perspective to something that many Christians (and perhaps the CBA gatekeepers) apparently think was written on those stone tablets Jesus brought down from the mountain. Er…wait…that was Moses.

    Jesus wants us to love God and love our neighbors. Those are the “two commandments that matter most” to him. If we’re doing this well, seeking first God’s kingdom, won’t we then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make good choices about language, writing, relationships and all of life?

    As I seek to know what it means to love God and love my neighbor, I expect I’ll learn a few things along the way about language (and I have). But if I seek to fulfill the law first, I might miss some of what God intends for me…like his grace, for example. Because guess what…no matter how hard I try, I’m not going to fulfill it perfectly.

  13. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 8:18 PM

    >I can’t stand it when the legalistic card gets thrown into a conversation that (to me) seems so clear cut.

    I think the biblical standpoint is don’t swear- not because you can’t but because it’s not glorifying to God.

    I agree with those who said we are christians first- and we are called to live out our faith.

    I think that just because we may have the “freedom” to do something doesn’t mean it’s something that should be done.

    Seriously- no wonder people view christians as hypocritical at times..we choose to swear and curse when we find it appropriate then judge others on if their use is appropriate?


  14. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 7:35 PM

    >There are some very good reasons why the CBA market isn’t taken seriously by a lot of folks. This is one of them.

  15. Kathi Lipp on June 26, 2008 at 7:33 PM

    >Just something funny to add:

    I just got through edits on my marriage book. I talk very openly about sex, lingerie, ect. All of that was kept in the book.

    When I wanted to say thank-you to my “kick-butt” accountability partner – that was a huge no no.

    In some ways (open discussions about sex)we are making real progress. It is so so interesting what can offend the sensibilities. (And my editor told me it purly was becuase of a distribition concern that they “B” (butt) word wouldn’t fly…)

  16. Marla Taviano on June 26, 2008 at 7:33 PM

    >Anybody else have a headache?

  17. Pam Halter on June 26, 2008 at 6:17 PM

    >After reading Anonymous 3:05, I have to say, I’m sticking with my 50-50 opinion on starving children and profanity. Not that I think children starving is a minor subject, quite the opposite, but I can think of worse things than being hungry. I’ve lived worse things than being hungry.

    Sure, I realize starving is way different than simply being hungry, so please don’t get on me for that.

    Anonymous 3:05 mentioned people spiritually starving. So, what’s worse? People going hungry and going to heaven or people going hungry and going to hell?

    And what’s the point of this discussion? It’s whether CBA should publish books with profanity.

    Of course, if it’s profanity you want, just go through the editing process. 🙂

  18. Rachelle on June 26, 2008 at 6:01 PM

    >Thanks, everyone, for all this amazing discussion! I’ve been out in meetings all day and was shocked to get back to the computer and find 30 comments. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions… I love this stuff.

  19. Jennifer AlLee on June 26, 2008 at 5:30 PM

    >To me, the intent behind the words is really important. I used to work for a guy who said the F word all the time. For everything. He might just be saying how beautiful the day was, as in “It’s F-ing beautiful today!” He grew up with that kind of language and that’s how he expressed himself. At the same time, he was one of the nicest, most kind-hearted people I’ve known. And he was the best boss I ever had. Did I like hearing profanity at work? No, not really. But if I spent all my time correcting his language then we never would have gotten to talk about important things, like how cool God is.

    To be honest, I’m more bothered by people taking the Lord’s name in vain. (And NO, I’m not bothered by the use of the words cripes, geez or gosh.) I’ve got a lot of Christian friends who say “Oh my God” as an explative, not because they’re calling out to Him. And that bugs me. Not to say that I’m perfect. I’ve done it before and sometimes I slip up and swear. I dare you to drive in Vegas traffic and at least not want to swear!

    As for writing, I agree that folks buy CBA books expecting certain things, and one of them is a higher standard of language. I don’t think we ever “need” to use profanity in our writing. As so many have already said, there are plenty of other creative, interesting ways to get the point across.

  20. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 5:12 PM

    >First of all, there’s cussing and cursing. I was always taught that cursing (actually damning another person to hell) is sinful. Cussing, using “swear” or “dirty” words,displayed a lack training and weak vocabulary skills.

    Personally I think many of the CBA “Church Ladies” are too insulated for their own good. They live in a pretend world where everyone’s perfect, or at least belongs to a Bible-believing church.

    In certain situations(in a non-CBA manuscript), I’ve added a deliberate use of profanity to make a point…as when a Jr. high school boy says J.C. and his older sister shoves him against a doorway saying, “In this family we do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

    It’s hard to imagine a character like the Godfather becoming upset and saying, “Aw, Shucks!” or “Gosh darn it!”

    That said, I can’t recall John Grisham using profanities. So maybe my mother was right, it IS the sign of a lazy mind.

  21. David A. Todd on June 26, 2008 at 4:42 PM

    >I don’t use curse words (mild or otherwise), and I read enough of them in general market stuff I sure don’t want to read them in Christian books.

  22. Ariel Allison Lawhon on June 26, 2008 at 4:34 PM

    >Thank you Rachelle for tackling my question (I’m the one who tossed it out there). I love your blog and read it daily. And thank you fellow commentors for giving your thoughts as well.

    When I asked the question I’d just finished reading The Kite Runner – a book that had murder, rape, and profanity. I loved the book, as did the many people that recommended it to me. It was hailed as redemptive and beautiful. And yes I realize it was not written for the Christian market, but many thousands of Christians did read it. I would agree that it was redemptive, which is something all Christian writers strive for. I thought it was interesting how a book that was hard and harsh and perhaps to some, offensive, could also illustrate redemption is such a beautiful way. Khaled Houseni didn’t pull any punches in that novel. Could his novel have been written without some of those elements? I’m sure it could have. Would it still have struck such a nerve? I don’t know.

    It just got me thinking about the power of words – for good and evil – and what is acceptable as Christian readers/writers. We read many things that we wouldn’t write. I understand both sides of the debate and respect both viewpoints. I actually wasn’t aware that the topic has been discussed to death (having three children five and under has kept me out of the loop for a while), so thanks for bearing with me as I try to gain a little insight.

  23. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 4:05 PM

    >If you write primarily for the non-believing world – follow the ABA market; If you write to encourage fellow believers, write for the CBA. Most certainly non-believers will read books from Christian publishers, and vice versa, but the bigger picture is that is how the market is fundamentally laid out.

    Raffi – you’ve only touched the tip of the ice berg. Walk into any Christian book store and witness the plethora of ‘christian’ toys, music, books, figurines, t-shirts…Now stop and think of the people who hunger not only physically, but spiritually. How many Bibles do you own? How many in the world are without even one copy of The Word of God in their own language, or any language for that matter…

    So, with all that, should you not write novels to fill already full bookshelves? I’m thankful God uses all of us in different ways!

    We are all called by God to serve Him in whatever small corner of the world we fit in. At its most singular level, that usually means doing whatever is at hand to do, serving in whatever way God has given us a passion for, and ‘doing it heartily for the Lord’. We are ‘in’ the world – not ‘of’ it. I don’t think that means we try to ‘sanitize’ anything – just that we try to live like God wants us to live. While we reach out to embrace and love those who are in the world, we don’t want to embrace their actions, especially not to somehow fit in or help them feel comfortable around the gospel – God’s message is distinctly UN-comfortable. It is only His Word that changes lives – we are privileged to serve as His messenger – vessel, if you will, of His love, grace, and mercy.

  24. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 3:39 PM

    >David, I appreciate your thoughts here. And while I agree with the need to choose wisely what we fill our minds with, I am troubled just a bit by the fact that when you ran into some profanity in the novel you were reading “it jarred [you] right out of the story. At that point, [you were] done.”

    How do you respond when profanity is used in everyday life by those around you? Are you jarred by that to the point where you want to escape the conversation? I know I’m reaching a bit here – but it’s to make a point: if we’re so jarred by language that we recoil from it, how will those who we are to minister to respond to our apparent or obvious discomfort with them?

    Now I’m not advocating the rabid pursuit of books peppered with profanity as a means to “prepare us” for real life conversations…I’m just suggesting that we might benefit from learning how to move beyond the “recoil” in our reading, and, instead, seek to understand the whole story, the deeper issues the author is attempting to present, just as we ought to do the same in our relationships. (This is not the same as stamping the “acceptable” label on profanity, by the way. Its just another example of learning to be in the world and not of it.)

  25. Rebecca LuElla Miller on June 26, 2008 at 3:35 PM

    >Words matter to writers, so this discussion has merit, though I get anoyed from time to time because it just won’t go away. Here are my thoughts in a fairly random order.

    1) Non-Christians have expectations of Christians when it comes to language. I had that brought home to me by one of the editors of the newspaper I string for when he found out I was going to a Christian writers’ conference. His response? Guys, we better watch our language.

    2) Christians should NOT be offended at bad language. We should be sad and sorry that people around us don’t know Jesus Christ and are heading toward Hell. Our attitude toward those who spew bad language is much like the priest, then the Levite who passed the mugging victim instead of helping him as the Samaritan did.

    3) We writers of all people need to educate others that stories stripped of bad language do not automatically make them “safe.” I ranted on that theme for six days on my blog. When did we hand the job of discernment over to those behind certain publishing imprints?

    4) That being said, I personally prefer to read books without bad language because I also end up thinking the words I read.

    5) As far as the CBA is concerned, writers need to pay attention to guidelines all the time. Why is it so egregious for writers to follow a guideline that doesn’t allow for profanity or vulgar language?

    6. Oddly enough, some of the best general market writing was done when profanity was considered taboo there too. Yet those writers managed, not only to be real but universal and timeless.

    7. Could it be we just don’t try hard enough?


  26. Raffi Shahinian on June 26, 2008 at 3:11 PM

    >Thanks for the honesty, Pam. While I hate to single anyone out to press a point, I think this one’s a big one.

    Is there something very, very, very wrong here when an obviously sincere Christian, devoted to children, can utter a statement like “I hate the fact that children are starving and when people drop the F bomb equally?”

    Look, I don’t want my Christian fare littered with cursing any more than the next guy. But whoever or whatever has convinced our culture that cursing is on par with one starving child…oh, it just hurts too much to continue.

    Grace and Peace,

  27. david fry on June 26, 2008 at 3:10 PM

    >When it comes to these kinds of discussions, I’m reminded that first and foremost I’m a follower of Christ which trumps being an author. If I lose sight of that, I’m a banging gong or worse, a stumbling stone.

    I’m grateful then for scriptures such as Philippians 4:8-9 because those words provide a guardrail if you will. (paraphrased – whatever is honorable, noble, pure, lovely, commendable, worthy of praise – think on these things). Profanity does not fit into any of those categories. Easy enough. Indeed, look up the definition of profane.

    We’re given another set of guardrails in Romans 14:13-23 and in this case on the issue of stumbling blocks. To me, profanity is unclean and it grieves me to hear it or read it. Therefore, to me it is sin. I wonder if as author’s we ignore this at our own peril. There’s a reason (beyond legalism) that some things pack a powerful response. If we’re truly indwelt with the Holy Spirit – I daresay that that which is Holy will by its vary nature recoil from that which is unclean or profane. It’s a war folks. Expect an explosive response.

    Another guardrail example:
    As recorded in Matthew 7:13, the end result of the wide and easy way is clear.

    Then in Matthew 7:14 we are told that the narrow and difficult, [or hard way] is the way to life.

    To me, profanity is the easy way. And I’ll be blunt. It is poison. Having it in written form seems only to magnify its reach.

    I’m content then to rise to the challenge and write story in what may be the “hard” way. My conscience will remain clean, secure in showing love to my fellow Christians by avoiding putting a stumbling stone in their path. And showing light to the world by remaining holy (set apart). And yes, invite the world’s criticism, mocking, etc. But did not our Lord tell us this is the way it would be and to rejoice in it?

    Be an excellent author, take the hard way!

    I think Richard’s examples are instrumental in that regard. And a nod to Timothy regarding reactions. I picked up a couple of ABA authors recently (really good novels actually) but hit some profanity and it jarred me right out of the story. At that point, I was done. I have no desire to pollute my mind. I struggle enough already with past poison. Indeed, that is a story all its own from my grade school years but I’ve leaked enough virtual ink for one day.

    I must guard my heart and have love for my fellow brother and sister in Christ to want to guard them from stumbling, insofar as I can, with the words I send their way.

    Simple principle to live by but not necessarily easy to do. But that is the command of the Lord I hold allegiance to. He’s given all of us a helper in the Holy Spirit to bravely endure the Hard Way.

  28. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 3:04 PM

    >Swearing is hardly acceptable in the world – look at how tv is censored etc..why as christians would be want to swear? What is the benefit? What do it if its not neccessary?

  29. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 1:45 PM

    >Thank you Mark, for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re right on target with this.

    I was raised in a loving Christian family where there just wasn’t any hint of “cussing” to be found. I chose to adopt that approach in my own life. But over time, that anti-profanity mindset quietly stoked the pharisaical aspects of a latent legalism. It’s far too easy to slide into an “I’m better than you because my language is ‘Safe for the whole family'” attitude when you definitively segregate language into “right” and “wrong” (aka: “good” and “bad”).

    The bottom line for me today is the same one Mark noted above: Love one another. Does that mean we should be careless with our language? Hell no. (Don’t get your knickers in a twist…that “hell no” was offered as a moment of ironic levity. Or was it?)

    Here’s the thing about language when it comes to writing – EVERY word ought to be considered carefully. If we aren’t “well-choosing” the words we pour into our books, it won’t matter to anyone that our book is “profanity free” because it will also quite likely be “quality free.”

    Now…about the CBA…

    The CBA publishing world is a sub-culture that caters primarily to its own, so a “sanitized” approach to publishing makes sense. After all, why ruffle the feathers of the book-buyers? As has already been noted, that sanitization process seems to focus on some areas more than others, effectively making those focused-on areas larger than life to writers. I mean…why are we having this discussion at all?

    We’re having it because the world we live in doesn’t match the world as seen through those sanitization filters. This is something we know because we still live in the world.

    Books from Christian publishers (for the most part, though Nicole is right that some authors and publishers are pushing the envelope) present a world-view that, while familiar to Christians (and idealized by many of them), is still anywhere from “just a little unrecognizable” to “who are these people and what planet do they come from?” to non-believers.

    So here’s the bottom line when it comes to your book. If you don’t mind that you have to adhere to language (and content) restrictions (in order to reach the most conservative book buyers – the ones who offer their dissent using voices much louder than their numbers would warrant), go ahead and pursue your publishing dream in the CBA.

    If the above makes you squirm, just write your book and chase the ABA publishing world without apology.

  30. Pam Halter on June 26, 2008 at 12:18 PM

    >To be honest, it’s about 50-50 for me, Raffi. I hate that people are starving and I hate when people drop the F bomb.

    For my writing, well, I write for kids, so profanity is waaaay off limits for me. But I’m having fun with my antagonist saying things like, “Bloodworms and fireweed! Who put the chairs on top of the table?” OR “Curses, curses, curses! Those vile, disgusting goblins will feel my wrath!”

    I get the message across that she is mean and hateful without writing anything offending.

  31. Nicole on June 26, 2008 at 12:17 PM

    >It’s interesting that the “sanitization” of Christian (CBA) literature only flares when the subject of cussing/cursing is mentioned. There are only certain imprints which can truly be classified under “sanitized”, and they make their submission rules clear.
    Child rape, murder, racism, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, drug/alcohol addiction/use, smoking, cussing/cursing without specific word use, etc. are all found in CBA novels. As part of life. Without judgment. Part of the story and lives of the characters.
    So the author chooses to leave out the f-word or s-word or damn (which I have read)–so what? You can’t imply it?
    Those who use “sanitized” in reference to current CBA fiction haven’t read much of it.

  32. Raffi Shahinian on June 26, 2008 at 11:51 AM

    >For those who did not necessarily have ears to hear in this case, the purpose of the 20,000 children dying of hunger and most Christians not giving a f#$% statement was not to raise awareness about global poverty. It was to guage which part of the sentence was more offensive as you read it.

    So…which part? Be honest.

    Grace and Peace,

  33. Mark Adair on June 26, 2008 at 11:34 AM

    >I’m going to wear this one on my sleeve. This whole discussion irritates me to the point of cussing, seriously. People in the real world (i.e. non-sanitized, imaginary christian version) use colorful language including cussing – christians and non-christians alike. People in the real world divorce, abuse, lie, kill, etc. – christians and non-christians. To me the argument runs much deeper than the superficial “can we” “can’t we” legalistic discussion. Are we or are we not able to paint a picture based on the reality we live in – good and bad? Are we building a bridge over to those who live in despair, hurt, and anxiety (christians and non-christians), or are we making sure no one can cross over and dirty our sanitized (on the outside) existence.

    The sanitization of works by the CBA world reeks of pharisaical attitudes. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees dedicated themselves to developing their own sub-culture and then defending it with scripture. They insisted on perfection, a white-washed tomb perfection. Nothing infuriated Jesus more than that, more than them. He did not come to setup another sanitized culture; He came to establish another kingdom – a kingdom of love and redemption, unafraid to meet each person in their eating-with-the-pigs lifestyle. He came to hang out with people who need Him – people whose language wouldn’t be allowed in the CBA publishing paradigm; people whose transparency in word and deed drew Him to them. People who desperately need Him. People like you and me.

    Just to be clear, this discussion has nothing to do with whether Jesus would use this word or that. How ridiculous would it be if all our characters were Jesus? A better question might be: what kind of language did Jesus hear when he hung out with the sinners, bridging the gap? Our characters are regular people like the high school dropout who serves you at the restaurant to support his meth addiction, and the atheist who lives next door who does more to love his neighbors than we do because he’s not afraid to pollute himself with their language, their struggles, and their messes.

    There’s only one fruit that Jesus says show that we belong to Him – that we love one another. I believe language sanitization to be an artificial (and insulting) process we’ve instituted to keep ourselves from getting dirty. It’s part of our trying to keep the world with all its ugliness, depravity, and deep wounding as far away as possible. I prefer the simpler evaluative process. Will the work impact someone’s life, bridge the gap? Are there glimpses of the Creator, His love, and His beauty? If you are a christian, then I promise you both are true. If it meets those simple tests, then the work should be considered for publication (assuming quality writing, etc.).

    Having said all that, I do realize that different folks have different freedoms, and we need to be sensitive to that. Also, the CBA has established a sanitized personality that creates huge expectations about what will be published and what will not – a safety zone of sorts. So, here’s something I’ve suggested in the past: create a rating system similar to MPAA’s that would establish guidelines for books, informing readers of possible issues for them. Another possibility would be to create separate imprints for Christian publishers that allow for more realistic depictions of the ashes of life. In between now and then, I encourage all of us to stop acting like grade school hall monitors, and get our hands dirty bridging the gap to our neighbor and loving them – it’s what the Father is doing.

  34. Lea Ann on June 26, 2008 at 11:08 AM

    >Since we all have a soapbox, I’ll hop on mine for a moment.

    I think people buy CBA books for a reason. There are plenty of wonderful books in the secular market, so why does CBA exist? Because Christians want to read and be entertained, challenged, etc. without being offended by the filth and worldly focus of most of the secular books. Foul language falls into the category of offensive. Scripture instructs us to keep our speech “seasoned with salt.”

    Jesus is the only one who can damn anyone to Hell, therefore it is arrogant and impertinent for a human being to use that word. Reading it or hearing it can be jarring for someone whose goal is to keep thoughts and mind clean. Especially when they’ve bought this CBA book for that purpose.

    Taking the Lord’s name in vain is offensive. If it’s not, it should be! No matter if your character would use it,there are creative ways to avoid being a party to foul speech, as Richard demonstrated.

    Describing graphic violence is, in my opinion, not a parallel issue. Scripture describes many violent scenes. Description is for the purpose of conveying truth, allowing the reader to get the whole picture. But if that description moves into the area of purient interest–bringing up mental pictures that cause the reader to sin or cheer for the bad guy–then it too is not God-honoring. God warns us not to cause our brother to sin.

    As writers, we hold a powerful tool. That of controlling the mind and imagination of our readers, and we should write every word with that responsibilty ever before us.

  35. Nicole on June 26, 2008 at 9:59 AM

    >There’s an odd parallel here. I’m probably the only one who sees it. Yes, children are starving, being raped, sold for sex slaves, abused in every way. Adults in various places around the world are likewise suffering. And some Christian writers are asking questions about pushing the envelope with cuss/curse words because doing so embodies “real life” just as the more “acceptable” acts of violence in fiction do.

    The “heart” of the matters is all that is truly important. What individual Christians are praying for, headed to the mission fields for, or sending their offerings to for assistance in these ugly circumstances will not cease, and who can say about any of us: “they” don’t seem to care? The world is in the last days, and these horrors have existed since sin entered and produced this “cursed” world.

    Writers who believe what comes out of our mouths or through our pens is insignificant are missing the “heart” of the matter. Some of the permissable things are not profitable. We do come out of the world when we are born again. Our whole being is made new.

    Having said all that, the matter is decided between the writer and the Lord. It really isn’t about ABA or CBA for a Christian. JMO

  36. Rosslyn Elliott on June 26, 2008 at 9:45 AM

    >A definition: what we are calling “cursing” is actually divided into two categories. Only the word “d*mn” is technically cursing, and then only if it is applied to a person, as in “D*mn you.” The rest of the forbidden words are profanity, not cursing.

    Because people have so many different opinions on whether profanity/cursing is wrong in God’s eyes, they may tend to post here based on their opinions about profanity rather than the more specific question of profanity in Christian writing.

    Christian readers like Kathleen who find written profanity/cursing lingering in their minds may wish to avoid material that contains profanity. They take seriously and literally Matthew 15:11, to which Rachelle referred: “It’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth.” There are many, many readers who share Kathleen’s beliefs. And it’s certainly within the rights of publishers to market to the largest audience possible by eliminating explicit profanity and cursing.

    I also agree with Rachelle that profanity limits expressiveness. While I share Raffi’s sentiment about ignoring starvation, his use of profanity may feel to some readers like an “assault” of words, which may turn them away from the worthy cause. Instead, one get more precise about one’s meaning:

    Today 20,000 people, mostly children, will die of hunger around the world. Yet most of us Christians still buy Starbucks at $3 a cup, purchase large quantities of brand-name toys for our children, eat out twice a week, and dress in clothing that must look brand-new.

    Doesn’t that speak to more people in a more convincing way? I know that even writing it reminds me of my own faults much more than the phrase “don’t give a f*7%.”

  37. Karen Witemeyer on June 26, 2008 at 9:21 AM

    >Yes, I agree that Christians should be about the business of building each other up instead of tearing each other down, and there are larger issues in this world to which Christians should dedicate their energy. However, Christians are called to be HOLY in ALL they do–whether it be writing a blog comment, feeding the hungry, or crafting a novel.

    As 1 Timothy 4:12 says, we set our example in speech (what we say and how we say it), in life (what we do), in love (how we do it), in faith (who we do it for), and in purity (the motive behind the action). Our speech, whether written or spoken, has a powerful impact on others and reflects on the Lord we represent. I don’t know about you, but I want my language to bring glory to him in all spectrums.

    I really appreciate what Timothy Fish had to say in his post. (I’ve got a Timothy theme going here. LOL) Because Christian fiction has a reputation for being free of curse words, even if you have a villain who would have no qualms letting the words fly, the response in the reader would not be: “Hey, great characterization. I can see the evil oozing from this guy.” It’s more likely to be: Gasp. “I can’t believe he used that word.”

    CBA has built an expectation in its readership. To betray that expectation, draws the reader out of the story faster than anything. As writers, that is the last thing we want to do. For any reason.

    I read both general market and CBA. I’m used to glossing over language in the general market books and it doesn’t jerk me out of the story unless the language become much uglier than usual. However, if I read something I don’t expect to see in a CBA novel, it gets my attention in an instant, and for a moment the story is forgotten.

    It is all about reader expectations.

  38. JC on June 26, 2008 at 8:58 AM

    >According to England’s King James, Jesus was always cursing out the Pharisees (isn’t that ironic — God cursing the hypocritical clergy of his day who were so quick and gleeful to pounce on the smallest transgression of the common people).

    So this poses a very interesting question. If one were writing a novel about the gospels, if Jesus says “Damn you hypocirtes and brood of vipers!” the CBA would insist it be changed? Or would it be all right if He was the only one who “cursed” in the book?

  39. Kathleen on June 26, 2008 at 8:57 AM

    >I think that there’s a very, very fine line that we walk.

    When an author includes a curse word in a book, it enters our brains. I think of one beloved author. She’s absolutely fantastic, and the morals/themes in her books – and the way she portrays romance – are what I consider godly. Yet, her characters frequently “give a d*#*.” To me, this is much less of an issue than an ungodly portrayal of romance, so it doesn’t keep me from loving her books. Yet I have to admit that sometimes, if I haven’t filtered it out well enough while reading, that word pops into my mind with an alarming frequency for a day or two after I’ve read one of her books. That doesn’t happen when I read a book that merely said that the character cursed.

    I actually don’t think it’s any different with murder and other evil actions. We live in a world that has evil all around us, so our books often include these aspects of life. Yet there are two ways that they are included in the story. On one side are the authors who use it to sell… who glorify and sensationalize it, working to truly mark their readers with the horror of what happened. Then there are others who can include the evil-est of evil, yet NOT glorify it. (This particular author I mentioned is excellent at this, BTW.) For me, as a reader, if the horror of a scene sticks with me for days afterwards, then it’s too much.

    That said… I have to say that I also realize that different Christians have different sensitivities to these things. A Christian who grew up on the streets and only found Jesus after years of horror isn’t going to be bothered by the same things that bother me. Why? Because they’ve already got worse scenes in their memory. So I think that the line will be different for different authors and different readers, and that’s okay.

  40. A Noni Mouse on June 26, 2008 at 8:36 AM

    >This kind of debate is possibly what Christ referred to in Matt 23:24

    “You blind guides! You filter out a gnat, yet swallow a camel!”

    I am in agreement with Raffi. While Christians sit around debating the use of a word here, or the private practices of a Bishop there, the world is going to H— in a handbasket and many of them would seem not to care.

    Still, there is always the option of not writing for CBA.

    Rachelle, I am fearful, too of the quick and gleeful way some christians (lower case intentional) will pounce on the smallest transgression

  41. Anonymous on June 26, 2008 at 8:32 AM

    >Oh my goodness, Rachelle! That wasn’t another Christian criticizing you for using the “c” word! That was only a Catholic.

  42. Kat Harris on June 26, 2008 at 8:04 AM

    >Raffi: Amen.

    Richard: I can’t wait to read more of your stuff, and I think you’re right. There are ways — you’ve demonstrated two excellent ones — to write around expletives.

    Rachelle: I know it probably shouldn’t, but the “cripes” thing cracks me up. If a word like “cripes” gets someone into trouble, then we all need to wash our mouths out for saying “geez” because of its origin, too.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for devoting time every day (or night — whatever) to this blog. I’ve learned so much about writing here and where my mss belongs. Even though my mss clearly does not belong in the CBA, you’ve provided a really comfortable place for fellowship among writers with similar beliefs.

    That’s priceless. Keep up the awesome work.

  43. Catherine West on June 26, 2008 at 7:55 AM

    >Hey, do we know for sure that Jesus never cursed? Maybe the Bible underwent the same form of scrutiny CBA seems to give, and over the years those words were taken out… Okay, Kidding, don’t anybody have a heart attack. Sheesh. Oops.
    For me, Raffi hits it.
    Famine abounds, wars rage, children are dying while we drive around in cars that cost more to fill with gas than it would to feed their entire village.
    And we’re debating semantics.
    There is something inherently wrong with this picture.
    However, I think the whole cursing thing has been talked to death. I don’t see that CBA will change their position anytime soon. If you can’t live with it, don’t write for them.
    And for the record, I do give a &*$^!!

  44. Richard Mabry on June 26, 2008 at 7:19 AM

    >If a writer is limited to “he cursed,” they need to expand their horizons. There are a number of ways to convey the idea without using the actual words. Try, “The expletives split the air like a lightning bolt,” or “He spat the words so violently that (the hero) recoiled from the stench of garlic.”

  45. Anne L.B. on June 26, 2008 at 6:28 AM

    >P.S. from the New Testament about cursing for profit:

    These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. (2 Peter 2:17-18 NKJV)

  46. Anne L.B. on June 26, 2008 at 5:58 AM

    >I might write about rape, murder, drunkenness and cursing in my writing, but I’m not actually doing any of the above — unless I use the actual curse words.

    Instead of using the Google search engine, I used my Bible search for every form of the word curse. The two examples I found of cursing in the Lord’s name involved an individual stoned for it (Lev 24:11-15), and Elisha prounouncing a curse in the Lord’s name that resulted in the two bears killing those who reviled worshipping the Lord (2K 2:24). The Bible describes only that someone cursed in numerous instances. When the curse itself is quoted, the curse is spelled out with everyday words rather than using a word which is defined only as an expletive in the original language, a classic example of creativity in language. I would not think to criticize the Writer’s style.

    As far as Jesus using the word “raca” in the Matthew 5:22 instance, the word means “empty, worthless, foolish.” The Bible itself describes people this way at times (Jdg 9:4; ; 2Ch 13:7; Pro 12:11; Pro 28:19). When Michal described David this way for his exuberant worship (2Sa 6:20), her curse was to remain barren.

    Which is a good warning to use restraint before too quickly criticizing another believer who just may be about the Lord’s work!

  47. Timothy Fish on June 26, 2008 at 5:34 AM

    >I work with people who do not attend church. They make choices that I wouldn’t, including the use of some words, but I have noticed that even they are very selective about which words they use and when they use them. Shouldn’t Christians hold our selves to a higher standard than the world?

    There seems to be two types of cussing. One type is as bywords. People say a word, but it has no purpose. Listeners usually ignore this type of speech and don’t notice when it is left out, so it would hurt nothing to leave it out of our writing. The other type is always meant to offend. The word is slung like a rock aimed at a person’s head. It is intended to make the listener angry or uncomfortable and it almost always does. When this type of language is included in novels, it is difficult to control the reaction of the reader. Rather than reacting to the situation described in the book, the reader is reacting to the offensive word. Good writing guides the reader to the correct reaction. Offensive language hinders that.

  48. Raffi Shahinian on June 26, 2008 at 2:21 AM

    >I don’t think God is concerned very much about curse words. I believe He is very much concerned about the anger in our hearts that brings about those words and which works to block out the presence of His spirit that, at that very moment, is nudging us to love the person at whom we are instead cursing. Unless my exegesis is completely off, isn’t that exactly what Jesus was saying in Mat. 5:21-22?

    Today, 20,000 people, mostly children, will die of hunger around the world, and most of us Christians don’t give a f@#%.

    If you have ears, then hear.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World