Some Thoughts on Christian books and Profanity

by Anna Blanch on September 16, 2011

So, I’ve made no bones about my suspicion of  the label “christian books” to describe any books, especially novels; mainly because it speaks to a set of assumptions about a moral code that may or may not be what the book is about or may lead a reader to overstretch and read into a text in a way that strips a narrative of its simplicity or complexity. I’m also cautious about the way authors of “Christian” books are burdened by external pressures to place moral message before their craft. It’s safe to say that this is one of my buttons! I even wrote a post for Transpositions titled Why I don’t just read Christian Books.

I came across this tweet on my twitter feed about how christian books should *never* contain profanity:

Partly because calling something a “christian” book sets off alarms for me and because I was intrigued, we had a little interaction on the topic -

So now I really wanted to know what a “Christian” book actually was.

Yep. that doesn’t help me. I still have no idea what is meant by either ‘christian book’ or ‘profanity’ – but to be honest we haven’t even ventured toward the latter yet!

To write compelling narrative it is often important that the dialogue sound the way people actually speak to each other. Which sometimes means using the language and dialect of those you are characterising. To be frank, I find bad writing more vulgar than the use of profanity sparingly to make a point in a well written book! I don’t make a habit of sprinkling my vocal utterings with profanity or swearing, but plenty of people do. To write certain kinds of characters I would contend that it is necessary.

But, it is also important to remember that I’m wearing my training as a literature scholar and I’ve decided that I should not divorce that from soberly considering how these things affect my fellow Christians. Keiki and I finished our exchange with her sharing a link from her blog.

Her blog post did present another perspective. I respect that for Keiki Hendrix, profanity and reading profanity in novels causes her grief, and scratches her conscience. Her post “Willful Disobedience” has enabled me to understand where she is coming from. However, I would stress that I don’t struggle with finding that reading occasional profanity in novels or hearing it occasionally in films (there are films that i’ve turned off because of their crassness) has not (thanks to God) resulted in it spilling over into my speech. As Lewis once said, “Eunuchs should not speak of the ease with which they avoid adultery.” This, then is not a battle or a struggle I’ve dealt with and one which I should not boast of not having struggled with.

There are lots of books I’d love to suggest to people wanting wonderful literature, who also want to avoid profanity. That’s one advantage of being a scholar of the 18th-early 20th centuries I guess! But, there’s also plenty from the last 100 years and contemporary authors too: Read Solzhenitsyn, Read Doestoevsky, Read Marilynne Robinson. Read G.K Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry. Read Dorothy Sayers!

Read that which is good and holy, true and worthy. Read that which reflects humanity as created by God. Read beautifully crafted, well-written, wonderful writing! There is plenty of good literature without resorting that that marketed as “Christian” simply because it has Christian in the title. Besides, many of the authors I mention are, lo and behold, God-fearing man and women.

What is truly profane to me?

That which profanes the name of Christ.  There are many well-meaning, politely written, politically correct pieces of writing (that do not deserve the label literature) that profane the name of Christ. They are far more offensive to me. But, in so far as the literature scholar in me is concerned, I want well crafted narrative. I want rich characterisation – if that means true to life dialogue, then so be it.

Oh, and I still think the label “christian” book when slapped on fiction is an anathema. It’s either a good book or it’s not. It’s either well-written or it’s not. I will say that  four letter filled dialogue is often lazily written dialogue. If it’s good art, then it reflects the creativity we have as a consequence of being made in the image of a creator God.

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  • http://vesselproject.com Keiki Hendrix

    Anna — Here's my blog post prompted by our twitter conversation… http://vesselproject.com/2011/09/15/profanity-vul

    Your thoughts?

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      I see where you are coming from Keiki, and if a company is claiming to be publishing "christian" books I understand your desire for these black and white standards. It isn't about 'getting over it' – that's not what i'm saying. I'm arguing for a desire to write well! I'm arguing for good books. I'd be interested in a dialogue on these things. If I come to your blog, and say, well, on the basis of the parameters and your expectations of what a "christian" book is then your argument is rational and heart-felt, but i'd like to suggest that this is 'line in the sand thinking' and not 'how do we glorify with our imaginations, our creativity and our minds.'

  • Robb

    I fear “Christian” books in the same way that I fear “Christian” music. People dispense with “music” in favour of “Christian”.

    I’m making a habit of changing the subject on your blog. This is the second day I’ve done it in a row! Bad Robb!!

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      Good Robb….if you're looking to be a rebel here…you might find that you amongst rebels, or at least rouges (according to @vfxhanley )!

  • http://vesselproject.com Keiki Hendrix

    Understood. Line in the sand thinking? Shouldn't there be more of it? Your argument, if I understand it correctly, is a focus on good writing whether by a Christian or not. And, you see to think that marketing a book as a "Christian" book is misleading.

    Your focus in on writing well and not defrauding the public by 'slapping a Christian label' on a book. Do you wish that there were no Christian market? Have you been duped by the reading of a book that was marketed as a Christian book?

    This is exactly my point. In my opinion, there is a need for Christian book market. I want to be able to pick a book up and know that my life will be enriched by reading this novel or non-fiction book and that I run no risk of exposure to profanity, vulgarity and the like. I get enough of this in our culture.

    In the end, I do subscribe to 'line in the sand thinking' as you put it. I feel that allowing the unnecessary elements of profanity, vulgarity, and explicit sex in Christian books has resulted in the views you hold now of mistrust in the Christian book market.

  • http://www.darrenrhill.com Darren

    Great post and really interesting discussion. We've had similar discussions at SU with projects we have done. Our recent internal discussion around our Dark Chapters series, Bible 'horror novels' for teens was interesting http://www.scriptureunion.org.uk/Shop/Booksandres… And going back several years, I commissioned Annie Porthouse's novel Dear Bob (and later the follow up Love Jude). Because of one phrase in the book, which I felt was essential, I had to write a memo to our publishing team entitled 'the arse memo'.

  • http://www.southbounder.blogspot.com bekah

    Exactly

  • http://Beccabyass.blogspot.com Beccabumps

    I go through stages and habits of ‘bad’ language. They don’t correlate with my relationship with God, more the relationships I’m spending most time with. My accent also adjusts (I like to think of it as a sign of empathy).

    I have times when I am very pompously pious about the ‘right’ behaviour and decorum of a Christian person. However, I was ultimately challenged by it when a good friend died at 29. He was one of the most vulgar people I knew, he drank, he smoked, he was lewd. He was also deeply spiritual, outspokenly Christian and played the piano so passionately you couldn’t help but follow him into worship.

    At Jon’s funeral there were 400 people. People who knew him and loved him for all his faults and fruits. Half of them wouldn’t be fiends with ‘normal’ Christians but Jon, in his contextual spirituality, generosity and “ability to make everyone feel like a best friend” took the gospel into the darker, seedier places ad let it shine.

    His best friend had a tattoo circling his upper arm, it simply says “keep me in the light”. For me that echoes in my head when I swear, or tell a rude joke or judge someone harshly. As long as I’m in the light it will show my true colours, lazy four letter expletives or not.

    (Please blame iphone for any mistakes in spelling, grammar or heretical idiologies)

    • http://www.yahoo.com/ Katherine

      I’m quite pleased with the infomrtaion in this one. TY!

  • @tim_hutchings

    Simon Morden gave an interesting talk about this at Greenbelt this year, basically agreeing with what Anna has said. You can find the text of it here, and I think it's worth a read:
    http://www.simonmorden.com/2011/08/31/where-are-w

    Is it worth bearing in mind how shocking and unpleasant the stories in the Bible can be? It seems strange for Christians, of all people, to insist on burying themselves in fluffy clouds of "wholesomeness".

  • http://katdish.net katdish

    I think you need to ask yourself as an author who your audience is. If you want to write a safe book that won't offend anyone, then yes, never use any profanity, never have any of the characters struggle with infidelity, pornography, abuse, addiction or loss of faith. For me, any work of fiction worth reading has redemption as a key component, and there must be some sort of fall from grace in order to move to redemption. Personally, I'm more interested in real characters and believable story lines. If a character says, "Golly-gee" instead of what I would expect to be a more appropriate response in the narrative, you've lost me.

  • http://www.dodifferent.org.uk David Bunce

    Thank you for your post – it was very refreshing! Here's my thoughts on the matter http://www.dodifferent.org.uk/2011/09/18/on-readi… – especially relating reading Christian books to our calling as redeemed human beings.

  • http://michellependergrass.com mich pendergrass

    We could have LONG, LONG talks about this and other things in the "Christian book" area.

  • Pingback: Is Your Church Subcontracting Cultural Discernment?

  • Fatima

    This is way more helpful than anything else I’ve looked at.

  • L. Rocha

    I guess the Bible is NOT a "Christian book" since profanity, whether toned down by translation or not, is in it. Along with many adult themes, sex, violence and nudity. I am a Christian (disciple really) novelist, who believes we should not place limits on God and the way he chooses to reach the lost or minister to brothers and sisters in their walks. Although I choose every word wisely, there are times, just as the Apostle Paul did, that I have chosen to use a word, situation or spirit that exemplifies a particular character or story I am writing. There are times when not doing so can appear false, insincere, shallow and unauthentic. When we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in this way, we must trust him and leave the results in his hands.

  • Courtney Vail

    I agree. In my writing, I feel if I bend over backwards to avoid using the language that I know a character would use because it goes against my moral code, then I’m compromising any spiritual message I’m able to squeak in there. In my novel Kings & Queens, it follows one character’s path to redemption. It isn’t a Christian book, but a similar sentiment applies towards me and my writing from people who know me. They expect me to write in this clean, oober-righteous way, even though my books, for now, are secular, and are shocked when they discover I write in the raw. It’s not gratuitous by any means, just not bleeped out at every turn. I know many Christians will be offended or put off by the handful of swears in there but those people are already heaven-bound, so I don’t really care if they like my books or not. There are hungry, lost, and broken people out there who need that subtle but powerful message of grace.

    Early readers have written me to say they appreciated I didn’t sanitize the sin and instead let it be palpable. In order to SHOW God’s grace and let it speak for itself and have it not come across as me preaching at the reader, then every part of the story had to feel real and unfiltered.

    I have no beef with Christian books, as long as they’re not preachy or fake. I’m more annoyed by a lack of development than anything. Some writers just don’t feel comfortable writing so freely and I respect that. It’s just a difference in the way one writes. I just know for me, I can’t write in that restriction. It feels like author intrusion to me.

    And I hate the misperseption from Christian writers that “using swears is lazy”. I see this statement everywhere and it makes me mad.

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