Portrayal vs Inclusion: Why Cuss Words Have No Place in Christian Fiction
At first glance, that title is no doubt shocking. Geez, it shocks me, and I’m the one who wrote it! I never thought the day would come that I would have to do a post (or so much as formulate an opinion on) swearing in Christian fiction, but here it is. Here I am.
Before we begin with my extremely offensive and opinionated rant discussion, I want to offer up a warning and perhaps even an apology in advance. I don’t mean to step on any toes, disrespect anyone at all, or hurt your feelings. You may disagree with anything or everything I have to say, or you may wholeheartedly agree. With that said, you may state your opinions in the comments (preferably with no colorful language) or even argue your point-of-view. I won’t be swayed ever, but I am a strong advocate for free speech (but not hate speech, so, again, let’s at least be civil), so you may indeed speak freely.
Anyway, back to what I was saying. As I have become more immersed in the community of Christian writers, I have noticed a shift, I suppose you could call it. Perhaps even a divide. There are good Christian authors who put cuss words in their books—maybe only one or two, and nothing so bad as the f-word—but they are still there. There are others who argue (well, perhaps not argue, per se) that, if you so desire, you can include a conservative sprinkling of colorful language in your dialogue. It’s all a part of accurate and authentic portrayal, after all, and most everyone (including me) is all for authenticity.
I mean no disrespect, like I said, because these writers are my friends. I love their writing and I respect their decisions (to a degree). I appreciate the fact that they can search things out for themselves, formulate opinions, and act upon them. In some areas, that shows a lot of courage; in others, it appears weak.
But that’s not what I want to focus on—the people who do or don’t use cuss words, the theology they present to permit them, what I think of them.
I want to get straight to the root: why cuss words have not, cannot, and will not ever have a place in Christian fiction.
There. I said it. Shoot me down for my honesty, if you will, but I have substantial evidence supporting this claim.
Portrayal vs Inclusion
I’m a dark writer. I know it. You (if you’ve hung around me long enough or ever read my books) know it. God knows it. It’s basically common knowledge by now. I am all about accuracy, authenticity, and portraying evil and darkness.
Need I define it? For example, my current WIP (Bound and Determined) deals with rape, miscarriage, prostitution, slavery, death, murder, piracy, and more. Explicitly. And I am wholly unashamed of that fact (obviously, I just told you). Why?
Because I am only portraying the evil that is vanquished by good—by God. I cannot write a story of light, life, and hope if there is no darkness, death, and despair—now can I? (Seriously. Correct me if I’m wrong.) To truly let God shine, I have to portray this world as it is—fallen and sinful, shrouded by darkness and ruled by evil.
Therefore, my characters are pirates and murderers, prostitutes and slaves, controlled or tempted by Satan time and again. In no uncertain terms do I address these issues—they steal, they kill, they live immorally.
All in the name of portrayal.
But there is a flip side to portrayal—something I like to call Inclusion. Maybe you’ve heard of it; it’s a close relative of Acceptance.
Google defines portrayal as “a depiction of someone or something in a work of art or literature,” “a description of someone or something in a particular way; a representation,” or “an instance of an actor playing a part in a movie or play; a performance.” The root word, portray, comes from the old French word portraire, which meant “to draw, to paint.”
Inclusion, on the other hand, is defined as “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” In layman’s terms, the incorporation of one element into a larger whole. Include comes from the Latin includere, meaning “to shut in, imprison.” (Which brings up the argument of how inclusion is actually no better than exclusion, but that’s a topic for another day.)
To get right to the point, portrayal means to give a representation of something, and in literature that can mean anything from symbolization to insinuation to using one phrase to represent another. Meanwhile, inclusion means to actually put something within the whole work.
Do you see where I’m getting at? Portrayal doesn’t mean cuss words or explicitness. When we use swear words or write gratuitously, we are no longer portraying anything—using a phrase like “he cursed” to portray or represent the actual cuss word or act of swearing—we are including it.
Therefore, we are confining ourselves within the same prison the secular world is in.
We should always strive to portray things accurately—no matter what they are. But that doesn’t mean we should or have to include them, accept them, or support them.
Real portrayal means “he swore, “they made love,” or “she passed away” in the place of cuss words, explicit sex scenes, and blood and gore.
We can accurately portray evil without including it or accepting it.
And why should we avoid including or accepting evil?
Well, because God tells us to!
Whatsoever Things Are Pure
Paul says in Philippians 4 verse 8 “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
For writers, that means whatever is good, righteous, pure, and acceptable should be what we write. Why? Because we are vessels of the Holy Spirit, children of God, and witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We aren’t meant to look like the world, talk like the world, or write like the world.
We are to be virtuous and pure. Our writing is to be virtuous and pure.
Cuss words are not pure. Cuss words are not virtuous. Cuss words do nothing good to anyone at all, and can only cause detriment and harm.
Regardless of your intentions, those swear words will stick and they’ll cause harm. They’ll hurt people—even if the only people reading them are adults with common sense. Those words seep into your soul and eventually they come out. They’ll come out in an argument. They’ll come out in front of your kids. They’ll come out and hurt someone’s feelings. They’ll come out and damn a person to hell.
How? Because our words have POWER. As writers, they have power. And as speakers they have even more power.
Proverbs 18:21 says “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”
This isn’t just figurative, guys. This is literal. I know that probably seems crazy to you, but I’m a crazy person and our faith is a crazy faith and our God looks crazy to the outside world. Solomon is warning us that what we say not only affects a person’s mind—it affects their soul and spirit. If Jesus can say to Lazarus “Come out!” and the dead man being to breathe, or if He can tell us to speak to mountains and watch them move, then surely we, equipped with His Holy Spirit, can do the same as Christ and His Apostles did.
Our words can command angel armies. Our prayers can move the hand of God. Our books can touch the hearts of millions.
Or one cuss word can ruin a life. I’m serious. What are you saying when you use the d-word? So what if you’re directing it to a broken dish on the floor. Someone’s going to hear it or read it and before long, they’ll be saying it to their spouse or their child—and the affect will be lasting, in multiple ways. Trust me—I know how this works. I’m not afraid to say I’ve cussed before, and I know it was all caused by hearing too many cuss words and soaking it in.
What did Jesus say about speaking evil? In Matthew 15, he said “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” A few verses later, he expounds: “Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defileth a man” (Matt. 15.11, 17-20).
No matter your intentions, cuss words are harmful to souls. And guess what—you don’t need to have any part in that! You can choose to shun evil and embrace goodness. You can choose to portray rather than include!
I think Paul gave us another good reason why when he said “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10.31).
In the Gracie the Author (GTA) translation: “So, whether you’re writing a sweet contemporary romance, a high-stakes murder mystery, or an epic fantasy, write it for God. He gave you the talent and the passion to write, so use it for Him. Bring glory and honor to Him. Do cuss words make God look good? No—so don’t write them. Do stories of grace and redemption from the darkest place make our merciful, loving God look good? Yep—so write them!
“We were meant for one thing and one thing only: to bring glory to God. Don’t ever think anything contrary to that, because this life is not yours. You didn’t make yourself and you sure didn’t give yourself a purpose. God did. So live for Him and fulfill His call on your life.”
(When I translate things, they end up much longer than the original. I think it’s supposed to be the other way around.)
In the end, I think the best way to look at your story is with this simple question: WWJR? Much like the ever-popular “What would Jesus do,” writers (and readers) should ask themselves “What would Jesus read?”
If Jesus Christ were to pick up your book and read it, would He be proud of you for including Him? Would He smile at your character’s conversion scene? Would He laugh when the darkness lost?
Or would He be disappointed? Would you be too ashamed to even show Him? Would He shake His head and sigh at the cuss words—the language of Hell—present? Would He slam the book shut at the gratuitous scenes?
Think about it. The question isn’t whether or not your grandma or your seven-year-old should read it—it’s whether or not God would.
I’ve asked myself this question, and I know what the answer is.
He would. He would read it and He would be proud. That may sound presumption, but it has nothing to do with me, I assure you. He would be proud because, when His eyes caressed the pages, He would see His words written upon them. He would feel His Spirit moving within them. He would know He wrote them and He would remember the exact moment He took control of my fingers and started writing for me.
Would Jesus be proud of you?