Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blue Language

I've been following an interesting discussions about swearing/cursing/cussing/bad words in Christian fiction.

From what I understand, profanity is not allowed in novels published by Christian publishing houses, even if they're found in dialogue spoken by non-Christian bad guys.

From literary agent Rachelle Gardner's blog, a question from a writer:

"It seems that many writers and publishers are willing to include rape and murder, but shy away from the occasional well chosen curse word. . . . 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. . . . Why is it ok to push the envelope with violence but not with language in Christian fiction?"

Good question!

The first part of Rachelle's response is solid: the market won't bear it. Many, many people will call the publisher to complain, take their books back to the store, etc. The interesting part (to me!) is this last paragraph:

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.

I don't really get this part. First, I'd point out that definitions of the idea of "cursing," not to mention specific words included in that category, definitely change over time. (Doesn't Jesus curse at the Pharisees?) And most of us aren't speaking Time-of-Jesus Aramaic with period-appropriate context, so we're relying on others' translations of specific curses. Since we're talking specific language, here, rather than intent, this is important.

Second, I think that this is a classic case of focusing on the letter of the law rather than the intent. How can we care so much more about what someone says when she stubs her toe than we care about how she treats her neighbors? My father was once reprimanded by a parishioner for using the word "dang" from the pulpit.

There's a solid argument to be made, I believe, about the words we're exposed to living on in our heads and coming more easily to our minds (and our tongues). I agree that we should carefully choose that which we decide to ingest.

But the same point can certainly be made about violence, rape, and hatefulness of all kinds. For a while, I stopped watching all crime-related television shows because of the horrific and violent dreams I was having.

One respondent said, 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%."

There are quite a lot of really interesting points made in the long comments section responding to Rachelle's original post.

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.

I would love to hear what you all think about this issue, especially those of you who are regular readers of CBA fiction (description follows).

Clarification/disclaimer: I haven't read a whole lot of Christian fiction, by which I specifically mean "CBA" fiction, that which is published by Christian publishing houses, intended for Christian readers, and revolving around Christian themes. I certainly read Christian nonfiction books, and I find a lot of the mainstream fiction I read to contain (often strong) Christian elements. Note that Jan Karon is published by Penguin, not a Christian imprint or publisher, so is "mainstream" fiction (ABA) rather than Christian fiction (CBA) despite being a Christian author who writes Christian fiction. I read and enjoy Jan Karon. I hope that's clear? In short: I find the discussion intriquing, but my personal experience here is somewhat limited.

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