Here’s another “how should Christians write about…?” post, and this time the topic is something I’m personally working and praying through for a project.
As always, this post is meant to be food-for-thought, to lay out the scriptural guidelines for a particular topic and what we do or don’t have the freedom to include in our stories (or how we do or don’t have the freedom to portray it) based on that scripture. I’ll put forth my interpretation, but all of these topics are ultimately between you and God and the intention is not to bind or to violate your conscience.
All of that out of the way, let’s talk about cursing in fiction. (I know some of you are already squirming in your seats, but please at least stay with me through the foundational Scripture section.)
What does Scripture say?
“But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” – Eph. 5:3-4
“Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” – Matt. 15:11
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” – Ex. 20:7
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” – Php. 4:8
In these passages, we see a couple of principles laid out.
- Christians ought not to participate in “foolish talking” or “coarse jesting”
- What we say matters; we ought not to speak things which are unclean
- We are absolutely and explicitly forbidden from using the Lord’s name in vain
- We ought to fix our mind on things that are edifying
I also want to mention that something we don’t see in these passages is any specific prohibition on particular words (besides vain usage of the Lord’s name). The language that we use is an exercise in wisdom, and dependent on the general accepted use of words in a particular society. Language changes, and that is one factor that we must take into account in pondering how to best honor God and live in accordance with these biblical principles in the way we speak (and write).
“Foolish talking” and “coarse jesting” apply to more than just those words we consider crass, and words that we consider harsh may or may not always fall into these categories. Even Jesus Himself called the pharisees “white-washed tombs” and a “brood of vipers,” both of which would have been considered strong language, and yet He used them in a context in which they were appropriate–without sin.
Now, none of this means we should go around cussing up a storm all the time, or even that we should incorporate commonly-used cuss words into our main vocabulary, but I don’t believe that every “cuss word” is inherently sinful to use (more on that in a moment) if used in an appropriate context where no other word will do. Our words are to be used wisely, whether “cuss words” or everyday terms, and it is possible to sin with either. “Cuss words” have rarer wise uses, yes, but while they are more dangerous words, they are still just words.
4 views on cursing
With the Scriptural foundation established, I want to look at a handful of perspectives on cursing in fiction and address each one with this biblical framework in mind.
Characters should never ever curse
“Cursing is a sin, therefore characters should never do it in any capacity ever.” (Extremism for emphasis.)
Stories contain lots of things that are sin; should we throw out all of the sin, brokenness, shortcoming, etc. from our stories? That defeats the purpose. There’s no redemption, no growth, no Gospel without falling short. If Romans 3:23 is true, then why would we write perfect characters? Virtuous characters, certainly, but perfect people don’t exist and thus perfect characters ring false to readers.
This is not to say that every character should curse at some point because “we’re all imperfect.” Obviously, different people and different characters have different sins! But even if you see cursing as an across-the-board sin, it’s inconsistent to excuse, say, violence or lying while forbidding your characters ever curse in any capacity (even in allusion) when that would reasonably be one of their temptations. (Of course, maybe you’re someone who writes squeaky-clean Christian fiction, in which case maybe this whole point doesn’t apply because you don’t excuse any of those other things in fiction, either.)
Personally, I just think this is an error in how we think about the interaction of sin and fiction as a whole. We should not glorify sin in our fiction, but sin will crop up and be addressed in our fiction if we write stories that are reflective of the real, fallen world. Cursing is no exception to this, and we can address it whether we put explicit words on the page or not.
Characters can curse as long as it’s only ever alluded to (or as long as they’re fake curses)
This is the category that I practice 99% of the time, even though I don’t believe that cursing on the page is sin in 100% of cases. 99% of my books are entirely real-world-cuss-word-free because it’s just not necessary to write them otherwise. I think this category is a perfectly good and reasonable one to be in. It’s safe, it’s charitable to those with tighter consciences, and it keeps your books more family-friendly.
The reasoning here–at least as I understand it and operate by it–is that yes, cursing is a sin that crops up just like any other sin, but it’s not something that we need to put on the page as a potential stumbling block. If there’s any way around using a real-world curse that a reader might be tempted to use in their real life in a sinful manner, take it. Allude with something like, “he cursed” or “she spewed out a string of words too harsh to repeat,” or give your characters some alternatives like “snotbuckets” or “Borden’s beard.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, and it protects both our own consciences as well as our readers’.
Characters can curse in proper contexts
This is where I fall the other 1% of the time. When at all possible, yes, I avoid putting curse words on the page. That’s true both from project to project and within each project. If cursing has no place in a project period, it’s kept out. If some cursing is appropriate for a particular project, then each individual place in which it could be used is evaluated to determine whether or not it’s truly unavoidable.
Of course, this brings up the question of, “what is a proper context?”
This question will likely be answered differently by different authors, even if at the core they have the same motivation and worldview on cursing as a whole. For me, it matters who my audience is, it matters who my character is, and it matters where my character curses in a sentence.
I will never include a curse word in a book that is intended for all ages or primarily for teenagers. The only books in which I have even considered using curse words on the page are categorized as NA because they are overall intended for an older audience. I have said before that I don’t think curse words belong in YA, and I stand by that. “Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble…”
Character matters because some characters will automatically police their own language, whether around certain characters, in certain contexts, in recording their own story, or just in general (if, say, it’s a weakness they’re trying to overcome). Some characters will police other people’s language, which is why there are no curse words in any of Nyla’s chapters of Lightning even though Erika uses them. Some characters just don’t care, like Erika, and their upbringing and character makes it unreasonable that they wouldn’t curse.
But even in these contexts, with characters who don’t self-moderate and in books for an older audience, I avoid writing a curse word on the page if I can allude to it instead by prefacing a line of dialogue with “she cursed,” if the cuss comes before a sentence, or following it up with the same thing if the character ends a sentence with a cuss word. And thus, even in scenarios where cursing does appear on the page, I can minimize it to the instances in which a character curses in the middle of a sentence, while “censoring” all of the other instances.
Who cares; it’s only language
Those in this camp would take my reasoning from earlier to an extreme, saying that there is no distinction among words and curse words are really exactly the same as any other words. What’s the big deal?
I would counter this just as strongly as the opposite extreme. Curse words do have implicit cultural weight. Those words that we have (culturally and individually) categorized as curse words will strike us as curse words and trip us up. Throwing them around carelessly is like setting a landmine for brothers and sisters in Christ who view those words as sinful and don’t want them swimming around in their brains. Besides which, carelessness with these words puts us in a position to sin with them much more easily–and simply reflects a lack of self-control when it comes to our language as a whole, which is something we’re explicitly warned against falling into, in James 3 as well as all of the verses listed before.
Curse words & their relation to everyday language
But now we have the question of how exactly curse words relate to and compare with the rest of our language, and to look at that question I want to look at a few “categories” of curse words. These are my own categories and you may completely disagree with my divisions, but here they are.
“Curse words” that have lost their edge
We had a lot more curse words ten years ago than we do today. Film, especially, has made such everyday use of what we used to call “cuss words” that much of society is numb to them as anything more than accent words like “crap” or “drat” or any other such moderate exclamations. Even some of us who grew up with PG-13 terms considered “bad words” look today and see that they’re barely even used or treated as any worse than milder exclamations.
Tolkien saw a similar linguistic shift even in his own day, and I found this quote insightful as I was reading through a collection of his letters:
“And linguistically there is not a great deal of difference between a damn you, said without reflection or even knowledge of the terror and majesty of the One Judge, and the things you mention. Both the sexual and the sacred words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion. I don’t mean that it is not a bad thing, and it is certainly very wearisome, saddening, and maddening, but it is at any rate not blasphemy in the full sense.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son Christopher
“Both the sexual and the sacred words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion.” This is a good summation of the conclusion I’ve been drawing of late, myself, that the only impact given to most curse words these days is the knowledge that they used to be used as curse words. This isn’t true in every case nor of every word, but the words we rate “PG-13” often carry no more than “the ghost of past emotion.”
“Curse words” used in their literal context — as basic words
Many of the words we consider “curse words” have literal meanings, as well. We might be referring to donkeys, female dogs, a literal place of judgment, etc. In these cases, there’s no question of cursing–though there may still be a question of wisdom in considering whether there is an alternative word that won’t trip up those used to hearing these words as expletives. Except for the question of laying a stumbling block, there’s nothing wrong with using a word in its proper, literal context.
Words that violate Scripture’s definition of clean speech
Now, there are still words that violate Scripture’s definition of clean speech in every or almost every case. The F-bomb is inherently the coarsest possible term for something God gave as a blessing, the B-word is used to reduce a human to the level of a dog, etc. Words genuinely used as undeserved insults and curses shouldn’t pass our lips.
The question with words that fall into the first category–those that have lost their meaning in many cases–is whether their use by our characters to intentionally insult other characters prevents us from writing them (in cases where it’s handled as sin).
Then, of course, there’s the matter of taking God’s name in vain. This one is pretty cut-and-dry, the way I see it. It does not give the use of God’s name purpose to have a character use it without purpose–it is inherently “in vain” to portray characters taking the Lord’s name in vain. Changing the spelling so that your characters say “Gad” instead doesn’t make it better, either; it’s still clearly taking God’s title and using it for nothing.
This bugs me more than any other curse word used in fiction–especially in Christian-authored fiction–because it is the one term that we are explicitly barred from using in a vain, exclamatory context. The rest we’re left to work through with scriptural principles; this one is clearly laid out for us.
This is an area in which I disagree with Tolkien’s quote above, because I don’t believe that blasphemy loses its potency when it loses its emotion; it is still a direct violation of the commandment God gave us for using His name.
While it is not the only measuring stick–obviously–your motivation for including (or even for not including) cursing in your book should affect your decision. Do you want your characters to curse because it’s “cool,” or to push against Christian fiction stereotypes and be edgy? Those are bad ideas. Do you flaunt your avoidance of cursing as a virtue signal and claim to be holier than anyone who writes characters who cuss? (Those who do so thoughtfully and prayerfully; I’m not talking the careless folks here.) That’s also not how we’re supposed to behave as Christians.
The inclusion of cursing in your book (or lack thereof) ought to be a decision made based on Scripture and the Spirit’s leading. Can we bring biblical exhortation to those we think may be in sin? Of course, and we should! Can we share explanations of why we believe that cursing is scripturally wrong (or acceptable)? Of course! And in each case we should appreciate that the one bringing a disagreement cares for our soul, and give grace and thanks accordingly. But it is not our job to bind a conscience which God has not bound, nor to jeer at a brother or sister living in accordance with a conscience that is bound.
“Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” – Rom. 14:3-4
What is the moral judgment of cursing in your book?
Even if your characters’ language is only alluded to and you never explicitly curse on the page, you’re still shaping a moral judgment of cursing within your book–portraying it as negative, neutral, or positive. How your characters respond to cursing, whether explicit or not, will shape your readers’ view of cursing for your characters and within your world, and they can bring that view out into the real world.
Is a writer whose characters explicitly curse but who show distaste for that cursing from other characters any more dangerous in the end than an author whose characters curse like sailors “off the page” without any push-back? Maybe you’ll find that the answer to that question is, “Yes,” whether all the time or in certain contexts. But it’s a question worth considering.
The importance of audience and expectations, & obeying your conscience in writing and reading
Here we come back to something I think is critical in this conversation: being aware of your audience and setting clear expectations.
Like I said before, I would not advocate for including on-page curse words in YA or anything intended for younger audiences than that. Just because I don’t think these words have all of the same weight they used to doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to be exposed to them before the real world introduces them.
I also would not include on-page curse words in a book without warning potential readers explicitly and often. While I think there are proper places for cursing in fiction, I know and respect that not everyone agrees with that and I don’t want to broadside someone who avoids reading things with this sort of language. Likewise, I would not intentionally and directly advertise a book containing language to someone I knew was bothered by it, nor would I encourage a writer to include language in their work if the matter was doubtful to them.
“It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.” – Rom. 14:21-23
On the other hand, there are secular readers who won’t bat an eyelash at curse words in their fiction. These readers will not be made to stumble by your work and will not have their consciences bothered by it because they don’t operate by the same standard anyway–but they may see your approach to it and be made to think.
Your audience matters in deciding whether or not it is wise to include cursing in your work, when your conscience is clear.
If your conscience is unclear, or if you are convicted that cursing is sin, then don’t write it and don’t read it. I won’t try to change your conscience.
If, on the other hand, your conscience is free, there are ways to respect others’ consciences without (needlessly) binding your own
Cursing in fantasy
I’m going to take a quick aside here and talk about curse words in fantasy, particularly.
The thing about fantasy is that, even if you don’t think using real-world curses is wrong, a bunch of our real-world curse words just don’t fit in fantasy worlds. I was once reading a fantasy book that referenced “Hell” and was immediately jerked out of the story because, while I had no doubt this world had an equivalent to Hell… what were the chances it was just called Hell? Some curse words are interchangeable–d***, s***, etc.–but if you already have to exercise creativity for the rest of them, why not be creative and replace all of them with alternatives that fit your world, reflect the culture and religion within your world, and don’t violate the consciences of readers who are bothered by cussing?
There are many factors that go into the decision of whether or not swearing is acceptable to portray as a Christian author–Scripture, obviously, being the foundational consideration–and you may be able to tell that I’m still working through some of the details for myself. But hopefully this has provided some helpful food-for-thought and helped anyone else struggling through this same question.
I now open the floor to you, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments.
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