Most Christian novelists would agree that God prohibits His children from using unclean speech in everyday dialogue. But some apparently think their novels fall into a different category. One that is beyond biblical critique.
“He’s a bad cop,” they say, “and for him and my story to be realistic, I wouldn’t be doing him or the story justice if I sanitized the language. I wouldn’t be intellectually honest.” They are, after all, seeking to depict reality. They are creating art. And art is honest, they say.
Though plausibility is important in good fiction, this logic is flawed. Let’s take a closer look at their arguments for using unclean speech.
1. I want my novel to be realistic. This is fiction. No readers seriously want stark reality in the form of foul language—that’s depressing. They want the impression of reality (the kind that suspends disbelief) with a dash of escapism and a big helping of a happy ending.
That’s not realism. It’s called a novel. Got a crusty character in your story? Just say, “He cursed like a drill sergeant.” There’s no valid reason to type the actual gritty words in your book. Consider the advice of theologian Wayne Grudem:
Using the words commonly thought to be offensive in the culture seems to me to be sort of the verbal equivalent of not wearing deodorant and having body odor, or of going around with spilled food on our shirts all the time. Someone might argue that not wearing deodorant or wearing dirty clothes are not morally wrong things in themselves, but my response is that they do give needless offense and cause others to think of us as somewhat impure or unclean. So, I think, does using words commonly thought to be “obscene” or “offensive” or “vulgar” in the culture generally. Plus it encourages others to act in the same way. So in that way it brings reproach on the church and the gospel. (“Wayne Grudem on Offensive Language,” Desiring God, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/wayne-grudem-on-offensive-language, accessed November 16, 2012.)
2. I want my novel to be good art. Today at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York City, a crucifix is submerged in urine—all in the name of art. Is “art” always pure? Is it beyond biblical scrutiny?
A Christian author who operates with this thinking has placed the god of art above almighty God, a violation of the first commandment. God’s standards (Eph. 4:29-30; 5:4; Col. 3:8) take precedence over art or realism or any other argument that seeks to usurp His authority.
Unclean speech in any form, whether an e-mail or text message, violates God’s standards of communication. (What are those standards? Review part 4.)
3. I want my novel to reach the lost and change lives. I think this language will attract unsaved readers. A desire to reach the lost with the gospel is an important goal, but we must engage the world God’s way, as described in His Word.
Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” How can we consider using language that brings the lost to the very God this language offends? This thinking is called pragmatism. Consider the words of pastor/teacher John MacArthur:
Pragmatism is the notion that meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences. To a pragmatist/utilitarian, if a technique or course of action has the desired effect, it is good. . . . When pragmatism . . . becomes a guiding philosophy of life, theology, or ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what “works” and what doesn’t. (John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010], 26–27.)
Consider the words of Eric Pegent.
Ambassadors [of Christ] are not truly at liberty to represent themselves or their own “authenticity.” Nowhere in the Bible do we see Jesus Christ using foul language, and when we convey His message and character, we must take care not to degrade it by foul talk . . . Both the world and the Lord expect (and have a right to expect!) different behavior from Christians. The sheep of Jesus have been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). They follow not just a Shepherd and Savior, but also a Lord and Master. When nonbelievers [see unclean speech in your book], they are not [seeing] Christ, they are [seeing] compromise. “My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (James 3:10-11).
Someone once said, “It is never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”
4. I want to sell more books, and gritty language might attract more readers. Given these tough economic times, sales are indeed critical. But the notion that using unclean speech will help sell more books goes against common sense and statistical evidence.
Consider the Left Behind series, the biggest-selling Christian novels of all time (more than 65 million copies sold!). You won’t find a trace of profanity or vulgarity in any of them. And I have heard testimonies of lives impacted by the gospel message in those novels.
Clean media, in fact, is what sells. Look at the popular Christian movie Courageous, which (as of December 2011) grossed more than $33 million (sixteen times its budget). Or consider the highest-grossing motion picture trilogy of all time, the squeaky-clean Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has grossed a total of $2.91 billion. Did the lack of unclean speech hurt the sales of those movies?
The Bottom Line
I want to be very careful here that I’m not judging hearts and motives. I truly believe most Christian authors love God and see themselves as His ambassadors to our needy world. But when I look at disturbing trends in Christian publishing, a few questions come to mind:
Why are some Christian authors on a crusade to violate traditional standards and use gritty language? Could it be that they read a little too much Stephen King and James Patterson, and want to be like the authors they admire?
Could this recent trend reflect the continuing slide in prime-time TV? Are we allowing ourselves to become contaminated by the very world we are trying to reach? And could that contamination be showing up in the books we write?
What of God’s standards of purity for those who bear the name of Christ? He says, “Be holy for I am holy.” Is there any valid argument that would justify the use of unclean speech in our books? Why this push to appeal to the world by being like the world? Consider the words of preacher and writer Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him. . . . And the world always expects us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.
God doesn’t call us to be like the world—He calls us to reach the world by being different. Christian publishing shouldn’t be about us—about our “art,” about our agendas. It shouldn’t be about us at all. It should be about God and advancing His kingdom. That’s what the word Christian is all about. And we can represent Christ while writing the best fiction the world has ever seen. We should be the ones who set the highest standard of excellence.
What about you? Why do you think God placed us on this planet? Do we have any valid excuse to represent the God of the universe with language that degrades His holy character?
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