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Saturday, March 5, 2011

To Explic Or Not To Explic

I think I've addressed this at least one other time on this blog, but I've been giving some more thought to the subject of cussing. This post is at least as much for solidifying my thinking and potentially getting feedback on it as it is to "debate" the topic yet again.

As I've stated elsewhere, I rarely, if ever, cuss. Just wasn't raised that way, as my mother can attest. Back then, even words commonly accepted as okay in today's world, like crap and damn, were big no-nos, and I would have gotten in trouble for saying it (though my mom was never the wash your mouth out with soap type). But we grew up that way. And when I became a Christian, the group I was in reinforced that ban on cussing. In that group, you simply weren't a Christian, at least a very good one, if you cussed.

Now, I've been around people who cuss regularly. Some more than others. I've been in environments where there is a lot of cussing. In my current job, I hear it occasionally though we aren't supposed to do it there. And here's where I think I've come down on all this both for me personally and for the characters in my fiction.

First I'm going to identify some major categories. Warning: I will use the words since that is what I'm discussing here, just so we're clear. After all, I don't think there is much difference between writing "s--t" and "shit". We all know what the former means and everyone hears the word in your head. You've not avoided eternal damnation by doing that. If you're going to use it, use it. Don't beat around the bush. Saying "the F word" is the exact same thing as saying the word itself. Its only use is to bypass the censors on TV.

Category 1: Taking God's Name in Vain

First off, for me as a Christian, anything that takes God's name in vain is out. Sorry, even for the sake of characterization I could not bring myself to have a character take God's name in vain. Maybe someday I'll find to make a character really "bad" that needs to happen. But if it gets to that point, I'm more likely to not write the story than continue. There are other and more effective ways to draw a bad character on the page than have them take God's name in vain.

And in case someone doesn't know what that means, it means using "God" or "Jesus" in a sentence when you're not really talking to them or really about them. Rather, their name is being used as a cuss word. It degrades and debases the one we worship, and the Bible specifically forbids that.

Category 2: Cuss Words That Fit

What do I mean by that? Simply, words that fit the flavor. Usually when we cuss, it's because we don't like something. Yes, in some quarters it is common to cuss to praise something, but that is not normal. I had picked up some drunks one time to drive them home and they called me a nice mother fucker several times in thanking me for taking them home. But by and large, they are used in a negative and derogatory manner about either a situation or a person.

For example, a common word people use is shit. I've always had the urge to tell people when they use that word, "Down the hall, second door on the right." I mean, if you take these literally, it is really funny. I've had people say, "This is a bunch of shit," in which case my response is, "Well, I'm not touching it then!"

But the point being, shit, crap, poo poo, is yucky, bad, negative, and no one wants to mess with it other than to flush it down a toilet. The word fits if you're trying to say something is horrible, or that you especially don't like something. Most cuss words fall into this category.

One that does, but I think we should consider how it is used, is hell. People will often say "hell" about something they don't like, which again fits because that is a bad place and conveys the emotion. But I think it crosses the line to tell someone to "go to hell." We should never wish that on anyone. It puts us as the judge and under condemnation ourselves. I may have  a character at some point say that, but I don't think Christians in real life should wish that on anyone.

But for balance, we need to note that the Psalmist tells God the equivalent of he hopes some of his enemies "go to hell." Psalm 55:15. There's always exceptions.

Category 3:  Cuss Words That Degrade

There is a smaller group of cuss words that take something meant to be beautiful, meant to be praiseworthy, and turn it into something debased and ugly. While there may be others, the most obvious one is fuck. Sex was created by God to be a positive force in our life. It is an analogy to our union with God, as Ephesians points out, and so holds a special place of meaning in the Christian life as well as the marital life. To take that beauty and meaning, and turn it into something nasty and hate-filled is a debasement of God's creation and in this case, is right up next to taking God's name in vain, for it is taking what He created to be good and turning it into something horrible.

So I personally would never use that word in a cussing sense. And the connotation now attributed to it makes the word near unusable to describe what it is really pointing to. That makes it a word I would avoid personally, but also one that I doubt I would ever use in my fiction. I'll find a different cuss word if needed, or a different way to characterize the character before I use that word.

And this is not a recent problem. St. John Chrysostom, in a very frank sermon on marital union back in the fourth century, had this to say:
And how become they one flesh? As if thou shouldest take away the purest part of gold, and mingle it with other gold; so in truth here also the woman as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourisheth it and cherisheth it, and withal contributing her own share, restoreth it back a Man....I know that many are ashamed at what is said, and the cause of this is what I spoke of, your own lasciviousness, and unchasteness....Why art thou ashamed of the honorable, why blushest thou at the undefiled?...Thinking then on all these things, let us not cast shame upon so great a mystery. Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ, and art thou drunken at it?

(St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Colossians,” Homily 12, vs. 18)

Final Thoughts

I doubt I'll have much, if any cussing in most of my stories. I've used it here and there, but very rarely. Not because I think cussing in general is unChristian. A case can be made for the crassness of one's language, and that we are to speak those things which are uplifting, not degrading. But as long as one isn't taking God's name in vain, or degrading his creation, or degrading a person He created that we should love, God is not likely to ask us at the Great Judgment, "You said 'shit' while you were around Me. Depart from Me!" Christians can get too wrapped up in majoring on the minor issues, usually to avoid looking at the bigger sins in their own lives.

But there are lines I wouldn't cross in my fiction for personal reasons as stated above, aside from the fact that I'm not likely to use most any cuss word in my daily life. There may be times I'll have my characters cuss, but those will be far and few between. Why? Because I'm writing for the general audience. And the fact is there are some out there that can't handle cussing. Most can handle a word here or there on occasion. But many don't want cussing on every page, or a character that regularly cusses. Some can handle it, some will put the book down.

And it's because there are those who will put the book down that I'll avoid it. I want to reach the widest audience possible. If I have a character who cusses regularly, I'm automatically going to lose a segment of my readership. And as a Christian author, if the story is at all written with the intention of holding a Christian audience, that percentage goes up even higher. It's just the way it is, folks.

If a writer regularly uses cussing in a story, they do so knowing they are going to lose a segment of potential buyers. If they are aware of it, acknowledge it, and go ahead and do it, that is fine. But they had better not come back and bemoan the fact that several people are put off by the cussing and state so in reviews. Expect it if you use it. And if you don't want to have that reaction, don't use it. It isn't a moral issue at that point, but a practical one, a marketing decision, and it should be treated as such. Because frankly, it should be rare that you have a character that you have to have cuss to make him or her believable.

So, that's where I fall into this scheme of things, both personal and in my writing. What lines do you draw, and why?

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