I am a Christian. I am a writer. I’m writing a novel, but it’s not a Christian novel.
Yes, there are certainly Christian themes woven into it. Yes, my Christian faith influences why I am telling this particular story. But I’m not writing a Christian novel.
There is death, murder, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, and swearing in my novel.
For some reason, I’ve never had any qualms about including these things in a work of fiction. Except swearing.
I don’t swear in 99% of my life. Scripture vividly illustrates the destructive power of an untamed tongue in James 3 while Ephesians 4:29 encourages us to let no unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. I try to live by this standard.
This became complicated when I began developing the characters in my story. I write about people who aren’t Christians. Many of them would have no problem with swearing. In fact, the situations I’ve placed them in would almost guarantee fowl language. In an effort to write about characters who express real emotion, I’ve written some swear words into their dialogue.
But I’ve deliberated over this for quite some time. For some reason, I feel like including foul language seals my fate as a “secular author” and closes opportunities for Christian marketing. In addition, it feels like I’m not being faithful to God’s standards for us because I am “letting unwholesome talk come out of my mouth” (keyboard, really), and I am also placing a vile thing before the eyes of others, drawing from the language of Psalm 101:3.
I can see why a Christian publishing company wouldn’t want to publish material with bad language in it. After all, we are called to keep our speech pure.
But am I saying the words or is it my characters? If I write about somebody taking an innocent life, it is not as if I am taking an innocent life. I’m describing the fallen nature of a fictional character to create a compelling story.
So why is it all right for me to describe some sinful behavior of fictional characters like dishonesty, theft, and violence, but then not other activities like swearing? What is it about swearing that sets it apart from other sins in fiction? Why do I feel more secular for including swearwords in my fiction when I’m already telling a story about a people group who feels no guilt in torturing others and murdering people for the sake of scientific study?
Part of the issue lies with our conflation of family-friendly art and faith-based art. I believe we have inaccurately equated these two things. We somehow have come to think that anything from a Christian worldview must be kid-friendly and devoid of dark, difficult, or morally ambiguous situations.
Yet Scripture isn’t always family-friendly. There are some passages that I do not plan to read to Lylah when she is young. Many stories from Judges come to mind. Ezekiel 16 and 23 are more examples. These passages mention obese people getting stabbed to death, child sacrifice, rape, murder, prostitution, and the male anatomy.
What’s interesting is that these passages still communicate a profound sense of God’s sovereign love for us. We learn more about our relationship with God through these passages, in spite of, and maybe even because of their mature themes.
Ezekiel 16 is a perfect example of this. The passage vividly describes Israel’s unfaithfulness to God in a metaphor where Israel has been like an unfaithful wife, prostituting herself to anybody who will have her. The stark detail seems like overkill, almost non-Christian in its tone and explicit nature. But it is a beautiful, heart-wrenching passage of how deeply God loves us and how deeply our sins grieve him.
I’m encouraged by this. Seeing the way that God uses mature content to speak powerful messages of love to us gives me hope. Maybe God could want me to develop characters who don’t embody ideal lifestyles so that we can learn more about the life God has for us.
How do you navigate these sorts of challenges? Have you found any helpful perspectives as you discern how God calls you to be creative while maintaining your Christian faith? Let me know what has or hasn’t worked for you.