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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why Do Christian Publishers Tolerate Violence But Not Profanity?

If you're an author aiming for the Christian market, it is far easier to write about one character shooting another than cussing them out. Better a bucket of blood than a pinch of expletives. Just peruse the Christian fiction section of B&N and you will find your share of serial killers, hit men, assassins, abusers, and wannabe anti-christs plying their trades.

But I dare you to find one character who ever says “damn.”

Why is this? Why do Christian publishers tolerate violence more than profanity?

Now, by being "tolerant" of violence, I am in no way suggesting that there is a glorification of violence or an excessive amount of it. Indeed, in relation to the general market, violence and gore in Christian fiction is probably minuscule. Cursing, on the other hand, is non-existent. So somehow, somewhere along the way, a concession was made for violence and against profanity. But why?

I have two theories about why, in Christian fiction, violence is more tolerable than cussing.

First, the presence of violence and bloodshed in the Bible allows us to condone the presence of violence and bloodshed in our stories. The world is a violent place. Christians aren't immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture corroborates, telling of wars, dismemberment, hellish torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath's head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Likewise, the "mass drowning" of Noah's neighborhood is left to our imagination.

Furthermore, the Christian life is often viewed as a fight. We are described as soldiers and warriors; our lives are a real struggle against real spiritual opponents. The inclusion of violence in our fiction is an expression of our struggle to follow Christ in a dark, evil, world.

So my first guess is that Christian publishers tolerate violence because the Bible contains bloodshed and violence, the Christian life is a battle, and Christian aren't immune to the evils of our fallen world.

But why is there a more liberal approach to violence than profanity? Why show a hit man stalking his prey and a serial killer fulfilling his sadistic urges, without so much as a single expletive? I'm sure there's several possibilities, but the one I keep returning to is this:

Contemporary religious fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry -- Christian film / fiction / music -- is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism's withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of "negatives" -- no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Christian art became an alternative to "worldly" fare. As such, it was defined as much by what it didn't have, as what it did. I think that's still true today.

In this Fundamentalist "hierarchy of holiness," some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing... well, let's not go there.

Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this "hierarchy of holiness." Thus, we've come to see the presence of profanity in our fiction as worse than the presence of violence. In the same way that we inflate certain sins like homosexuality or smoking, we have inflated certain words. (Which is why it is far easier to decapitate an antagonist than have him utter the dreaded "dammit.")

The flip-side, however, is that by cultivating this hierarchy we inevitably "deflate" or "diminish" other evils. Like violence. Either way, we have come to believe that it's worse to read an expletive, than to read about murder. That's why, for the Christian author, it is much easier to portray a drowning, a strangling, an electrocution, an assassination, or a mafia-style execution, than to simply show a character cuss.

I'm just not sure how else to view it.

Anyway, I'm interested in your thoughts. Do you think Christian publishers tolerate violence over profanity, and if so, why?

* * *

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Look for Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," in stores February 2011. You can visit his website at


  1. I puzzle over Christian acceptance of violence quite often...not just in Christian fiction, but film, TV, and real life. I'm intrigued by the idea so much of it is tied to the fundamentalist roots...that certainly explains a lot.

    Things like profanity are cultural sins, whereas violence is, I think, a universal sin so it is a troublesome reality to me.

  2. Here's a thought:

    When readers, who choose not to use profanity, read profanity, they have to say the word in their mind's ear. I would opine that, to them, it becomes the equivalent of saying it.

    Also, Publishers are probably responding to their market, not the other way around.

  3. Amy, interesting perspective about "cultural sin" or "universal sin." I have a friend who once suggested regarding movies that, if he had to make a choice, he would rather have his kids witness a sex scene than violence. His rationale -- at least sex, even if it's out of wedlock, is natural. Violence, on the other hand, is not.

    Dayle! Is that you? Publishers and their market have a symbiotic relationship. So it's rather hard (for me, at least) to tell who's "drawing" and who's "reinforcing" the boundaries. But that isn't my question here, because both (Christian publishers and their market) seem to tolerate violence. Perhaps Christian readers don't want profanity. My question is, Is violence somehow less bad than cussing?

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Mike,

    If you think the symbo relationship is true. Try putting a CBA backed profanity laced novel in a Christian bookstore and you'll see who wears the pants in that relationship. (no gender offense intended.)

  5. Well stated post, Mike. When you live in a culture that embraces and glorifies violence (just look at the movie line up), it seeps into every aspect of our lives, including Christianity. I would argue, too, that an overemphasis on sex (to idolatrous proportions) has crept in as well, but as you say, it's perception in the church is less than acceptable. I believe the question you're asking here is why are we accepting of one sin over another?

    Great fiction tells a story of the reality of our world (yet in the case of a Christian creating that fiction, with an eye toward redemption). So I don't think we can turn away from sex and violence. What we can do is write about them in such a way that reveals the sin but doesn't indulge in it.

  6. I think it's fair to have a niche like the CBA so consumers who want something inoffensive to read (and even their violence is soft-core) can pick up a book without worrying.

    But for that reason, I moved from the CBA to the ABA, not because I want to write blue-streak demonic erotica type novels, but just because I want my characters to not be bound to 'the biddy patrol'--offended readers who write in and complain, making the CBA have such tight rules.

    So if my imperfect characters utter a damn, I don't have to worry about offending my readers. Sometimes it's difficult to write real characters according to rules. In books and in life, sometimes we need just a little wiggle room.

  7. Mary, thanks so much for commenting! I think your novel "Life in Defiance" does a great job telling "a story of the reality of our world" with "an eye toward redemption." I agree that, as Christians, we should "write... in such a way that reveals the sin but doesn't indulge in it." That balance, however, has proven sticky. For instance, are we "indulging" in profanity if we include it in our stories?

    Bella, I think you're illustrating my question in this way: If CBA consumers just want "something inoffensive to read," why do they find violence less offensive than profanity? I mean, in the real world, who wouldn't much rather get cussed out than punched out?

    Thank you both for your comments!

  8. I agree with your premise, Mike. Sin is sin. Equal in all its forms. I also agree there seems to be a heirarchy of sin in people's minds (most people's).

    Although I'm sure the violence aspect in some CBA novels is "soft-core" as Bella suggests, Steven James gets with the program of violence quite well--er, heavily.

    Profanity. Touchy. Why? In reading it I don't mind a few cuss words, but I'd rather write around them. I guess because I get sick of hearing them. In a way they're pointless words and the irritation or rage behind them can be illustrated or demonstrated without their specific use. Does that make sense?

    I don't believe in using ridiculous substitution words which do nothing to show the character's anger, frustration, vulgarity, or crudeness.

  9. Interesting question, Mike, and I don't have an answer. I've never been able to figure out Christian fiction.

    Sin is sin; but in order to be believable, sinners should be portrayed as such. I don't mean we should glorify the sin, but neither should we pretend it's not there.

    Jesus didn't die (a horrible, violent death, speaking of violence) to "save" us from using bad words. The sin that moved Him to perform that act is filthy, bloody, and universal. And we do a disservice to the world we're called to reach if we try to make it seem not so bad.

    But it's primarily Christians who read Christian fiction, and most of them like things sanitized. Why we'll tolerate violence but not profanity, I don't know. Perhaps because the Old Testament God often commanded people to kill, but never to cuss. David was a violent man and an adulterer. But we never see him accused of profanity.

    Sorry, I'm rambling.

  10. As I write I immerse myself in my characters and their situations. If one of them cusses, I'm the one who writes the word(s), so yes, I feel in an abstract way I have indulged in profanity. But that can have a parallel in violence. So I don't get why one is acceptable and not the other unless violence in the world is seen as something most of us have no control over, whereas profanity is a choice.

    Has anyone ever asked Christian publishers to explain or justify their guidelines?

    Interesting discussion! Thanks for the question.

  11. Mike, THANK YOU for this perceptive post. I enjoyed reading your panorama perspective of why Christian Publishing is what it is today. In my work, I see issues of this come up now and then, and I wrote about the issue of profanity in Christian Fiction here:

    Many publishers ask the question of where they should "draw the line" between gritty depictions of sin/violence, in order to best show redemption, and sanitized though shallow stories.


  12. Stephanie, thanks for commenting. I'll check out your post when I get a chance. Blessings!

  13. To glorify God should be the unction behind much of what we write. The Bible tells us that its stories are for examples to us. There is a purpose behind the gore and sex in the Bible. To teach us the consequences of these acts. It also tells us that it is a shame to even speak of those things which are done by the world in secret (Eph 5:11-12).

    So perhaps as writers, we should allow ourselves to be govern by the example of the Bible. Does the violence, sex, and profanity in our stories teach people the consequences of their sin or encourage our readers to dwell on it? Do our stories reveal these things as wrong and point the reader to what glorifies God? I'd venture to say that profanity in a novel isn't pictured as wrong as incest. But, perhaps someone has written a story that does this.

  14. I think you are right...

    Also, if one looks as news and newspapers, there is a lot of violence, but never bad language (except, rarely, in quotes. If it's not bleeped out.) So it's more usual for us to read about such as about profanity, and we do write what we read.

    I would rather read about a more common, usual and general "sins" than murders and rapes.
    How are the people handling a situation when they are confronted with such things like someone using bad language, two men holding hands, people drinking and smoking, bullying, cheating, lying and intolerance/hatred of things, like racism, which are more common events in everyone's lives.
    I would rather have Christian novels talk about the lack of Fruits of Spirit in everyday Christian life, which might be harder for Christians to recognize in themselves, than talk about others sins. After all, shouldn't Christians be watching their OWN behavior, than be looking for the specks in others' eyes?

    Also, as Lynn Squire says, I think it would be better to write about the good things than the bad things. Rather be positive than negative, rather lead by example than discipline and judge your fellow human beings...


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