I’m a huge fan of strong language. especially in my own writing.
I may be biased as a writer, because I’m absolutely in love with words, but I think we can all agree that they’re powerful. harsh words can wound, kind words can heal. they mean something. they’re important.
no doubt this is at least part of the reason that the Bible is pretty clear about the types of words we should be using. google supplied me with plenty of opinion on Christians and profanity, mostly in the form of blog posts. I read a ton of them before I wrote this post. the majority expressed entirely negative responses to swearing, even going so far as to say that “swear words” themselves are sinful. the few that disagreed, however, almost championed the use of strong language by Christians for its edginess, if nothing else.
I take issue with either of these opinions.
(I hate to break up the conversation, but I want to get one thing out of the way: I don’t swear using the Lord’s name. ten commandments, duh. I don’t even say “jeez” or “oh my god”. I don’t want my words to ever bring dishonor to God, so I’m extra careful about that. but I actually don’t think that what we call strong language automatically does so.)
okay! “what-does-the-Bible-say-about-swearing” speed round (paraphrasing):
– Ephesians 5:4 – “no filthiness/foolish talk/crude joking.”
– James 3:9-12 – “we bless God with our mouth and then turn around and curse people who are made in his likeness. blessing and cursing shouldn’t come out of the same place.”
– Ephesians 4:29 – “no corrupting talk should come out of your mouths, only what’s good for building up, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
(similar mandates can be found in 1 Peter 3:10, Colossians 3:8, and Luke 6:45, among others.)
a post I read on ChristianityToday . com called “The Trouble with Cussing Christians” said this, which I really liked: “our words should participate in hallowing, rather than profaning, the world.”
but I’d like to suggest that “strong language” can play a part in beauty.
I believe that art points to the creator and glorifies him. the best stories are his, after all. the most beautiful sunsets. music, color, taste. the sweet, broken people we meet and have the privilege of knowing and loving throughout our lives. art is beauty, and good art glorifies God.
it’s easy to rag on low-budget, poorly scripted Christian films or obnoxious contemporary Christian music- I do it myself often enough. I don’t want to go there too much now because I really do admire the men and women behind those mediums for their hearts, their intentions, and their boldness.
but art should be excellent, and sometimes I think that as Christians we shy away from hard topics and strong words in favor of niceness and “propriety”, and I don’t think that’s always a good idea. if anyone should be telling the hard stories, it should be the same people who know what redemption looks like– the recipients of God’s great grace.
I believe words are as much instruments of art as paints and pencils and cameras and musical notes. they’re meaningful. they express things, feelings, thoughts. and that’s what stories are for. that’s why I write, to pull words that everyone knows into strings of sentences that didn’t exist before. is there anything closer to magic out there?
words are things of beauty. I was talking with a friend recently at lunch who said that her favorite word was “epiphany”- that she’d even written a college paper on it. and it’s beautiful, right? the way it looks and sounds, what it means. I have lists and lists of words I love, almost as much as names- estuary, plunder, incandescent, cunning, pique. (I actually really love to say the word bastard, but…yeah, that’s one I usually keep to myself.)
sometimes the only thing separating one word from another is the depth of what they’re expressing. sometimes when you’re hurting, your usual verbal repertoire is not enough. sometimes your pain just can’t be expressed in simple, G-rated words.
so. fiction. why should characters in a story be any different than you or I, in our moments of pain and trial? to use my own writing as an example, why would a teenage girl who’s just been kidnapped, branded, bought, imprisoned, and raped call the man responsible a “jerk”? would you buy her pain if she did? would you feel what she’s feeling?
the main point that people often bring up in this discussion is making the characters realistic. many writers (myself included) agree that when they’re writing, the characters often speak for themselves. I don’t plan a lot of what I write. (I never planned for Isla to get kidnapped and then all of a sudden it was happening and then I had a book about human trafficking and bravery and loving yourself that was initially going to be little more than a piece of romantic fluff.) when they get going, characters do and say things on their own.
if you don’t believe the people that I’m writing, if you don’t buy the characters, how is the story going to affect you? how will it move you, or mean something to you? stories need to mean something. they need to touch you, show you darkness and light and humanity and good and evil. and stories are made of words. how can we tell a powerful story without the jarring contrast of strong words?
I certainly haven’t gotten it down. in many ways my writing is still terribly immature. and I’m not lobbying for gratuitous, unnecessary language in fiction. but I do believe in feeling things. and I think the fact that we even have the label “strong language” means something. in my own novels, it sometimes means that Blue Reavely’s (my heroine’s) father calls her a little shit when he’s drunk. and sometimes it means he tells her she’s worthless and a mistake.
strong words are the ones that pack a punch, not just the ones we call “swears”. the ones that hit you hard, or stir your soul.
I think compassion is a strong word. it happens to be my favorite. it still means really means something, and makes you think, because people don’t throw it around. this can’t be said for many other words that are losing their impact because of our readiness to speak them: “literally”, “amazing”, “tragedy”, “love” (to name a few).
words are important. I’m trying to use mine wisely, and sometimes that means using the ones that hit people hard.
so! tell me what you think about “language” in fiction! do you think it’s avoidable? do you think it’s necessary all the time? are there ways to abstain from it and still emerge your reader into a gritty world? and do you think writing language down is different than using it in your own conversation? talk to me! I don’t by any means think I’m an authority. this is just my opinion, and I’d love to hear yours!
p. s. remember to be intentional with your words though. to go back to the idea of taking the Lord’s name in vain, I have one thing to say: if God’s name were itself a curse, we wouldn’t be warned against using it wrongly. instead, his name is a thing of power, impact, and importance. when we use it as a curse, we’re taking it out of its intended context and doing him dishonor, because he (and his name, therefore) represents the pinnacle/measuring stick of goodness, beauty, and holiness. I have a hard time believing that words are in and of themselves evil. (crass, yes. don’t get me started on crude and crass words/talk. I hate hate hate all that.)
p. p. s. “you can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.” ~Truman Capote (because…Capote. duh.)