Tuesday, March 13, 2007

256. on swearing

Anyone remotely familiar with my blog knows that I make frequent reference to previous entries. The main reason I do this is so I don't have to restate or explain something that I've already written about.

Funny thing though, when linking to older blogs, particularly those written before 2006, I'm a bit embarrassed because I used to swear a lot back then (see blog 30 for a particularly egregious example). I remember when I decided to stop swearing so much. It was one of the new year's resolutions I made back in the beginning of '06 (see blog 141) and I've stuck to that resolution pretty well.

But you know, even though I'm glad that I've cleaned up my language, I don't regret writing the way I did back then. See, I really believe that every artist needs to have a generous amount of creative freedom if they are to truly find their voice or their style, and I don't think I'd be the writer I am today if I hadn't allowed myself to swear the way I did back then. I mean even though I don't swear very much anymore, it was an avenue I needed to run down in order to be where I am today.

And it's not the swearing itself that did this, it's the freedom I allowed myself to swear that made room for my development or at least expedited my development. What I mean is, if I hadn't allowed myself to swear, my writing would be tethered to a rule (don't swear) and because of this, the scope of my writing would have been constrained. In fact, now that I think of it, I don't know if I could have adequately voiced the issues and frustrations I was working through. Some might argue that I could have done so using softer language but I think the freedom I felt to express the frustrations I was feeling was directly tied to the freedom I felt to use whatever words necessary.

Let me frame this another way. Someone told me (or maybe I read it somewhere) that a good writer shouldn't have to swear, that they should be able to convey an idea or feeling without resorting to gutter language. I don't think I buy that, but even if it's true, one becomes a good writer only after being a bad writer and maybe the fact that I don't swear much in my blog shows that I've progressed somewhat. But again, I don't think I could have ended up at this point without the freedom to write using more coarse, unrefined language.

For most writers, the swearing thing isn't an issue but for a Christian writer, it's not so simple. A lot of Christians would say that it's wrong for a believer to swear in their writing and for the most part, Christian publishers won't print anything containing the f-bomb or the s-word. But this presents a problem for Christian writers who want to depict the world as it is.

I remember reading a book in high school called This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. It's a fictional book about the unseen spiritual side of life. In this book, Peretti describes angels and demons warring among us and one thing that struck me as particularly odd was the fact that demons never swore when they spoke. Now I don't know if there are little invisible imps and devils toying with us the way Peretti described them, but if there were, I'm sure they would use words and language that would make a dirty, swearing sailor sound like Mister Rogers. But not in Peretti's world and that makes for demons that aren't quite believable.

Perhaps that's a bad example. Here's a better one.

Back in 2001, David Cunningham (son of YWAM founder, Loren Cunningham) came out with a movie called To End All Wars about Allied prisoners of war who ended up building a railway through the Burmese jungle. In part, it's also a movie about forgiveness. The prisoners endure humiliating and unjust hardships yet they turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.

Both the director, Cunningham, and the screenwriter, Brian Godawa, are Christians and because some of the characters in the movie swear (soldiers in a POW camp swearing, imagine that), Cunningham and Godawa had to explain their word choices to many in the Christian press. It's been a long time so I can't remember exactly what they said in their interviews but basically, they explained that, being a movie about forgiveness, the only way to show the true subversive power and beauty of forgiveness is to show the true depravity and ugliness of what's being forgiven.

An essential component of storytelling is verisimilitude - believability, the sense that a story is set in the real world, not some sanitized or unrealistically utopian one. To place limits on the language that Christian writers/directors/poets/etc. can use is to handicap them, to limit the range of situations they can accurately depict. Not being able to use swear words might be fine if your story is set in an Amish community, but if it's set in a modern urban environment or in a suburb or a rural area - anywhere real people behave like real people - good luck getting anyone to buy into your story.

Of course I'm not saying that swearing is a prerequisite for a believable story, using four-letter words just for shock value or just because one can is almost as bad as not using them for fear of the Christian community's backlash (and yes, I do believe the latter is worse). That said, I truly believe that Christians have the freedom to use whatever language they deem appropriate for their story or screenplay or any other creative work.

One final thought (I have more, but I'll save them for another post), every writer will one day have to account for the way they used their gifts and talents. The writer who failed to reach his/her potential because they limited the scope of their language for fear of the church's reproach is just as guilty of sin as one who recklessly abuses their freedom by spraying profanity where it is unnecessary.

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