rembrandt

in defense of profanity

By my count, my book The Invisible Girls has 3 f-words in 272 pages.  And because of that, a well-known Christian radio
station cancelled a radio interview with me last week.  I woke up on the morning of the interview to an e-mail from my publisher that the station cancelled because the executive producer read the book and said, “[the profanity] goes against our guidelines for both the broadcast and for listener giveaways.”

And so, because of those three words, thousands of listeners didn’t get to hear how God providentially took me when I was a cancer patient and intersected my life with a family of Somali refugees, and used us in each other’s lives to bring healing and redemption.  And the radio station listeners didn’t hear an invitation to buy a copy of the book to support a college fund for those Somali girls.

Seriously?  Isn’t that kind of missing the forest for the trees?

I knew when I was publishing the book that if I avoided using profanity and specific anatomy words, the book would be more widely distributed and embraced by certain Christian audiences.  But I used them anyway — because they tell a better story than I could tell with pseudo-swear words like “flippin’” or “freakin’”, and because they tell the truth.  They’re gritty words that people, like my atheist friend Libby who was dying of terminal lung cancer at age 39, actually said.

invisiblegirls_paperback

It’s unfortunate — no, tragic — that some people think being a “Christian” means watching only G-rated movies or reading sappy books where everything turns out okay in the end because God is on our side, and if He’s on our side, everything works out to our advantage and to our satisfaction.

After all, isn’t that how the Bible reads?

Um….not exactly.  If you don’t believe me, just ask yourself this question: If you made a movie of the Biblical narrative, what would you have to rate it?

Not G.  Not even R.  Maybe NC-17 or even X after you filmed all the rape, beheading, crucifixion and infanticide scenes.

And parts of the story would not be feel-good, satisfactory, warm-fuzzy, Disney-like scenes.  Adam and Eve were banished from Eden and never got to return.  Adam had to pull up thorny weeds without the luxury of gardening gloves, and Eve had to experience epidural-free childbirth, and then their son killed their other son, and then they died — so it’s hard to say that all things worked out for good in that specific instance.

Moses never got to enter the Promise Land because he screwed up.

Noah preserved humanity by building an ark when no one had seen rain before, which was pretty commendable, but then passed out naked because he was drunk off his arse.

Hosea had to marry a prostitute — and likely catch and suffer from some gnarly STDs because there were no antibiotics or antivirals to treat diseases like gonorrhea or genital herpes back then.

Fast forward to the next Testament, where, instead of reconciling with the Rabbi he betrayed, Judas hangs himself.  Paul suffers from a thorn in the flesh that, no matter how close he is to God and no matter how many miraculous things he does for other people, he cannot cure.

And instead of restoring Ananias and Sapphira, two dedicated church members who lied about how much they were tithing, the congregation watches while God strikes them dead.

I could go on, but I think the above examples are sufficient to show that the story of God is not the airbrushed narrative we make it out to be, and many of the endings, at least on this side of eternity, are pretty unhappy.

The point the Bible makes is not that God makes us perfect people with perfect endings; it’s that in spite of all the chaos, violence, selfishness, destruction and pain, God loves us enough to stay with us and infuse a messy world with some grace and mercy.   Instead of making us stumble around in intolerable darkness, He shines a sliver of light that illuminates the pathway to Paradise, though we will surely be bloodied and bruised along the way.  And then we’ll have to die to make it across the last threshold.

When we ignore the reality of our story and the role God has in it, we create lousy, sometimes even laughable, “Christian” music, art and writing that is insulting and irrelevant to the rest of the people on the planet, and sets us up as an object for mockery (and no, it’s not persecution, it’s actually well-deserved criticism.)

rembrandt

When Christian creatives think that in order to be an artist who incorporates faith into their work, they have to present a pretty and perfect picture, they miss the entire point.

Being a Christian musician doesn’t mean you get jewels in your crown for writing horribly obvious, inane lyrics just because you added the name “God” somewhere in the song.

Being a Christian painter doesn’t mean that your portraits of people erase their physical imperfections and flaws.  It means that, like Rembrandt, you paint the reality of cleavage-revealing clothing and close-set eyes and twisted noses because your faith isn’t demonstrated by erasing reality, but by shining an exquisite light on all the imperfections.

And for me, being a Christian writer doesn’t mean spinning sappy G-rated tales; it means telling an honest account of life, with whatever the literary equivalent of revealing clothing, close-set eyes and twisted noses is — and then describing the exquisite light of redemption and love that saturates this world.  A world that, with all its brokenness, is somehow embraced and sustained by a merciful creator who, through all the unexpected plot twists, is writing the best story of all.

 

Thanks for sharing!

34 thoughts on “in defense of profanity

  1. You are dead on with this. Great article. You just made a fan. If you’d ever like to share on my podcast (www.rickleejames.com/podcast) you are more than welcome.

    Blessings,
    Rick Lee Jamez

    Voices In. My Head Productions LLC

  2. ah Sarah, sorry to hear that – sounds like you were hard done by…
    i once had a homeless guy ‘F bomb’ a preach i was doing and i later told the story at a worship gathering i was MCing – somehow only one pastory guy came up to me afterwards and told me how i’d let the side down but i imagine others were thinking it – sometimes i think it is the in-your-faceness of these stories [as i imagine yours is, just by looking at the decription of content] that helps connect it to other real people who may not yet be connected to God… i am not a huge fan of swearing for swearing sake but i definitely do think there is a time and place…
    anyways i gotta go cos apparently Tony Campolo said the ‘S’ word and someone has to go picket that nonsense…

    strength in Him and try not to let it cause you to sin – this is a great response – let it go and be their issue – speak strongly where you get the chances and opportunities
    love brett fish

  3. Yes. Love this.

    There’s a beautiful redemption found only in the horrible flaws. I am so broken and yet so loved all at the same time.

    Thanks for the honesty, we need more of that and less of the airbrushed unreality.

  4. Well said, Sarah.
    I have no problem with radio stations or bookstores having standards, and those standards can certainly be different than mine. But if they refuse to let you tell your story, yet are glad to host the likes of Osteen, somethings way wrong.

  5. That G-rated, squeaky-clean mindset caused me to stuff, deny, and hide honest feelings for so long that the facade of me nearly destroyed the real me. Our real world needs a real God Who isn’t put off by our choice of words. I loved your honesty in the book, Sarah, and agree with your thoughts in this post.

  6. I don’t see anyone defining what a Christian is and is not by uninviting you. I think you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill and taking things a little too personally. The fact is this station has a line, and a standard about what is appropriate for them and what they promote to their constituency and they simply stuck to it. Period. That line is different than yours, but it’s not your station and not your constituency. This is the price you pay for making the decision to use the f-word and stay as “raw” and “true” as possible. I mean, the fact is, you knowingly chose to use the real f-word and you knew that you would not have as broad a reach with your book as you could have (“I knew when I was publishing the book that if I avoided using profanity and specific anatomy words, the book would be more widely distributed and embraced by certain Christian audiences.”) . So why are you shocked when you get uninvited by those certain audiences? Your decision means less people will read it, less people will be motivated by it, less people will change, and less people will give. Over 3 f-words. I don’t think it was worth digging in your heals for the ability to use the f-word and using it certainly isn’t going to change or “loosen-up” those certain Christian audiences by using it. So what did you gain by doing so? If the use of the “f-bomb” instead of “freakin” is core to who you are and to the story, I think that’s kinda sad. I’m guessing you made other sacrifices in the telling of your story. You might have summarized lengthy conversations, you edited out names and or maybe mixed up timeline dates, but you chose to dig in your heals to use the f-bomb. Sorry, I just don’t understand what you have to complain about.

  7. Sarah,
    I am very happy to see someone put this out there. I don’t like profanity as a regular means of communication, but the reality is that it is a large part of life. And, I think if every one would be honest, they would admit to have having used a curse word on occasion. You are also so dead on when it comes to the reality of a movie or a book. I am very much a Christian, but I very much enjoy historical war movies. I would be severely disappointed in the movie if there was no profanity. It wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of the period or situation. Schindler’s List wouldn’t have had the impact it did without the nudity “the reality of cleavage-revealing clothing and close-set eyes and twisted noses.” The truth is, as you say, it is a fact of life and a real part of life. I agree with you that Christians who fail to accept the reality of some things, or white wash the truth, are definately missing the forest for the trees. You go girl! ~Ashleah

  8. I really feel for you, Sarah. Your point about the sanitized way that Believers view the world has been something that, as a Christian myself, I have been bothered about for years. I remember being in college and looking back at Christian films that were meant as evangelism tools only to think that many non-believers probably looked at those films as cheesy and not at all relatable. These “hardened” sinners that are portrayed on screen make some Christians look horribly lost. This doesn’t mean that I believe that these films haven’t touched the lives of some sinners and brought them to God, but in general, That industry has been a laughing stock to the secular community.

    I also can relate to your comment about putting the Bible narrative to realistic film. I sat in a writer’s conference a number of years ago with a Christian author who told us a story about the time he submitted a spec Biblical narrative to his publisher, but he changed the names to see what would happen. The publisher sent his manuscript back and told him that filthy story full of sex and violence had no place on the shelves of a Christian bookstore. The author responded with the scripture from which the the script had been taken. Even with egg on his face, the publisher still couldn’t relent.

    I fear that in churches around the world, we sit there and teach children this happy Bible that’s clean and where the bad guys get their sanitized just desserts and that all the world is happy as long as you follow God. This is not true. The Christian community has been doing this to itself for so long that it has completely lost touch with the world outside. I’m not saying that we should go all Tarantino with content and just litter Christian films and books with gratuitous content simply for shock value or to make a point. However, (I’m sorry, but I haven’t read your book, so this may be out of context) a non-Christian, who I’m assuming is angered and frustrated at the hand she was dealt, is venting her frustration in a fashion that to her doesn’t seem wrong. Her reaction is realistic and gives the emphasis of anger that you were most likely going for. It saddens me to think that your story won’t be shared with people who only see the world with blinders. It’s not like you were going to go on an start dropping f-bombs yourself on air.

    Christians need to see the world for what it is, not the sanitized version they wish to see. People need to get out of their comfort zones and find the hurting and lost around them and not be scared that real people deal with real problems and emotions in ways that Christians normally wouldn’t. Until we can see that God want all to come to Him, f-bombs, depravity, and all, we can’t truly reach the world around us.

  9. I get your point. I would even go as far as to say I whole-heartedly agree with you. The problem I have is with the double standard. You used the abbreviation “f-word” and the phrase “drunk off his arse” in your blog. I find that perplexing and frustrating. Why censor yourself here and not there?

    1. You raise a really interesting question. A few things…First, the only times I used the f-word in the book was when I was quoting other people who said it. I (as the narrator) never said it. And second, I didn’t use profanity in the post b/c if people disagreed I wanted them to react to the content of the message rather than having a reflexive reaction to a single word.

  10. John, you’re missing the point. If you want to reach real people outside of youth groups and the church, you have to be honest with them. There is extreme censorship in the “Christian industry” that has popped up around the Church and it has contributed to a massive loss of believers. It’s given them every reason to see the Church as people who lead secret lives and in turn come off as hypocrites. That IS a mountain, not a mole hill. Her point is, that the Bible the, the MOST important book of all, doesn’t censor out the bad stuff. Your argument about summarizing lengthy conversations is weak. The Bible also summarized but yet still left in the grit. Why? The grit is important. The grit is our story, it’s our fall, and it’s what gives grace it’s power. I’m also a cancer survivor, things get dark, deal with it. And yes, some of the words in the Bible, if translated directly from the original language, are swear words. Her book is much more likely to reach the people that need it because she chose to be real. As an industry insider, I can tell you that most of the rules are passed down from the secular parent companies. The parent companies set up the standards and rules around maximizing profit so that they can sell more books, music or what ever the product may be to Christians and therefore exploit their beliefs to make money off of them. The Bible says to confess your sins, not to hide them so that someone can make more money. We are all filthy rags, you included. You’re sense of moral enlightenment and superiority comes from pride and it’s not what saves you. Only the blood.

  11. Honestly, I think the real problem is that they invited you for an interview before they actually read your book! Sloppy on their part! Sloppy & Tacky!

  12. What a great post. I’ve written screenplays with swear words, sex scenes and violence. A book too. On my blog I wrote about becoming an atheist, well at least for 10 minutes until I came to my senses. I think God wants us more than anything to be honest, especially with Him.

  13. I don’t know for sure if this would register or change your mind about this, but I actually mostly agree with John (#7) on this one. I assume this blog was meant to open up discussion about this — and not just be a forum to complain about something we don’t like about “church people.”

    The fact is this: your parallels between your story and the rawness of the bible are a little off because as raw and real as the stories are, they are still communicated minus “profanity.” And I don’t think they lose any impact by lack of those things.

    Another fact: defending profanity by saying the bible would be an x-rated movie doesn’t quite hold up because it’s simply not a movie. It’s a book. And from what I understand, your awesome story is also a book. So let’s just compare it on that level.

    Last fact: truth is, the radio station did not cancel the interview/giveaway because of the rawness and real-ness of your story, as your bible parallel implies. They turned it away because of the words that are obviously profane to them and many others (I would even assume you believe they are profane), and it just went against their particular guidelines. They didn’t say anything negative about you or call out your ‘sin’ or ‘foul language.’ They just shared WITH YOU that it was something they were going to pass on.

    They honestly did nothing wrong. I don’t think you did anything “wrong” either. But you cannot be angry with them for that. According to your own story, you knew this wouldn’t get the same publicity in certain circles. You did it anyway.

    Personally, I believe “f——” would have done just fine in your book, and would not have taken away from the idea at all. We get what it means and more people would be comfortable promoting it — all without changing one iota of the integrity of your story.

    It comes down to whether you’re fighting for the right to the use of such words, or if you’re fighting for the story to be heard/read and pursued. If you knew it was so important (college funds, charity, etc.), then give it the best chance to succeed. And whether you agreed with it or not, by your own admission you knew it would have less success with the inclusion of profanity.

    Ultimately, think about 1 Corinthians 8 where it talks about refraining for the sake of others. That’s what this is all about. If it will cause problems or dissension or stumbling with other Believers, don’t do it. It’s all about thinking of others more highly than ourselves. Is it about your “rights” or the greater good?

    All that being said, I do understand your frustration with the way church peeps are hung up on certain issues. And I agree with you. I just don’t believe THIS particular situation provided any grounds for indictment against the church or radio station; especially since you knew how it would turn out in certain arenas. This just isn’t the forum for the soapbox you’re on in this blog. It’s like getting a simple speeding ticket and then using that regular, mundane, expected incident to go on the news to talk about police brutality. Yes, it exists, but that’s not what happened to you; you just had to face the consequences of your own speeding, which you knew of already.

    I’d love to keep this thread going with you.

    Ryan

  14. Great article, written with muscular passion. Thank you! I have long felt the same. Just for your information the word fuck is old English, first discovered in documents from the 13 th century. It is true “vulgar” language. As you say though, pity to miss the wood for the trees!

  15. Great thoughts. However, with each action we understand our consequences. We’re given the freedom to make the choice, as you were with your book. You understood what those actions would be by including the words, but also understood that you had a conviction to live them out. I appreciate that you lived into those convictions, it takes a very honesty and brave person to do that and not cave in the pressure of possible success from the Christian subculture. It seems to me that the this is what the radio station is doing as well, their conviction is not to give away things with profanity and with that they uninvited you, and with that a lot of kids don’t have money for college. Though I don’t like the consequence, it seems like people are living out their convictions. Grace is understanding that each person has their own convictions which direct their actions. Grace is finding ways to love them despite things we don’t like or understand. I’m always leery when someone is preaching that other people need to show more grace. Be careful not to preach grace at the other when it’s not evident that you’re not living it to them. Be careful not to point fingers at people doing the same thing you were doing, living out their convictions.

  16. I’m trying to follow along here.

    You quoted someone in your book using a profane word three times. The radio show said it would not promote or give away a book using profanity. I don’t see how you get from that to this statement:

    “It’s unfortunate — no, tragic — that some people think being a “Christian” means watching only G-rated movies or reading sappy books where everything turns out okay in the end because God is on our side, and if He’s on our side, everything works out to our advantage and to our satisfaction.”

    I’m missing the link. I might just be too slow. The radio has some prohibition against giving away books that contain profanity. That policy might not make sense to you, but how is it a statement that the only things Christians should read are “sappy books where everything turns out okay”? Those seem like two different things.

    I’m not an author in the Christian publishing universe, though, so maybe I just don’t understand something that is obvious to you.

  17. I recently wrote about this exact topic. I think we really need to re-examine what it is that makes something profane. Here’s a quote from my post: “To me, profanity is any time I use my words to hurt or demean others. It is any time I am careless or dismissive in what I say – whether that’s using a curse word flippantly as a filler in my conversation because I can’t think of better adjectives, or swearing out of frustration when I miss the green light. But I believe it can also be profanity to use a trite Christian platitude to dismiss a question I am too selfish or lazy to think about. Sometimes profanity is calling someone an insulting name or using a word like “fuck” to devalue something as beautiful and holy as sex. And sometimes, it is saying, “I’ll pray for you,” when we have no intention of doing so. Sometimes it’s telling someone, “God works all things together for good,” instead of sitting beside them and stretching your heart to help them hold their pain.” You can read the rest here if you want. http://wp.me/p1iNmR-8O I just wanted to say that I agree with you and I’m sad for all the rich and meaningful things Christians miss out on because of legalism.

  18. The Bible clearly states that Christians are supposed to be separate. If they act just like the rest of the world, then they aren’t separate. If you truly cared about reaching more people and contributing to those college funds you would have left those words out. You said yourself you knew what the consequences would be, but it was more important to you to put something vulgar in your book than for your book to do as much good as possible. To me, atheists aren’t what is wrong with our country. Christians who are selfish and don’t want to put God’s will before their own is what is wrong. It’s very sad.

  19. I don’t condemn others for where their standards are set; however, I don’t believe our Holy Father wants us to use Satan’s tools to try to bring others to Him. It sounds contradictory to me.

  20. Eph 4:29 — “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

    Eph 5:4 — “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

    James 3:10 – “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

    Col 3:8 — “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.”
    about a minute ago ·

    Curse words are sin as we can see. We should not sin to do good – Paul mentions this in Romans.

  21. Daniel, I see the point you’re trying to make. I would, however, cut out Ephesians 4:29 and James 3:10 as defense for your point — because that’s not the context of those particular verses. Those are more about how you communicate and the integrity of how you act and feel towards others; not ‘foul language.’
    The reason is because you can disobey the commands in both of those verses without using “swear words.”

    Just wanted to throw that out there and add it to your repertoire.

  22. Totally agree with Randy and Daniel above. I don’t judge unbelievers who swear because that’s not my job. Also they have not been changed by Jesus nor do they have the power of the Holy Spirit which helps us in our weakness.’ Is forgiveness available to Christians who skip
    And use profanity? Absolutely!! God is gracious toward us. But when you represent yourself as a daughter if the King and use profanity in an intentional way, it blurs the lines between who you say you are and what you do. Are we all sinners? Of course – some of us gave just submitted to being covered by the blood if a Savior who died and was resurrected to erase my sin. So we live for Him by trying daily to be like Him and confess when we fall short. But I wouldn’t put it Jn writing to represent who I am because it doesn’t, by the grace if God. Love you and what you’re trying to do and know Zhis grace us sufficient for all if us who believe.

  23. I remember noticing those words when I was reading, because they detailed how you felt (elevated emotion), not because they are considered profane. I don’t want a writer to try and shield me from reality, any more than I want a friend to hide themselves from me– I want the real deal. It is easy to say and to write what one thinks people would rather hear (would more readily accept); it is much more difficult to just be you always, unless you accept yourself just as you are. I appreciate not only what you wrote but also how you wrote it. It is honest, and for that I thank you. As for the radio station, they can always reference their guidelines as morals, but as long as they are trying to secure advertising money by retaining a minuscule segment of their listener base, aren’t they being dishonest? I wouldn’t want to listen to that kind of radio station, unless (perhaps) they played just the right Steely Dan record at just the right hour of the day (I’d listen for an hour).

  24. Good article. I actually struggle with this stuff and I’m not really sure what to do about it because in most Christian circles we don’t really discuss it but rather pretend everything is supposed to be nice and perfect. Personally it hurts and I wonder how the Lord feels because we’re basically rejecting people that He died for by telling them they’re going to hell or they won’t be blessed. I could reference several characters but I like Abraham because I believe my faith is like his. This is a guy that had concubines, cheated on his wife with her knowledge, and yet God blessed him and even appeared to him yet we won’t tell someone today that cheats on his wife to expect anything like that. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to do that but if it were me I don’t know if I would if my wife had become distant or for some other reason. And since God is writing the story I would think He could work it out for good the same as Abraham or King David with Bathsheba etc. And it’s amazing Jesus comes through this lineage instead of a lineage that did everything right. But I digress. As for your book with a few f words I’d say to the station check out Paul’s language in the original Greek and tell me he didn’t use profanity because last I checked I’m pretty sure he did not to mention others. Anyway I hope your voice reaches all those listeners and many more. Peace.

    1. Thanks for the comment. YES, the Bible is not a G-rated fairy tale. There are lots of gritty stories, and even, as you pointed out, gritty language in the original version.

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