A personal struggle I have is enjoying a dark and edgy genre while staying true to the grit, all the while operating from a Christian background.
Is it ok to swear in your book?
Is it ok to talk about or depict sexual content in your book?
Is violence or gore appropriate for my book?
This is at least the tension I feel as a Christian writer who is struggling to find the middle ground between perverse R or M rated content while still wanting to be taken more serious than a PG read.
Not to be overly critical of my Protestant friends in storytelling, but sometimes I find movies and literature appearing noticeably tame and heavy-handed. This isn’t meant to be a scathing criticism, especially if your aim is to produce literature for a targeted Christian audience.
Though I do wonder who we might be missing if we shoe hole ourselves too tightly into a puritan mode of storytelling. I see literature as having a potentiality towards evangelism, but in order to have our art reach an audience outside of our own, I think it important to give some consideration to the zeitgeist, or at least to see how our art will compete with what is popular and celebrated.
That being said, forsaking all our integrity and prudence for the sake of being “in” or trendy isn’t the answer either. I’ve noticed media nowadays having a kind of “quota” of violence, obscenity, and nudity needed in order for it to compete with the market, and I think we don’t want to fall into that category of media that uses swears to show we are edgy or shows a nipple so that our male audience sees the whole piece through.
So where is the line?
The problem is that I think the line doesn’t exist, or at least this is the case for literature. I think most of us have a kind of moral compass to discern when a show depicts sex in such a way that it becomes borderline pornography and when a show uses gore to such an extent that it just seems flashy and grotesque without adding any substance. The “we know it when we see it” rule seems to apply here, and that then might just mean we need a second set of eyes and ears that we can trust to offer a Christian perspective to what we have written as far as it being too much or too tame.
That being said, I think a golden rule to this end is to see the explicit content as a necessary means rather than something off the spice rack that we use to sprinkle in to add some flavor. I don’t believe adding explicit content is absolutely necessary to reach an adult audience, and I’d like to site how wide an age range Tolkein and Rowling have reached without embellishing at all in this regard. That being said, the aforementioned authors protect themselves from this through operating in a fantasy genre that can contain its own culture and flare by merit of its genre, whereas a Christian crime novel might have some inescapable wrestlings with explicit material.
Again, I do think if we keep our attention mostly on the story and symbols within it rather than becoming far too wrapped up in imagery and realism that we will not only find ourselves staying true to our integrity, but also will not bring much attention to a writing that is tame on such content. A good story should be able to stand alone without a viscerally immersive story that puts you into the heat, the sweat, the messiness of this adult content.
The last piece of advice I can offer, is that if we are truly Christian authors, we might want to consider making God part of our writing. I admit, sometimes I felt strange about God blessing my writing knowing full well that the content was dark. But perhaps He will still grant us that blessing if our intention is to speak something true or good in the end. Perhaps He will steer us from the “too much” lane and be with us in the writing process even when it gets bumpy, not unlike our own real lives that tend to be imperfect but still lived with good intentions.
That all being said, I would like to offer some “guidelines” or considerations on the topic of explicit content.
Vulgarity-know your limits
What I’ve recently done in my work in progress is searched the document and kept tally of individual curses/swears I’ve used.
I do this, because not too long ago, I remember there was a “quota” in Hollywood that would deem a movie rated “R” based on its frequency of the usage of certain swears. Some swears, it seems, grant a movie an immediate “R” rating, whereas other films have a threshold of how many times more “tame” vulgarity can be used before it gets to that point.
The last I checked, it also seems Hollywood ranks vulgarity based on the swear word’s content. Words that have had a longer history in the English language in regards to referring to let’s say “common” things (hell being a place of perdition, bitch being a female dog) even if they are used in a diminutive manner don’t necessarily make a movie rated R. What words DO seem to take that effect is anything that is sexually explicit, inferring sexual acts or sexual body parts (your f bombs and so forth).
I think imagining your book in terms of rating is a helpful guideline. If anything else, it keeps a guard rail up from allowing your imagination from going wild. Besides, if you have any thoughts of your book becoming a film adaptation, it might be helpful to already start thinking about the boundaries you have with your language.
What I would also like to offer in this approach is by setting some personal boundaries for yourself in terms of frequency and for words themselves. If your novel is 300 pages, can you set a 3 word limit for each swear (not 3 total swears, but 3 damns, 3 hells, etc)? What about just saying no to certain words? Can you grow comfortable in putting a fence around some words you know are just a bit excessive when all you really need to convey is a crass character or a heated argument?
How many shades of anger will we really miss if our “what the f___” becomes a “what the hell?”
Sex-Consider the collateral
I specifically mention “collateral” because I think this is the real concern of adding sexual content in any form of literature, whether it is in book or video form.
Of all the explicit content in fiction that we see, the depiction of sex is the most harmful as it can actually stir up action. While listening to the Boondock Saints MIGHT instill in us a looseness about our tongues or scar us with their string of cusses, and while some gruesome horror films might scar and haunt us in their depiction through cruelty and visceral detail, sex and nudity can become a gateway for the viewer towards objectifying not merely the characters/actors, but those around them, and spiral into far more crippling habits.
A rule I try to imagine for myself–again imagining a literary piece ever picked up and then adapted later–is, “if this ever becomes a film/show, what risk do I have of nudity being portrayed” or “what if a loved one were to star in this role?”
How we can desire to protect our loved ones from exposing themselves through the appetitive/predatory clutches of Hollywood and not mind celebrities to engage in this practice is confounding…but it might do us all some good if we actually lamented for these famous figures when they have been demeaned to not merely share something intimate to the entire world, but to engage in something dehumanizing as filmed sex (fake or not).
It may not seem as though there’s much wiggle room on this particular one for the aforementioned reasons. That being said, if we look at Scripture, we know that the Bible is not without some uncomfortable stories of sex. That being said, I don’t personally read David watching Bathsheba and feel my passions stoked from this story. The contrary to this, however, might be the Song of Songs which does have a bit more colorful language regarding passionate love language.
To this end, I recommend reading some of these stories in the Bible and considering when detail is modestly left out, even though a very perverse thing is inferred. A great cinematic example of this is Casa Blanca, a film that infers a sexual relationship but to its time depicts such an altercation through two censored adults in bed smoking. Inference can be our best friend.
To close, as mentioned in vulgarity, I think intention is important to discern with this content as well. Does every romantic couple in our book require an erotic scene? Do we feel pressured to hit a quote for sexual content? Is our temptress character cleverly portrayed in their role or are we taking a more crass and easy option to depict them with such colorful and racy words?
Violence-let the reader fill in the color
This is perhaps the most difficult topic to write, namely because the piece I find myself working on seems to really teeter on the topic of “what’s too much violence”. The other issue to this is if you ar reading this blog, chances are your dark, Christian work could survive without any vulgarity, without any sexual content, but perhaps not so with violence.
Violence is conflict, and conflict is needed in our stories. Violence is our dial to intensify the conflict, to make our audience feel peril and worry for our characters, to give them the full scope of the intensity of the battle. Violence is perhaps the most tolerated of explicit content, perhaps because we are so familiar with it, or perhaps because there seems to be no fine line with “what’s too much”. As mentioned before, vulgarity seems easy enough to quantify and categorize, and so too with nudity (what parts are shown, how often, etc). But what’s “too much” violence? Blood? Decapitation? A gunshot wound? A knife wound? An autopsy? A car accident?
Scripture perhaps does not make this dilemma much simpler. The psalms speak often about festering flesh, shattered teeth, and broken bones. We read in the story of David how he cut off the foreskins of the Philistines and then one of the most popular figures of the New Testament, John the Baptist, is beheaded. The stories of the saints is even more problematic as we read about skin being flayed, bodies being twisted, flesh being burned, and the most horrible executions and tortures imagined…
Even if we were to say we ought to be careful to not put a microsope on the violence itself–to perhaps say the overarching even of violence rather than to get pixel-by-pixel on the blood and guts–we will find ourselves in a difficult circumstance as we find ourselves writing about torture not unlike the saints writings. Details–physical details especially–will evoke emotion from our readers, and so deferring to vagueness seems to not give enough room in this regard.
That being said, if our whole book is nothing but gore and guts, I think we ought to wonder what the impact of the 11th occurrence of it will be versus the 3rd. Scaling back the details at least so that only a few moments are really punctuated with detail might not only help us discern what is too much gore and violence, but also help us consider how to pull our punches so that we save our biggest knockouts for when they matter.
It’s not a perfect solution, but I find the topic of violence one that will require a great deal of more discernment rather than clear boundaries as this kind of content itself seems to be difficult to categorize and know exactly when it is too much.
I empathize with the struggle between the integrity of faith and imagination, the slider scale of modesty and flare. Perhaps you have already made up your mind on the subject and have found peace on the particular rules you have set for yourself, but for those of you who are toting the line, I think the best thing you can do is to set up some rules, see how they work, and above all: pray.
Though I don’t want to speak theologically out of turn, I think our imagination does come from something invisible, something possibly invisible and hopefully good/holy. That may not always be the case. To this end, be discerning with your thoughts and pray for some clarity. I do think God puts good ideas into our head, but that doesn’t mean the enemy isn’t looking to corrupt our imagination as well.
Be watchful about these thoughts, set some rules, consecrate your work, as for God’s mercy and grace for your shortcomings and inspiration to keep writing.