Should Christian Books be “Sanitized?”

© CanStock / envivo

© CanStock / envivo

The debate is nothing new, yet I’m still surprised by how often it comes up in Christian writer’s circles. One position claims that it’s fine to pepper Christian novels with swearing in an effort to accurately portray our fallen world. These novels are proclaimed “art” and therefore above reproach. They are “edgy.” These writers are sick of being judged and tired of novels that are prudish and “sanitized” for Christian readers.

I confess to sometimes reading secular books with swearing, and I’m not at all surprised when I come across it in that context. Does it grate against the fibers of my mind? Yes. Is it what I want to fill my thoughts with? No—but on occasion, I overlook offensive content for a book that receives rave reviews. Should I? Probably not. I give in less and less in that area. Is it unfair of me then to expect a lack of profanity in a Christian book? I’d argue, not.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

When we choose to read a book, we put ourselves fully at the mercy of the author, their word choices and their worldview. One angle in this whole debate was that works of edgy Christian fiction can be life-changing and evangelical. My only response would be that in order to succeed in that aspect, the book might best be marketed in a secular category. Then again, if we combine it with Christian content of some sort, are we sending a mixed message?

“In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8)

Have I failed in this area? Absolutely. Ignorant of another country’s potential offense to one of my word choices, I included it in my first book. When a reader in that country clued me in, I removed it. My efforts are far from perfect, but creating something that glorifies God is what I ultimately strain for. I don’t believe that using language that offends some is the way to accomplish this goal.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

I have to ask Christian authors who choose to include profanity in their books—is it necessary? Is it worth it to risk offending, and even potentially losing, a portion of your intended audience? Or could the novel still be a work of art without it?

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

In our pursuit of excellence, it just seems right to craft a novel using lovely words—prose that will edify, and renew our minds. I admire authors who do. There is an art to achieving edginess without cheapening it.

I’m sure I just pushed some buttons here. I try my best not judge or condemn, but when I begin to feel assaulted by novels that claim to be Christian yet offend, I feel the need to speak up … just one girl’s opinion in a noisy world.

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

What is your position on profanity in Christian novels? Do you think it can bring about positive life changes when used in a certain way? Is it what you want to read?

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18 responses to “Should Christian Books be “Sanitized?”

  • Partial Explanations

    Pardon my intrusion Lauren,
    Firstly, I’m truly not looking for Followers or Likes, in fact, you may delete this after you read it if you wish. This post so captivated me. I am often conflicted with my writing regarding its content. I was a published poet in several national publications and e-zines up until a few years ago when I stopped submitting my poems. I wrote about my life in bits and pieces. It was cleansing and cathartic at times, but at other times it felt as though I was dragging up my past too regularly and wasn’t centered on Christ. I’ve not always been a Christ follower and as such, I’ve made huge mistakes and lived a life that was as self-centered and sinful as anyone you can imagine. I write about those experiences. They come quite natural for me. I wonder if I should even entertain those thoughts anymore now that I’m a Christian, but I cannot help it, they keep cropping up in my mind. I try to find a way to integrate them into a piece that has Christian merit, but it just doesn’t work. On my site you can read the poem ‘Heredity’ that I wrote. This is just one example. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for indulging me.

    My best to you,

    • Lauren Lynch

      You’ve laid yourself bare in a most beautiful and poignant way. I know the pain an earthly father can leave in his wake. Isn’t it a relief that, once reborn, we can forgive and leave those earthly disappointments behind. We were made in our Heavenly Father’s image. I am so thankful I can cling to that heritage instead! Thank you for sharing…

      • Partial Explanations

        I appreciate your response, but I cannot seem to leave those earthly disappointments until I write about them, thereby reconciling those thoughts. When I write about tough and edgy subjects, the broken things in my past and present life, it’s not because I’m taking pleasure in rolling around in my own muck and mire. It’s not because I’m excusing my actions and attitudes.  It’s because the ugly and vile things of my past remind me how far I’ve come. They remind me that I’m an imperfect human, that I’m broken and in need of a Savior. They bring to mind my God reaching down to me while I was yet unlovable.

        Have a wonderful weekend, and I mean that Miss. You’ve been most kind to me and I shan’t forget it.

      • Lauren Lynch

        I hope I didn’t come across as having no appreciation for edginess. I write Christian speculative fiction and my novels are edgier than most. (A couple of my family members didn’t even want to finish reading them because my evil characters were a bit too disturbing for their tastes.) I think its valuable to expose evil–examine it even–but I do struggle with profanity in books that claim a Christian category. I am currently reviewing a Christian novel that dropped an “f-bomb” in the first chapter. Completely unnecessary to the story–awkward, even. That said, I still won’t give it a bad review based on the language. I’ll make note of it and review based on the story itself. My only intent here was to challenge Christian authors to avoid profanity when marketing to a Christian audience. I can’t imagine there is a Christian demographic that seeks it out, so why go there? I found the edgy, vulnerable style of your writing very attractive. I hope it’s cathartic for you!

      • Partial Explanations

        No, you didn’t come across negative at all. I’m pretty forgiving and nonjudgmental when it comes to other’s opinions. I too find profanity unnecessary for the Christian genre, though I must candidly admit, I don’t read very much modern fiction anymore. Perhaps I should? I hope you won’t mind me commenting in the future and talking with you? I too hope you’ll speak your mind with some of my future poems and short stories. Vulnerable is a very good word for me I’m afraid. I don’t necessarily like it, but it seems appropriate at times. Thanks again.

      • Lauren Lynch

        Absolutely! I’d love to read more. Expressed vulnerability in a man is both rare and brave. Kudos to you. I’ll leave the larger conversation for another day, but in brief, I enjoy reading poetry and stories that illustrate and explore the then/now, lost/found idea. Nothing wrong with dredging up the past and sifting it for evidence of growth and lessons learned.

    • Lauren Lynch

      May I ask why you’ve stopped submitting? You have talent and material. I’m sure there is an audience for it!

      • Partial Explanations

        Yes you may ask. That’s the $100,000.00 question isn’t it? I felt like a hypocrite on so many levels. I thought that I shouldn’t entertain thoughts and circumstances from my past as a Christian. I thought that I should not write anything that wasn’t glorifying to our Lord. Unfortunately, that was more difficult than I imagined. I submitted two pieces to national publications and both were excepted and published, and after I read them and the accolades, I regretted it. That’s the story of my writing. Should we as Christians write things that don’t speak of God directly? Should we re-purpose our writing to only point to Christ? Should we delve into our past regarding things that trouble us? So many questions, so few answers. Tis strange, I find myself looking so forward to your answers to me. I shall stop writing for now, I’ve surely worn out my welcome.

      • Partial Explanations

        Let me add to my last comment so as to be perfectly honest with you Lauren, I want no untruths between us just in case you may find my writing somewhere in this great big online world. I’ve been published at least 100 times, maybe more in secular publications. I’ve been published 3 or 4 times in Christian publications as well. The two I mentioned above were published after I’d given my life to Christ. They were in very secular publications. I was at first proud of myself that “I still had what it takes.” Later, I felt regret and remorse. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Thanks for understanding.

  • Jamie Carter

    When you reach a certain level of desensitization, it doesn`t matter how much a ‘Christian’ thing is similar to a ‘Secular’ thing. A good read isn`t made better by what isn`t in it. If I have to choose between the message and the method, I choose the message. The Bible isn`t exactly g-rated either, and yet we teach the parts that we like to children.

    • Lauren Lynch

      I agree that we’ve become desensitized. I’d like to reclaim my sensitivity! The Bible relates many stories that are far from G-rated … and yet it never resorts to gratuitous violence or coarse language to convict us of the evils it warns us against. I think we can do the same. I believe we can be more intentional about both the message AND the method. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to choose?

  • Peter R. Leavell

    I haven’t come down on a side yet on this issue in my books. Although, I’m fairly new to the CBA, I’ve started reading three or four a month for endorsements, etc. Christian books are anything but clean. Yes, there’s no swearing, but I look at the list in Proverbs 6:16-19.
    16 These six things the Lord hates,
    Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
    17 A proud look,
    A lying tongue,
    Hands that shed innocent blood,
    18 A heart that devises wicked plans,
    Feet that are swift in running to evil,
    19 A false witness who speaks lies,
    And one who sows discord among brethren.

    Our books are filthy if purity is our goal! I just read one extremely popular book where the woman couldn’t help but have impure thoughts about other men who were not her husband! She wrestled with the sin. NO ONE said a word about the book being disgusting. I was moved deeply by the book as well.

    For some reason, swearing is a single aspect of an ungodly world that has gotten a lot of publicity if it shows up in a Christian book. Probably because it’s easy to spot and condemn. I won’t say we need to clean up our books. No.

    I believe there is room in the CBA for all kinds of books. I believe the difference between the CBA and the general market is not avoiding swearing, but adding redemption. Pointing to Christ. And if a character is taking drugs, swearing, cheating on a spouse, and finds Christ…but the book is kicked out of the CBA because of a swear word, maybe our goal isn’t redemption. God, help us fill our books with hope!

      • Lauren Lynch

        I should probably add as a disclaimer here that I write fantasy novels. Much of what I read is also speculative fiction/fantasy. Obviously, I’m looking for a little escape from reality when I read and write.

    • Lauren Lynch

      I love stories that illustrate redemption and sometimes a certain edginess is required to achieve that. I get that. I’ve lived that. I guess I’m just tired of profanity creeping in for no good reason in books that are marketed as Christian and to Christians. I can’t imagine a scenario where the point couldn’t be made without it (and I’ve got a great imagination). I didn’t become a Christian until I was middle aged. I swore like crazy through the years before I became a believer. I’m done with it. I’m not amused by it, or edified by any message that feels it needs to use it. I want to protect the Spirit-softened heart I’ve received. I wish Christian authors would respect that. It’s not the message, but the method of delivery I object to. (Or – If we’re using it as some sort of device to reach non-Christians, shouldn’t it just be released into the secular market?) I would just challenge authors writing TO a Christian market to craft a message of hope without being crass. I believe it’s achievable. A girl can hope, right? (Thanks for your honesty, Peter. I do understand where you’re coming from.)

      • Peter R. Leavell

        Great points, Lauren. I grew up in a home where any word used in place of a swear word was wrong. It was the spirit of the thing, so to speak. So, if you smashed your finger and said ‘ouch’ instead of ‘gosh’ or something worse, it was swearing. You MEANT to swear, you only replaced it with another word which then BECAME a swear word. So I must admit, I’m a bit confused on the whole subject in general. (I just bought one of your books. It looks like my kind of story!)

  • heatherdaygilbert

    This was a very eloquently stated post, and summarizes how I feel. I do read secular books with language and I EXPECT that going in. What I don’t expect is trusted Christian publishing houses to pepper language throughput their books. However, as an author, I realize we’re all called to write to different demographics, and some want to include more “believable” language, just like I want to include believable marriages, etc.

    I know being from the Bible belt colors my views on things like this, but I also ponder those verses you quoted and they seem pretty clear. If words are showing up on paper, they are coming from the heart. Again–I’ve read some books by Christian authors w/language, but I appreciate it when they don’t market those books toward a Christian audience.

    • Lauren Lynch

      Thanks for chiming in, Heather. I’m in the Bible belt now too (although I’ve lived on all sides of the country, in big cities and small) and maybe by today’s standards I lean toward the conservative. I don’t expect all Christians to share my view (although it’s nice to know some do 😉 I’ve really had to mull my feelings on this lately as I’ve reviewed books. If the book is in a secular category, I just keep my mouth shut and my personal opinion to myself for review purposes. When it comes to a Christian category though … it’s tough. You don’t want to “judge,” yet there must be be some line we shouldn’t cross. All I can do is consult the Bible, pray for wisdom and go with that inner prompting for what I believe God would want us to do with our words. Is it fair of me to expect the same from others? I’ve decided that if it offends me and it’s in a Christian category, it’s fair game. And if writers want to be evangelistic with their realistic stories of redemption, what better place to offer their books than in a secular category? I agree. We should consider our intended audience and categorize wisely.

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