Christians who make art have surely stumbled over the question of whether the inclusion of certain content is “Christian” or “moral.” For the most part, offensive material can be softened or implied. Sexuality and nudity can be suggested, violence doesn’t need to be explicit, but profanity is unique in that it’s either there or it’s not (to varying degrees). So when is it–if ever–OK for Christians to include profanity in our art? Is it immoral or offensive to use it?
Well, if we wish to avoid offensive language, we ought to avoid the word of the Gospel itself (Matt. 10:34-39; 13:14-15; John 9:39; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 3:23; 1 Pet. 2:7-8; cf., Isa. 6:9-10), and the Bible is not lacking in indecent, offensive content (Matt. 23:27; Luke 13:32; Matt. 16:23; Judges 5:30; 1 Kings 12:10-11; Phil. 3:8; Gal 5:12; all of Ezekiel 16 and 23; all of Proverbs 5 and 7, and all of Song of Songs while you’re at it).
However, before we feel licensed to run our mouths off just because the Bible gets edgy, we must acknowledge that the tongue is powerful, and can easily be used immorally, as James describes (Jam. 3:3-12). Paul echoes this idea in Colossians 4:6 (cf., Matt. 5:14, 16). Peter says we must be holy “in all our conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15), which certainly includes speech. Most notably, though, Paul lays it out clearly in Ephesians 4:29 where he discourages speech that damages the body of Christ:
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
These exhortations and admonitions pertain to real life, but is the art Christians create subject to this standard as well? The answer will vary, especially with how one interprets “corrupting talk” (literally “rotten”) and “for building up…as fits the occasion.” Regardless of whether you have a clear opinion on the matter or not, here are some questions to consider.
1. Does my art engage with reality?
The crux of this issue is that our reality is a fallen reality, so artwork that seeks to illustrate an aspect of it is sure to be provocative or uncomfortable. The Christian community has unfortunately imprisoned the mediums of our art into the confines of “family-friendly entertainment” to the extent that the message doesn’t resonate like it could. What happened to expressing a sinful world in our art with the intention of illuminating the truths of God through that expression? The redemption of a fallen world is what the Bible is all about! But if we demand the Bible to conform to our current standard of “family-friendly,” then there would be no Bible left.
Michael Minkoff Jr., president and co-founder of The Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal, sums this up:
“If we limit the art we are willing to support to untroubling, doubt-free excursions into the well-charted puerile lands of comfortable, reassuring entertainment, we will have to reject the majority of biblical art. Because the Bible contains almost no ‘safe’ art. Aside from a handful of verses in the Psalms, the vast majority of biblical poetry challenges, unsettles, convicts, threatens, condemns, and generally offends….Christians need to stop being so squeamish….[we’ve] become a saltless bunch. Salt is gritty. Sometimes the truth is gritty too. An expurgated reality is a false one, and presenting only sterilized art will do little to address the real issues of a dirty world.”
Brian Godawa, author, apologist, and story-analyst reminds us that portions of the Bible were evocative and explicit to help its original readers/hearers navigate an evocative and explicit reality in a godly way. For example, Proverbs 5 and 7 are filled with language of a realistic sexual encounter to train young men to avoid temptation. Like astronauts training for space, Proverbs provides a simulation of temptation to help young men prepare for life.
The point is that we can’t be timid anymore. Christian artists must address real issues in real ways. I would love if everything in the world was family-friendly, but it’s not. We have to deal with it, and art is an excellent and powerful way to do so. Sometimes we need to make people uncomfortable with the content we include because there’s uncomfortable content in the world.
So does this permit profanity? Possibly, but engaging reality is only the first step towards the heart of the matter…
2. Does the language in question glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17; 3:23)? Does it “build up” the body (Eph. 4:29)?
Christian writers, musicians/songwriters, video game designers/scriptwriters ought to stand out in the contemporary market not just because they avoid “bad content” but because they instill the grace, justice and redemption of Christ in their work as if such concepts are real. When our art engages with reality, it prepares the way for the Gospel to do its work because audiences vicariously get a taste of how it can work in them when they immerse themselves in what we create. This is an excellent way to build up the body!
Perhaps we find a way for profanity to aid a redemptive theme or enhance a cautionary element (i.e., a strong rebuke to sin; Matt. 16:23). This is fine as long as we remember that we are Christians first, artists second. What we do in this life must always be considerate of others (Rom. 14:13; Phil. 2:3) and especially conscious of our “higher calling” (John 15:19; 17:14-16; Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 3:1-3; 3:23). We don’t get to be willy-nilly, for we will be held accountable for “every careless word we speak” (Matt. 12:36). We must be wise with our language, whether it’s directly from our lips or found in the art we make because we ultimately serve God and are inevitably part of those around us.
Profane language may be justified, but it may be wise to consider all other options first.
3. Can I use different words?
Imagine leaving a movie theater, setting down a book, or finishing a song to say, “That would’ve been better if there was more cussing in it!” When they’re absent, we don’t usually notice.
We owe it to ourselves to be creative and devise new ways to say the same thing. There are so many great words and phrases available. If Christ-centered artists want to take a step towards anything, then it would be smart to ditch the lazy cuss words and be original. If we want to make an impact or sound realistic, there are many “safe” options. Cursing is rarely the only way to do it, but some exceptions could be war movies/video games or plots that directly involve cussing (for example, a story where a pastor drops a string of cusses offstage without knowing his mic is still on). If there’s no other option, then the obvious next step is to prefer milder words over severe ones. The more severe, the more caution is required.
We don’t want our language to distract audiences from what we’re trying to say.
Conclusion: Is “Artistic Profanity” OK?
Art is about making an impact, so if we can maintain that impact without using profanity, then of course we’re better off without it. The best option is to find alternative ways to express the emotions/ideas because doing so will not only make this a nonissue, but it will force us to be creative.
However, I’m not in a position to say profanity can’t be used at all; that’s for each artist to decide. Including indecent language is a personal decision to make based on the unique circumstances that enhance the intent of your project. For me personally, I seek to leave them out of my fiction because I consider them lazy, distracting, unavoidable and unnecessary (I do, however, feel justified with using milder terms that are tolerable for most people, yet not professional enough for a job interview).
Wisdom, though, demands that we use all our words with caution, for we are lights of the world (Matt. 5:14, 16; Phil. 2:15). Artists can disagree on whether including foul language, for whatever reason, into their work is moral or justified, but what’s truly important is the Gospel we as a body are presenting.
Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Minkoff Jr., Michael. According to His Excellent Greatness: The Practice of Aesthetics for Christians Today. Sugar Hill, GA: The Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal, Inc., 2015.
Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He enjoys coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.