Chip MacGregor

July 24, 2010

Sex and Language in Religious Books?


Elizabeth asked this: "With the rules relaxing on language in many general market books, it seems the rules have also relaxed as far as portraying sexuality in Christian books. I know you don't just represent religious books, but can you tell if this is the trend? How much is too much? How much can you reveal in romantic scenes?"

When it comes to both language and sexualty, I think two questions must be kept in mind:

1. Who is your audience?

2. What is your message?

If you're writing a romance novel for a CBA audience, any sort of foul language or explicit sexual description is simply going to torpedo your book. The gatekeepers of CBA are largely middle-aged, white, ultra-conservative types. (That's NOT a criticism, mind you, that's a description.) So any sort of over-the-line language will get you bumped, if not banned. (I know of an example where a CBA house rejected a manuscript because the author referred to a character's "silk underwear." Really! Apparently Christianity is a cotton-only kingdom.) Using curse words or describing any sort of sexual activity is not going to work in CBA.

If you're writing for a more general audience (and I say that because I do a lot of Christian books, and some people sort of expect me to have religious overtones in a lot of the things I represent), I don't think readers expect religious behavior from unreligous people. You have more latitude because of your audience and the message you're trying to send. I'm assuming that, even with some rough language or descriptions of bodies/actions, you're still seeking some sort of redemptive message to your readership. (If you see me at a writer's conference this year, make sure to ask me about the British actor who survived cancer and his postmodern response to God. Very funny story that, if I told it here, would bring me grief and 300 "I'm shocked" emails.)

If you're writing for the general market (I hate the term "secular audience"), I think it comes back to you knowing your own voice and your calling as a writer. What are you comfortable saying and showing? What words are you comfortable using? The fact is, if you're not comfortable with a scene as you've created it, you should probably change the scene. I think an author needs to feel he or she is going to be at peace with what he or she wrote. I represent a couple authors who use some salty language at times, but I have no doubt of their belief in God, and they have no doubt what they're writing is what they're supposed to say. Some of this points us back to the question of "what constitutes a Christian book?" If you see the writings of Dorothy Sayers and Walker Percy and John Grisham and Flannery O'Connor as Christian books (and I do), then you probably agree with me that sometimes the message of a book overshadows the exact words that are used, though the story is made up of those words.

If you're a Christian writer, listen to this: A few years ago, I'd have quoted the apostle Paul: "Do not let any unwholesome words come out of your mouth, but only that which is helpful for building others up, that they may give grace to those who hear." I might have used that as an argument to never use a swear word in your stories. (And, to be completely honest, my wife would still suggest I use that as my measuring rod.) At 52, my take on that verse has changed a bit — enough to recognize that, at times, Christ Himself used some pretty tough language when dealing with difficult issues. He didn't swear, but he was pretty blunt in his description of certain people and behaviors. And maybe some authors, in writing for a particular audience, will use words and descriptions I may not choose to use. But I'm less apt to be critical of them than I used to be. You see, I sometimes swear. (Stop the presses! There's news.) I make lousy choices. I don't always follow my own advice. So I'm a sinner (huge news to many of you, I’m sure), but my faith tells me I’m saved by grace. I'm also a writer. And my writing is a reflection of who I am — still struggling with issues. Not parading my failures, but revealing myself through my writing, even if at times that means letting people see under the veneer of spirituality I sometimes put on. 

I REALLY want to be "better." I want to be nicer. I want to be stronger. Some days I make it. Most days, I fall short. If I'm telling a story about a day I make it (or my character makes it, through me), that's probably going to reflect a much nicer, stronger, better person than if I'm telling a story about a day I really screwed up. Who are YOU writing to? And what is the message YOU want to tell? Answering those two questions will resolve much of the struggle over what words you can use in the telling. 

If you can figure out WHO your audience is (who will buy the book) and WHAT your message is, then you're well on your way toward creating a book you can be comfortable with. I represent some books you might not be comfortable with, in terms of language or behaviors or beliefs — but so what? We're not all going to agree on every point, and God doesn't seem to mind our having disagreements (isn't that why we have denominations?). What's important is that YOU feel confident and comfortable in the book you wrote — that it adequately conveys the story you have to share. 

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