This raises another related issue of concern to many Christians when encountering literature, especially that of the twentieth century: how to respond to the presence of profanity, as well as the details of violence or sexual activity. Honestly, I don’t have any easy answer on this. How much explicit detail should a portrayal of sin offer to be fictionally effective or avoid to save being destructive to readers? I may seem too simple to say that this differs per reader, but at the college level where readers can be expected to have a certain degree of ethical responsibility, I think it best to risk trusting my students.

Gene Veith points out that we should be careful to distinguish four words: obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and profanity (35-39). Obscenity involves that which is "out of scene" or "offstage." The obscene thing is something that crosses the boundaries of decorum and, by doing so, destroys the effectiveness of a drama. (This charge is often made of modern "slasher" horror movies—the fear factor is destroyed by the gore.) Pornography is graphic sexual description designed to arouse its reader. Thus, we should keep in mind that while pornography is always obscene, not every obscene act is automatically porn. The distinction between obscenity and pornography suggests that we should ask two questions about the depiction of violence and sex in literature. One, is this depiction intended to corrupt me sexually? Two, what is the effect of this description upon the dramatic whole? Notice, for example, the use of sexual imagery in the following three biblical passages:

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him." The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing." But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, "Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do! (Judges 19:22-30)

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with elegance;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of incense.
All beautiful you are, my darling;
there is no flaw in you. (Song of Solomon 4:1-8)

As soon as she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. Then the Babylonians came to her, to the bed of love, and in their lust they defiled her. After she had been defiled by them, she turned away from them in disgust. When she carried on her prostitution openly and exposed her nakedness, I turned away from her in disgust, just as I had turned away from her sister. Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled. Therefore, Oholibah, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will stir up your lovers against you, those you turned away from in disgust, and I will bring them against you from every side—(Ezekiel 23: 16-22)

In each of three biblical passages above, sexual detail is important to the message of the passage. The first, historical in nature, shows us the degradation to which the tribes of Israel had fallen in the time of the Judges. The second passage is a beautiful meditation of a man pondering his wife’s bodily beauty, and the third is a prophetic parable showing the grotesque extremes to which the nation is willing to prostitute herself culturally and religiously. Each of these passages in its own way is frank and certainly detailed, but none is pornographic. The same kind of phenomenon is present in a poem like Peacock’s "Couple Sharing a Peach":

It’s not the first time
we’ve bitten into a peach.
But now at the same time
it splits—half for each.
[. . . .]
Two happinesses unfold
from one joy, folioed.
In a hotel room
our moment lies
with its ode inside,
a red tinge,
with a hinge. (1-4, 8-14)

She writes in praise of conjugal love by using the image of the peach joined red "with a hinge." It is a frank and sensuous image, but not intended to corrupt. Rather, it affirms God’s blessing on the act of consummation within marriage.

Vulgarity is a lesser form of obscenity, involving what is considered common or base by another class, while profanity is that which "trivializes" the sacred. Something that is considered in bad taste by one group may nonetheless contribute to realist fiction. It may be vulgar in my house to pick up your plate and lick it clean, but it isn’t everywhere. The same is true of profanity. It is too simple to make a list of unacceptable words without understanding why they’re being used. As Veith points out, we tend to associate profanity with words involving sexual organs or bodily excretions. These may be far less of importance to God than the way people use language to debase what is God’s (39). Permit me to quote a poem that has some profanity/vulgarity in it. "Psalm Against Psalms," by Andrew Hudgins, a professed follower of Christ, focuses on the struggle to believe amidst the world’s costly pain:

Isaiah ate the blood-red ember.
Ezekiel ate the dung. It went in fire
and came out praise. It went in shit
and came praise from his mouth. And this
is where I stick. I pray: thank, ask,
confess. But praise—dear God!—it clings
like something dirty on my tongue,
[. . . .]
But if grace tore through me and spoke,
as God in his strange redundant way
put on my tongue to praise himself,
I’d hear the words I said and learn (44-50, 63-66)

Gregory Wolfe says of this poem that it exemplifies perfectly what we all struggle with—the sacrifice of praise: "When it comes to sacrificing ourselves, we’re all unwilling victims" (3). Certainly, Hudgins’ use of the word "shit" is vulgar. It is a common word, offensive in many circles. But it is also earthy and its repugnant sound expresses more clearly the cost of learning to praise in this world than a more timid word like "filth." So by Veith’s definitions, Hudgins is not using a word profanely. Admittedly, for some, this word still functions obscenely in that it breaks up the drama of the poem; however, we should at least be aware that Hudgins’ intentions are some more than mere offensiveness. We might consider, for instance, the question as to whether the poem in question turns inward to itself or outward. Does it point to its own resources or to something higher, e.g. God? (Brown 110-11). In Hudgins’ case, the speaker of the poem, despite his vulgar word, is looking towards God. At the very least his use of such a word shouldn’t rob us of the truth he has to offer.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding