Vulgarity in Literature: Profanity, Scatology, and Sexual Content.

An issue of concern to many Christians when encountering literature (and film), especially that of the twentieth century, is how to respond to the presence of profanity, as well as the details of scatology or sexual activity. How much explicit detail should a portrayal of sin offer to be fictionally effective or avoid to save being destructive to readers? It 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. At the same time, I do make a solid attempt to choose texts that are not salacious, which I believe my students are ethically ready to tackle. My goal is that students would be discerning enough to read complexly with a critical eye. Plus, I am careful to test myself in what I read and view. (And I also leave open the invitation to students that if they believe a text is causing them to sin, I will work to reassign them something else.)

John Milton in his famous treatise against censorship, Areopagitica, argued that books are expressions of rationality and, therefore, of the imago dei:

[A]s good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. (720)

For Milton, to politically censor a book is akin to the murder of ideas. Yet self-censorship may be necessary at times to protect ourselves because not every work of art is beneficial for every person. What I would like to suggest is one should have a clear, biblical response to matters of textual content in mind. As such, we should begin our examination with a study of what scripture has to say. The following two passages from the writings of Paul warn against speech that destroys and corrupts:

Do not let any unwholesome talk (sapros) 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity (aischrotes) , foolish talk (morologia) or coarse joking (eutrapelia), which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.
(Ephesians 4:29-5:14a)

But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (aischrologia) from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:8-9)

Paul wants to draw clear life distinctions between the practices of the old self, which are associated with spiritual darkness and worldliness, and those of the new self, which are an expression of God’s holy people and Christ’s kingdom. He is particularly concerned that believers in the churches in Ephesus and Colossae do not use their freedom in Christ as an excuse for a destructive lifestyle. He is zealous that they should be free of rage, malice, or sexual impurity, and as such, he warns them against acts of the body, including acts of speech. In the Greek text, he uses five different words that are of particular interest to our concerns:

  1. Sapros: a word denoting corruption, the decay associated with plants, the crumbling of brickwork, or the stale taste of old food. The word used implies destructive or corrupt speech. Some translations have understood the word to be used in the sense of Eph 5:4, but it is also likely that Paul uses it in a more overarching sense—any speech that corrupts or destroys a life of holiness.
  2. Aischrotes: a word closely related to a number of other Greek words implying shame or indecency; the word is used of shameful or indecent speech, as well as ugly or wicked language.
  3. Morologia: foolish talking. The word likely refers to the wisdom tradition’s concern with the fool (see more below).
  4. Eutrapelia: a difficult word to translate in part because it is only used this one time in the New Testament. Outside the NT, the word is most often used in a positive way to describe the dexterous or ready reply, wit, or jesting. When it is used negatively, it tends to apply to dishonest trickery or ribald joking. A few have suggested that Paul may be using the word to condemn double entendre. Also of interest: in Aristotle, eutrapelia is used of the one who does such things to smooth business or political deals.
  5. Aischrologia: Another word only used once in the NT; however, its meaning is more clear, related to words involving shame. It is used alternately of filthy speech or abusive language.

Paul’s concern here gives us a few tests to begin with:

  • Is the speech I am using corruptive of myself or of others? Does it weaken a life characterized by Christ-centered peace, holiness, and thanksgiving?
  • Alternately, is my speech characterized by the building of shalom, a striving after holy living, and a spirit of thanksgiving?
  • Does the speech I am using approve of things that are shameful or indecent?
  • Does my speech abuse or destroy others?
  • Is my speech foolish? The wisdom tradition understands a "fool" to be involved in some of the following:

    chattering, unrestrained speech
    a lack of discernment of what is fitting
    dissension, gossip, slander, mockery—all which destroy a community
    the creating of division and quarreling
    words that are disloyal
    self-boasting
    a lack of sound-teaching
    a lack of concern for economic justice

How, then, should this standard apply to fictional works? Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians also addresses the way one engages knowledge of corrupt matters. He stresses that evil deeds exposed to the light are properly named. He notes that "it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret." Some have read this verse as a warning against even discussing evil matters. Of course, in context, Paul is telling us that evil actions will be exposed and made known for what they really are. Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message offers verse 12 in this way: "It's a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see." Paul’s concern here is that we do not forget or confuse the nature of such deeds. I do not believe that Paul is suggesting that Christians should never discuss sinful matters or make references to scatology or sex. If this were the case, how does Paul make such a suggestion as the following?

Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:11-12)

If Paul is willing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to offer a taunt about castration, then clearly it is possible that some Christians can be more squeamish than scripture. The same could be said of Elijah’s joke at the prophets of Baal’s expense: "About noontime Elijah began mocking them. ‘You'll have to shout louder," he scoffed, "for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or he is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or he is asleep and needs to be wakened!’" (I Kings 18:27 NLT). If Elijah is willing to joke about Baal being asleep on the toilet, then perhaps Paul is not making a blanket statement about every reference to human feces. How, then, do we distinguish those comments that build up what is true, good, and beautiful from those that work to corrupt and defile?

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. In the first and third case, we should feel repulsed or disgusted. The author wants us to, to feel more deeply the horror of a time of anarchy or to respond with ridicule to the shameful practices of a nation. In the second, the author is not tempting us to lust, but is offering a clear and frank meditation on pure, sexual stimulus.

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). Of course, the last thing I would want to do is end up offering empty excuses that approve of profanity or sexual corruption. I am only too aware of Paul’s warning: "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient." However, I am concerned that we tend to judge people by the presence of certain slang words without a sense of their heart. (For example, the phrase "screwed up" in some circles is profane, while in others is just another way of saying "made a mistake.")

Therefore, let me offer some tentative conclusions:

  1. If scripture is willing to honestly describe sinful behavior, then so should we in the literature we read and write. We produce a dishonest drama, fiction, or poetry, if we are unwilling to portray sin. This includes, if Paul and Ezekiel are any indication, with humor.
  2. At the same time, we must be careful that our portrayals do not end up approving of what we should condemn. This can happen in two ways. One is for the author to begin to approve subtly of what is actually wrong. The other is for the reader to begin to be corrupted, and this admittedly may happen even with literature that the author intends to condemn wickedness. But, at this point, I would place the responsibility on the part of reader or (in the case of younger readers) the reader’s parents.
  3. Likewise, we should be cautious in deciding what has a negative or positive impact on another believer, yet neither should we be afraid to practice and submit to mutual and community accountability within our congregational life.
  4. In general, Christian churches need to do a better job in teaching their members how to engage the arts in a critical and knowledgeable manner. After all, a text's ethical and aesthetic impact encompasses far more than a few words or details.  It extends to its total imaginative and dramatic construction.
  5. We should be careful to distinguish that which disturbs us and that which actually corrupts us. The one may be a moral, even ethically reinforcing, response, while the later is clearly what Paul warns us against.
  6. Many Christians feel the same is true of profanity in literature and film. In a crime or war story, for example, such language is reflective of how people actually speak. Does reading, listening to (or as an actor speaking) such language corrupt? Does it qualify as the shameful, filthy, and abusive speech that Paul is concerned with? I must leave it to each Christian to test his or herself.
  7. Therefore, we may need to be sometimes willing to practice something like censorship for ourselves, not to kill a book, but to save it. We may understand that a work is edifying for another reader, but due to whatever pattern of corruption that still resides in our own hearts, it is not safe for us.
  8. On the other hand, I think Paul is clear here that Christians should avoid in their everyday speech that which would corrupt or shame others about them, and that implies being sensitive to the consciences of different believers with different backgrounds.
  9. Christians engaged in any societal or cultural activity, should examine themselves according to Paul’s criteria: has engaging in this work or act caused me to increase in the love of the good and holy? Am I wiser? If so, why? If not, why not?

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990.

"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