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Language And The Influence Of Speculative Fiction

While language influences, the ideas language conveys, influence more.

“H*ll no,” the little girl shouted to her friend during recess. “H*ll no!”

Such language from a six- or seven-year-old startled me, but also made me think. First thought? The more our culture does not believe in hell, the more the word seems to punctuate our language.

Second thought? Where does someone so young learn such language?

Of course just yesterday I heard about a mother whose children attend a Christian school who sprinkled various curse words in her language as she talked with another mom and her two primary school children.

So cursing is just part of the culture here in America, then?

My thoughts then jumped to the five Star Trek TV shows that have been airing on an oldies station. In only two, Enterprise and Next Generation, do the characters curse. I suspect the limits on foul language are more a reflection of the FCC regulations than any conviction of the authors.

Still, there is some literary rhyme to the change of language in the different shows. Next Generation rarely had the characters use expletives. Enterprise, which was a prequel and therefore set closer to our time, had the characters include curse words with some frequency.

The Star Trek franchise is predicated on the idea that humankind will improve and improve as time passes. Consequently, a refinement in the use of language fits that premise.

In addition, as far as I can recall, no Vulcan ever used bad language, even the one who co-stared in Enterprise. Vulcans are, after all, people that have mastered their emotions, a race that prides itself on its dependence on logic. So why would they lace their language with words meant only to convey an emotional reaction?

As a writer, I can’t help but ask the age-old, unanswerable question, one that essentially came up again on a Facebook site recently: starting with language, should stories reflect culture or shape it? Without a doubt Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and apparently those who took over the production of the following iterations, believed in using their platform to influence culture, to present a picture of the future that they hoped for.

Hence various stories showed the value of sentient life, no matter what form; the importance of logic; the need for self-control; the evil of greed and the unwarranted use of force; the significance of love regardless of gender or race; the progress of society toward the good; and more. The original series went so far as to propound the idea that no opponent was actually evil. Rather, they acted on the basis of self preservation, and much conflict was a result of misunderstanding.

How influential has Star Trek proved to be? How much have the values we see in society today been shaped by the thoughts and beliefs embedded within those stories?

Of course that’s another unanswerable question. The stories don’t exist in a vacuum. What other influences were at work on the culture at the same time? What other stories? What historic events? What famous people who spoke into the culture?

Besides serving as a catalyst for various parodies and movies and even an unrelated TV series this year, perhaps the greatest affect Star Trek and its variations have had on the culture is one that legitimizes change, including the advance of technology.

For instance, the characters basically had smart phones before the cell phone was even invented. They read from electronic tablets before the iPad came into being. And they depicted space travel before a man had stepped foot on the moon.

In addition, they showed racially integrated star ship crews. They positioned women in places of prominence as part of the bridge staff and senior officers.

And they didn’t curse. Clearly, the language the characters used did not spill over to influence the language of our culture today. Does that mean stories have little or no impact on the direction of society? Not at all. Rather, I think the power of Star Trek resides in its ideas, not its particular words or even its gadgets.

In the same way, I think that what matters the most for a Christian writer who aims to influence culture—which is a good thing, in my opinion—are the ideas he puts into his stories. Should he use the language of our culture? In other words, should his characters curse? If the characters in the Star Trek franchise managed to have an influence on the culture without copying the lowest form of our present day language, I don’t see why Christian writers can’t do the same.

On the other hand, by avoiding questionable language, Christians may be modeling a form of speech that is consistent with that of those who believe as they do. They may not necessarily be setting a higher standard for the unconvinced and unconverted.

What then are Christians to do?

I’ll admit, I hate to hear a six-year-old with a foul mouth. I hate to hear a fifteen-year-old with a foul mouth. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t think of an acceptable age when cursing seems just fine. But is anyone saved by eliminating curse words from their vocabulary instead of by believing in the atoning work of Jesus Christ?

My point is simple. While language influences, the ideas language conveys, influence more. Perhaps we Christians should think more about what we want to say in our stories than how we say it.

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