How Much Is Too Much?
Frequently on discussion sites, the issue of “too much” inevitably comes up. Where does a writer/reader/viewer draw the line when it comes to sex or bad language or violence? In other words, what constitutes too much?
The discussion of “too much” for Christians when we create or enjoy art, even pop art, is not something to push aside as irrelevant. In fact, here at Spec Faith the topic has come up often, from one point of view or the other. See, for example, archived articles in the topics of sex, violence, and language. And still, the question comes up about what constitutes “too much.” Almost the question seems to beg for someone to draw the line, to create the box, or to erase the line, to demolish the box.
The next question seems naturally to be, are there parameters for Christians when it comes to our reading and writing and viewing? Is “whatever you want” the right strategy? Or should Christians stand apart from our culture. After all, as many point out, we are to be in the world but not part of it.
Another consideration some may bring up for writers is, for whom do you write? After all, when you want the general market to read your books, don’t we need to “fit in” so that secular readers will pick up our books?
In my article last week I stated,
In truth, God’s word is already apropos to our lives and it doesn’t need our dressing it up or our covering it up so that “seekers” will feel more comfortable with our stories.
God’s word. In addressing how Christians are to live—which by necessity includes how we do and enjoy art—we need to root and ground our actions in the word of God.
Some decades ago, the call was to simply ask, What would Jesus do? Of course the problem with that approach was that no one actually knows if Jesus would always drive the speed limit, write Amish fiction, or watch The Game of Thrones. Our opinions about those things are actually guided by our greater understanding of God and His word.
Often in these discussions, Paul’s statements in Romans and in 1 Corinthians about eating meat offered to idols comes up. There is also a verse in Ephesians which many apply to novels and movies and TV programs:
But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. (5:3-4)
For whatever reason, we rarely talk about the effect of art on those who respond to the art. One goal writers have is to make readers feel. Yet when it comes to the issues of “too much,” we seem fixated on the do’s and don’ts, but not the why’s and the why not’s.
Recently I came upon a couple verses in Proverbs that may give some clarity— verse 3 from chapter 22 and verse 12 from chapter 27:
The prudent sees the evil and hides himself,
But the naive go on, and are punished for it.
A prudent man sees evil and hides himself,
The naive proceed and pay the penalty.
The questions from these verses are two-fold. 1) Are we prudent or naive writers/readers/viewers; and 2) What is evil?
I suppose there’s a third we could ask: Are we willing to pay the penalty? That’s pretty sad, though, because it means the answers to the other questions are, we are naive and we have determined that what we are writing/reading/viewing is, in fact, evil.
The New Testament talks a lot about abiding in Christ, which doesn’t seem like a place for the naive. After all, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” I conclude that Christians will opt for the “prudent” option—that we should see evil and hide from it.
If you think about it, we have no problem hiding from things that pose a danger to our physical lives. We run from burning buildings (unless our job is to put the fire out), we wear seat belts and bicycle helmets to “flee” injury in case of an accident. We throw tainted food out to avoid food poisoning. We kill or capture dangerous snakes or bears or coyotes. We put up “Stay Out Of The Water” signs when a shark is sighted off the coast. We caution kids about talking with strangers, in real life or on the internet.
These are wise things to do. We see the potential for harm, so we avoid the dangerous situation if possible.
How is it that we do not use the same wisdom when it comes to evil?
Perhaps the problem comes with that unanswered question I posed earlier: What is evil?
Some things are clearly evil for all of us: murder, hatred, immorality, lust. Lust? Yes, according to Jesus. Lust is no different than adultery. That flies against our culture that puts lust-inducing images in front of us at every turn, that has turned porn into an “everyone does it” form of entertainment. But there it is in Scripture.Other things such as “foul language” aren’t so cut-and-dried. Is bad language “evil”? And which foul words are really foul? Can we write/read/hear some words that mean excrement but not others? Does context make the difference? Intent? Impact, both on the characters in the story and on the viewer/reader? What about the impact on the writer? Is the writer responsible for the thoughts and emotions that his writing might generate within his audience?
Things could get complicated.
From the complexity, I think one thing should be clear: making a list of what’s acceptable and what’s not allowed, really isn’t possible. (And we haven’t even talked about how language changes over time, how words like gay were once upon a time not charged with sexual meaning.)
But there’s something else that should be clear: avoiding danger is wise.
Can language alert us to spiritual danger? I think it can.
I’m going to be annoying and say ‘It depends…on a lot.’
In a way, there’s a great extent where more or less content alone won’t prevent bad things. Travis’ statement about the law of conservation of evil is at play here.
For instance, when I was little, I avoided cuss words like the plague, since swearing was bad, according to the people I grew up around. So, during elementary school, there would be times when I would actually make a big deal out of cussing. Not often, but now and then it would come out around rougher kids that didn’t care how they talked. Looking back, I probably sounded childish and silly to them, or even judgemental. That, in a sense, could be a form of evil or sin or at least dysfunction, since my incompetence in handling those situations could have made Christians look bad.
On the other hand, cussing can make someone look bad, too. One time I was asking my ex’s opinions on cussing, and, basically, it doesn’t bother him much, though he usually keeps his own swearing pretty tame. Still, he did have one friend that would do things like drop the F bomb every other word. My ex said that, one tine, this friend of his stopped cussing because he was around a child and was trying to be polite. And, once this friend cut out his cussing, he sounded far more intelligent/articulate.
Still, though, people seem to assume that we need to emulate things in certain shows, or that the lessons in stories need to be in a ‘follow the main char’ format. That’s harmful because, even in the cleanest shows, there are downsides to the main char. Maybe his viewpoints are a bit wrong, or they’re too naive and not always workable in real life. Either way, we have to use discretion no matter what we watch.
For me personally, I can watch some pretty dark shows. I’m pretty desensitized to cussing (so long as it’s not directed at me) though my language isn’t that bad. Sometimes, perfectly ‘sterilized’ fiction just doesn’t make the cut for me, as far as empathizing with the characters and learning life lessons. Fate Zero was pretty dark, for instance, and some scenes were very hard to watch. But, it was extremely thought provoking. Violent as it was, the show didn’t really glorify violence and instead showed how bleak life, war, and even the world itself can be.
In the end, though, we see a few very important characters doing their best to come to terms with that and live a good life in spite of what they’ve been through. Waver’s and Alexander’s character arcs were pretty joyful and inspiring. And the very last scene with Kiritsugu made me feel so happy. He was probably still sad and beaten down by everything, but in spite of how he feels and what the Grail told him, he still seems to find at least a partial sense of peace and redemption.
That story granted a nice sense of catharsis, and gave me the context to understand certain things better. Sometimes it inspired me for my stories too, since aspects of them are a response to parts of stories like Fate Zero.
Stories like Fate Zero, Breaking Bad, Death Note, etc. can be seen as tragedies and/or cautionary tales. We aren’t meant to look at those stories and advocate/copy everything the chars do. But we often are meant to learn, and sometimes it’s easier to learn from watching chars making painful mistakes, since they can actually prove why something is bad.
From observation, most of the time people use cusses as a verbal marker for emphasis, and that’s not exactly evil. The hard thing is how exactly do you quantify the sort of damage that “bad” words do? Like, if it’s calling someone a bad name, probably, but if it’s just an emphasis marker, what harm is actually being committed, to speaker or listener?
Take cussing botany/geology guy:
Partial transcript: “Now this b*st*rd over here is real interesting! See these little delicate leaves? That’s a saxifrage, which just sends up one leaf, so this might actually be two plants there […] What the s**t is this?”
Man, does he have an accent, but I love him because he’s enthusiastic. His cussing is basically the same as me calling my cats “nerds” except with slightly less polite language.
And “bad” words are contextual, anyway. In Japanese, the words you might use translate as something relatively benign, but using specific honorifics or even second-person pronouns is loaded with a ton of cultural meaning about status and familiarity/condescension.
Context matters a lot, as your post indicates. Another point people have made is that cussing can be kind of triggering to some that have been abused, even if the cussing isn’t directed at them, so sometimes in regular conversation it might be good to be conscious of who’s listening.
With characters…whether or not cussing should be involved maybe depends on the story’s intended audience, etc. It’s probably better that the f bomb isn’t dropped in a little kid’s show. But, for teens and adults, the context is different. Whether or not they start cussing is a little more of a personal decision, but by that point they should be able to watch a show containing that if they so choose.
In those stories, cussing can be part of what it takes to respect the characters and situation, and the same goes for many other negative behaviors a char can have. In my Naruto fanfic, for instance, a chapter or two ago I decided to include a cuss word. I use damn and hell often enough, but at the end of this particular chapter, I was trying to decide exactly how to emphasize how Itachi felt, and those curses didn’t really work. But in the end it was just sort of like ‘You know, he’s got a ton of things piling on his shoulders and is dealing with insane amounts of guilt and grief. He’s definitely earned the right to cuss’ So the end of that scene has him trying to push the worst of his thoughts to the back of his mind so he could concentrate on going home for some much needed rest. And then, the narrative of his thoughts basically said ‘he had the rest of his life to ponder how sh**ty things were.’
Often enough, cussing isn’t needed to express a char’s hardships, but sometimes it is appropriate. If someone’s in that much pain, it doesn’t make sense to completely police their word choice, and simply because of that it can be awkward when an author is obviously trying to censor a char in a situation that would, in all likelihood, make them swear.
So, like you said, cussing can be an emphasis marker, but in many ways it can also be a stress marker.
Rebecca, I rarely comment on your posts because they’re so good I don’t feel I have anything to offer but a nod and a “thank you.” Same this time around. But I wanted to just give my hearty yes, here. It’s not about avoiding bad. It’s about that intimacy with Christ. That’s what informs my discernment on what is good or bad for me to imbibe. I’m glad to give up anything and everything for Christ. He doesn’t demand that, of course, but the point is that when we try to justify pornographic, foul, or obscenely violent things, it’s like trying to masturbate in the Holy of Holies. What are we wasting our time on those things for? We have the greatest intimacy and joy and peace in the universe bonded with our souls (Christ). And we’re still trying to trade him for silly dirty things? Everyone makes their own choices. That’s fine. But I want to make my choices in a way that brings me closer to Christ. If you’re making rules for yourself based on simple morality, you’re missing the point. It’s about joy and intimacy with Jesus.
Great comment, Brennan. You grasped so much more than the gist of what I was saying. You’ve captured the heart of what I was thinking and expressed it so clearly. Thank you!
“If you’re making rules for yourself based on simple morality, you’re missing the point.”
And thus, Calvinism.
It’s why I’m not a fan, when rules are more important than people. Also, purity is not much of a virtue. I can’t see that it encourages anything more than spiritual d*ck-measuring contests, but I’m coming to the conclusion that about 80% of Calvinism is nothing more than spiritual d*ck-measuring contests.
Also, cussing botany guy gives me joy. It is a small amount of joy, but I’ll take it.
notleia, I am a Calvinist. And I certainly believe people are more important than rules. I also believe that purity is the greatest virtue. Are you saying it’s not absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful that God is perfectly pure? If everyone was pure, there would be no pride or spiritual “dick measuring,” as you call it. There would also be no war, abuse, etc. And God promises that we can walk in his purity because of him (not because of us) living through us. Sinful nature remains, but Christ is like a lion tamer in us putting his foot on the neck of sin. As long as he’s around (as long as we abide in him, rest in him, just like the parable of the vine), we can live in actual purity. Why does it matter? Because purity = peace and unbroken love. Don’t know about you, but I want peace. It has nothing to do with looking at anyone beside me. And everything to do with being able to live in private intimacy with Christ without offending him or pushing him away. It’s called intimacy for a reason – it’s not for others to measure. I don’t know exactly how the mystery of God’s sovereignty plays out with my ability to make decisions. I know both exist. I know I’m completely dependent on God. His sovereignty and purity takes away any desire to measure myself against other people. His sovereignty also gives me rest in knowing that he’s killing sin in my life.
wtf is with Calvinists and violent/domineering imagery? Jesus would be a pretty crap lion tamer if that wasn’t just a metaphor. I’m sure there’s a Freudian theory I can apply to this.
It’s like a “tree falls in the forest” joke. If Calvinists couldn’t use violent/domineering metaphors, would they have anything to say?
As hard as I try, I can’t find anything of substance in your comment. All you are doing is spouting bitter, hateful remarks in ways that make you feel good about yourself. Violent, domineering imagery? How about how violent and domineering your comments are? “If notleia couldn’t use ridicule and bullying tactics, would she have anything to say?” If you won’t practice plain civility and mutual respect, then bye bye.