Writing about God and using the F-word

Posted: October 31, 2010 in This Ramshackle Tabernacle

Just prior to the release of This Ramshackle Tabernacle I was invited to do a couple of guest posts for Salty Ink. One was on the thrill of a new book: about sunburning my eyes reading Michael Winter’s This All Happened on a beach in Spain while my manuscript was sent off to press. You can read that one here.

The other guest post dealt with some heavier subject matter, addressing, in my own way, concerns about the excessive language in my stories and their dark subject matter.

That post, “Writing about God and using the F-word,” came back to me after a recent discussion about the book and its troubling content, and I thought maybe it might be worth a re-post. So here you go:


God: you love him or you hate him… or you think he’s a she. The F-word: a hatchet-chop of a word that can function as any type of speech. (Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints aptly demonstrates “the versatility of the word”). Both God and the F-word seem to polarize opinions: people on both sides saying you have to be for or against.

 But what if somebody wrote about God and used the F-word?

 Rudy Wiebe said in his memoir Of this earth that for him the F-word belonged to the sewer of language along with demeaning sexual jokes and innuendoes. On the other side of the country you have David Adams Richards’ early novel Blood Ties being critically trashed for consistent use of the F-bomb. But both writers come from faith perspectives (one Mennonite and the other Catholic).

 So, WTF (or What’s The Flipside to all this)? Sure the F-word is a turd in language’s sewer. It’s also an opening to that sewer, to that underground that is both linguistic and actual. When it comes to humanity, what we say often sign-posts where we are inside—and most of us are knee-deep in everyone else’s crap… and our own.

 Bleak? Yeah. But here’s the challenge to the writer: to wade into the muck of human lives and show the reader there’s more to this underground than she or he may think. There is more to language than the F-word, just as there is more mystery to God and life on this earth than either judgment or grace can tell.

 In This Ramshackle Tabernacle, I try, through connected stories, to get inside human lives using whatever linguistic crawlspaces are available—including the F-bomb. And I endeavor, once inside a life or story, to let the characters speak for themselves. This means wading with them through a lot of crap. But it also means following them as they search in their own ways “to achieve a saving grace,” as Hugh Cook has said of the collection.

Sometimes this is wrestling with God, cursing him, questioning, even fantasizing about him. Sometimes it is in finding the strength to stand-up to an abuser or working through a forty-year silence to say a first apology. Sometimes it is in trying to figure out how in hell to write about something other than hell.

That’s the trick: to see the flipside of f—k as the grace necessary to get beyond language and into the lives of characters who return us to ourselves other-wise, whether that other is God or the guy cussing you out across the street. The next trick—the double-or-nothing test of a story—is to make you, the reader, feel for that guy who keeps asking you what the f—k you’re looking at.

Finding the holy in the carnal, that’s what I’m interested in. That and redemption… but that’s another story altogether.

  1. steph says:

    I got asked about this a lot while at Redeemer. Sometimes my characters in plays I was in used the F-word, or said or did other crude things. People always asked me how I justified it. For me, if these things are fitting for the character, if they’re properly in context, I have no problem saying or writing them. If the words or actions are excessive or used only for some sort of “tough” or “crude” factor, and nothing is lost by taking it out, then I do have a problem with it being there. It’s about portraying something or someone realistically. I actually resented the fact that people at school were always trying to censor things, or refuse to read or see important views other than Christian ones. And then, even Christians swear and do unChristian things. We cannot go about with blinders on. It makes us weak defenders, for one, and keeps us ignorant, for another.

    So, you raise an interesting point about the grace to see past the dirt. In order to do that, we have to see it, and acknowledge it, first.

  2. Stuart says:

    My question is, not as an author or artist in any way, but as a reader and thinker, can we see and acknowledge the dirt without getting dirty ourselves? I don’t want to reject the use of the f-word because I am not an author and don’t know what it is like. But I do have issue with it–in the sense that if we are called to be Christ-like, we are called to be ‘shrewd as snakes,’ knowing that these things are done, these words are used, but ‘innocent as doves,’ not taking part in them ourselves (Matt 10:16).

    I am thinking through these things myself, so please do not take this as a rejection of what has been done, but just as a way of getting to an understanding of Christian responsibility with words.

  3. Thanks for both responses, Steph and Stu. Really.

    It’s true, the piece is written from a writer’s perspective, trying to answer the question that keeps popping up: Why the excessive language? It comes out of trying to listen to voices around me in the world (being shrewd, as you say). Paying attention to everything, whether or not I like the sound of it or would say it myself. In contrast to what some may think (that I use the language I do to appeal to a broader readership), I use the language I do to put off a reader sometimes: like putting up signs – “rough road ahead.” I want the language to bother people.

    I have a responsibility both ways then, to those I write about and to readers. Attending to the first without forgetting the second, is difficult. Which is why humor intersperses the darker stories and why there are characters like Dan Roblin, Annie, Chizim, and even Bill Smithwick who act as Virgil-like guides to the reader (I hope), people who seem more able to be both serpent-like (shrewd) and dove-like (compassionate).

    It may be a cop-out to say not all stories are for all readers. Just like not everyone can handle being a social worker or corrections officer. But there are those called to those vocations. They deal with a lot of dirt but what the good ones “see” is not the dirt but the human struggling to get clean. My goal is to write about these faces and to show, through stories, what it means to see these faces as made in the image of God. And therefore worthy of love and readerly compassion.

    So, to answer the question, can we acknowledge the dirt without getting dirty ourselves, I don’t think so. Books affect us in deep enough ways that often we take on the things experienced in a book as our own. This is how I read, anyway. But I am not just writing about dirt (abuse, violence, alienation), I am writing about what makes our humanity whole (love, redemption, perseverance – and, indirectly, the giver of those gifts). I can only hope the reader sees the latter without being blinded by the former.

    This is the writer’s wager: and readers’ responses are the only way I can know if the wager paid off – if by throwing bread out on the water it will in fact return to me after many days.

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