Wash your mouth out with soap!

11 07 2010

I know the nature of blogging is that it tends to be fairly one way – author to audience. So forgive me for contravening the norm, but I’d like to ask you a few questions!

I’ve recently been pondering the problem of profanity in art. As an artist and a Christian (who is personally convinced that swearing is an unhelpful and unhealthy practice for a believer!) I’ve been wondering about where to draw the line with regard to what I would be willing to say for the sake of my art.

My thoughts are myriad. For the moment I’m giving nothing of my position away… But I wonder if I can ask you a few questions and get some alternative perspectives before I try to put my ponderings into words.

A few preliminary comments, and then the questions:


  • I’m after your opinions and gut reactions, but if you can back them up with experience and Scripture all the better
  • I’m primarily an actor and a playwright, but am happy to hear from people who engage in other disciplines.
  • I am mainly thinking of secular work. I am not imagining an F-Bomb in a kids’ nativity service!!
  • I am here concerned mostly with profanity, but there are of course inter-related subjects: nudity, violence, immorality of all sorts… Feel free to comment on those if you wish
  • When you comment, do let me know if you would rather I didn’t make your comments public
  • If you are going to include swear words in your comments, for illustrative purposes, please star out the middle letters


  • Is it ever ok for a Christian actor to swear?
  • Is it any worse for a Christian writer to swear than an actor, since he is then causing others to swear?
  • Are there some swear words that are more permissible than others? How can a performer/writer know where to draw the line?
  • How about blasphemy? Are there any circumstances under which it would be ok for a Christian to blaspheme whilst in character?
  • If you are in a play where others swear (even if you don’t have to) does your involvement condone their language? Are you guilty by association?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!!




23 responses

12 07 2010

Interesting post, I’ve been thinking about this question recently. I wonder what you’re expecting as responses. I think it is hard to set a blacklist of words; first of all, the perceived coarness of some of them shifts with the place you find yourself in, and also shifts in time. But as to the question of coarse swearing as an actor, I think it depends on what you’re trying to achieve!
Ryoo Seung-bum’s a Korean actor, and I know he goes to church, with a Bible in his hand, but he’s played some roles which have required him to swear a lot (e.g.: playing an insecure school bully and a gangster), but these roles have been realistic, sensitive, and really conveyed something. If you’re an actor and you want to express certain things (for ex.: lostness, perversion…) there are ways that will enable you to do that. Some films are really unrealistic when there’s no swearing and I don’t think they convey as well the characters’ heart. Another example of a Christian swearing a lot is one movie is Denzel Washington in Training Day.
There are other things that are not necessary to make a movie realistic: excessively long/graphic sex scenes, plus I’d feel bad for the actor who has to snog someone else than his wife (and the wife!!!!).
So there’s my two cents…

12 07 2010

In the end you are a Christian who wants to honor God in all you do, and to honor and serve other who you work with and who you are presenting your work to. Does the language, amount of clothing, themes honor those people? What kind of questions are you trying to raise in your work?

I say all this after some consideration and after saying ‘bastard’ in my teaser film that is on YouTube. It was right for the character, perhaps a tad rough for the genre, I could have found an alternative that was used in that era that was less offensive, but decided to go with it. So While I have changed my stance somewhat since that video clip, I think it comes down to the content and context of the piece as well as the audience and cast. Who will be offended? And who do you want to honor and serve?

12 07 2010

Good question. It’s a similar point as Tim Keller raised at Westminster Chapel last year when he said that his typical flock includes NY actors who struggle with the whole “method” concept. How far should they immerse themselves in a role and actually experience that anger/attraction/etc in order for the role to be authentic?

Swearing is, to most degrees, a subjective thing. Some are offended by certain words while other people aren’t. The ambulance service is full of men of letters – mostly F’s and B’s(*). Generally, that kind of language is accepted as normal and not offensive in the slightest WITHIN THE STAFF ENVIRONMENT. As soon as patients or other agencies are present, the dynamic and expectation changes. Professionalism (should) come to the fore. The same goes for a myriad of other arenas – building sites, sport, etc. The point I’m trying to make is: would by my swearing in conversation be a problem in the staff room? Not necessarily, except that I still avoid it as a part of my being different and wanting my behaviour to honour God. But on rare occasions I use coarse language as I relay a story regarding what someone else said. In that context, no one is offended because they use those kinds of words regularly, and I’m passing on information that is a part of the story’s point. However, I still avoid it where possible.

So: for the acting world? Don’t just be aware of the role’s context (like Joey points out, to portray a character inauthentically would undermine the point of the narrative) but also understand who the intended audience is in the first place as you seek to engage…

(*that’s a Billy Connelly joke, not mine)

12 07 2010
Mark Heath

Fascinating question. I guess its one of those issues where its hard to know exactly where to draw the line, but at the same time there ought to be a line somewhere. I can imagine that there would be a real price to pay for an actor who refused to use certain words in terms of loss of employment opportunities and loss of reputation.

For a Christian writer, the challenge is to think creatively, to find ways of writing dialog that conveys emotion and intensity without having to resort to swear words (although I admit there are probably some types of character that would be almost impossible to portray without doing so).

Rom 14:23 would be my guiding verse on this. If you don’t feel you can say your lines with a clear conscience, then don’t say them (and patiently endure whatever ridicule / accusations that come your way as a result).

12 07 2010

Thanks all… keep those thoughts coming!

12 07 2010
Bill Hayes

Very interesting. I’m still thinking about this, I have yet to come to any solid conclusions and always seeking further wisdom so I’d love to see a post detailing your thoughts in the future.

My guide is Proverbs 22:11, it matters little to me what the specific words are so long as your speech is gracious. This depends largely on who you’re talking to and erring on the side of caution as well as cultural considerations. I do swear, like a docker, but only in person to people who I know are comfortable with that language. I believe it is possible to swear while speaking with grace.

However, we can be angry with grace as well and that is often, to my mind, appropriate. Something can be “really abhorrent” or it can be “f-ing abhorrent”, one is more powerful and conveys more anger and disgust. Of course to people who don’t wish to hear such words, “really” will have to suffice in order to be respectful.

Your questions assume that “real life” profanity is never appropriate whereas I believe it can be. F*** doesn’t always mean “to fornicate with”, it can simply be perhaps the strongest and simplest expression of anger (as in the above example) when communicating to a secular audience. I think when talking to Christians the word “fool” gains more strength, so to a Christian brother doing something foolish I may say “you are acting like a fool” and that would be a powerful but gracious speech expressing my (hopefully Godly) opinion on their actions. Whereas to get the same weight with non-Christians, with their different cultural understandings of words, “you are acting like a c***” is required to gain the same effect.

If these words are used to express our righteous anger at injustice or foolishness then they can be used graciously. Of course that’s just my current understanding and is all open to change.

In terms of art, I recently wrote a song that drops the f-bomb a few times. It’s a light-hearted song discouraging belief in false idols and encouraging an appropriate level of scepticism. It was also written to show non-Christian friends that I am also sceptical about many things and my faith is one based in logic and what I have seen, not an attempt to follow any crowd or belief for personal convenience. The word “motherf-ers” is used largely because no other word fits the song as well, no other word expresses (to a secular audience) my frustration. It’s also used in a light-hearted fashion and certainly does not suggest that people who believe crazy things will commonly fornicate with their mothers. “Quod erat demonstrandum, you fools” does not carry the appropriate weight. It’s also not as funny, the juxtaposition of the Latin phrase and the f-bomb amused me. The sound of the syllables also went well with the song, it was the ideal word for what I wanted to express and I didn’t want to “not use it” on the basis of “some people don’t like that particular word”.

The Bible speaks strongly against blasphemy and in favour of respectful or clean speech, but I fully believe that there is a respectful and clean way to swear. Swearing out of anger at injustice, swearing with people in a manner that builds fellowship and swearing for artistic expression are all okay in my book. I will also swear sometimes on Twitter/Facebook but extremely rarely. I wouldn’t shout swear words across the street and I wouldn’t swear to people who I know are uncomfortable with that sort of expression.

To answer your questions with my opinions:

When acting you have to use the language most befitting that character because that is what best gets the point across that you are making. This is swearing for artistic expression to an audience who can be made aware that there is such language so I have no issue with it. As a writer the same applies, although it is appropriate to ask your actor if they are happy to swear and respect their wishes if not. All swear words are equally bad and equally good, what’s important is that all language (swearing or not) be done with grace and that requires a case-by-case consideration of context and audience.

Blasphemy is an odd one. I think I would be part of a Christian performance which required blasphemy (playing a non-Christian who later becomes saved in the play as part of a gospel message, for example) but I certainly wouldn’t do it in my own speech or in music. I also would be uncomfortable if asked to blaspheme in a performance which was not (overall) espousing the gospel and would probably not do it. It is blatant sin for us to deny Christ, but in the gospel message example it is clear to all that this is not a denial of the gospel but a method of spreading it.

And if you’re in a play where others swear then I think that’s fine for me but if you personally think swearing is wrong in any context then it would be hypocritical to be involved. It’s not guilty by association, it’s more about permitting something and allowing yourself to be involved with something that otherwise you would describe as abhorrent.

That’s about it, all my opinion of course and I’m always seeking further wisdom on this topic in order that my opinion becomes more in line with God’s. I do not know if it is currently or not, but I do know that the Bible uses (what would have been at the time) some very colourful language where it was appropriate to do so (Exekiel 23:20 is a prime example). This is not a carte blanch to swear at everybody, just that sometimes it is appropriate to use what some would consider to be “unclean speech” to make a grace-filled point.

12 07 2010

This question reminds me of something a well known preacher once said. I won’t give name in case I misquote him but it was something along the lines of he had no issue with films with lots of violence in as they were not real bullets and it was just acting but even the slightest bit of nudity he would not watch as it wasn’t just acting – the person was in real life naked. 

I guess the same could be applied to swearing – the actor doesn’t act swearing they are actual swear words leaving their lips. 

I tend to think this view has a lot of merit and I probably share a lot it’s views (though I don’t like too couldn’t films either)

A related question is –  is there a time where forceful language has a place for example the passage in scripture where Paul says he considers all as rubbish – if we truly want our bible translations to be literal then that should have a much stronger translation to it and do we rob the passage of it’s intensity by sanitising it?

I’m not saying I think we should use such language (I have no real answers) and by the grace of God have not done so for as long as I can remember but it’s an interesting question. 

Finally at what point does a swear word become a swear word. I use the word flip a lot and though to my friends and colleagues it isn’t offensive I sometimes wonder is it more about the attitude behind the word than the word itself or is it more about public perception and our witness to those around us?

Anyway those are my somewhat garbled thoughts. 


12 07 2010
Dez Gray

Who is your audience? What will make sense, ring true for them? How can you best communicate the heart of your story to them? These questions help me decide.

How does a Christian writer, actor, director portray sin accurately without sinning or causing someone else to sin? This can be debated for hours!

A number of years ago now I had a discussion with a friend, he stated that he could not watch any 18 certificate film as it would almost certainly contain images or language (or both) that would deeply trouble him or tempt him to sin. He continued on to say that he didn’t see how any christian could justify watching an 18 certificate film. He was a little taken aback when I strongly disagreed with him.

At the time I was a trainee Director at Drama College and aspiring film-maker (still pursuing that one!) and I put it to him that to each of us is given a different grace* for the different callings God places on our lives. With that in mind I used this example:
When ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was released in the cinemas there was a furore, this was partly due to press coverage of the violence in the film but also down to the critics hailing it as a modern classic and Tarrantino as a genius. I felt, as an aspiring film-maker, it was important for me to see this film in order to be able to fully participate in its public critical analysis, to be able to determine for myself the genius or not of the storyteller and to learn from the techniques he employed. I was not scarred, troubled or tempted to sin by it.

I suggested to my friend that God had given me a different grace, to be able to watch certain films in order to learn from them and avoid being damaged by them. He initially still disagreed but went away and prayed. The next time we were together to pray he apologised to me and said that on further reflection he could see that God would give a different grace to each for the purposes he had planned for them.

Now this is not to say that every 18 certificate film is of benefit to watch and in the same way I cannot say carte blanche that it is fine to have swearing in every production but I do believe that it is acceptable in the right circumstances.

Its getting late now and I can feel myself starting to ramble so I will end by saying that I would struggle with a Christian blaspheming even in a role. Is that biblical or a personal line I’m drawing in the sand? Hmm…

Will be back to read more entries soon.


*When I talk of different grace I am not referring to different levels of saving grace but of the grace we are given to fulfill God’s calling on our lives. I hope that’s clear. 🙂

13 07 2010
matthew Hosier

Hi Liam, I’ve just posted a somewhat analogous post on my blog where I quote Abraham Kuyper’s comment on the theatre, that “the constant and ever-changing presentation of the character of another person finally hampers the moulding of your personal character.” Be interested in your thoughts on that Calvinistic line of reasoning!

13 07 2010

Fascinating – I just saw your post. I really need to read some Kuyper (any recommendations?)

That’s an interesting quote. I do feel uneasy about the duplicity of doing anything on stage that I wouldn’t be willing to do off stage. If I have to portray someone who exhibits many of the negative character traits I am personally trying so hard to iron out in my own life, the likelihood is that in time I will end up lapsing in my own pursuit of holiness. Perhaps the trickiest challenges are in the areas where the character deficiencies are the little things – the propensity to lie, or to be greedy, or to swear – rather than the big things! Playing a psychopathic axe-murderer is unlikely to lead to me hacking down innocent civilians in cold blood! But playing a normal guy who makes an idol out of success, or materialism, or fame, is perhaps too close to reality, and to some of the things I genuinely struggle with. I could well imagine I would easily be affected by playing that role.

The irony is, an alcoholic is in the best position to accurately portray someone grappling with drink-addiction! Yet he is also in the worst position. It goes against all common sense to put yourself in that position, so close to temptation, forcing yourself to dredge up memories of your weakness night after night on a stage! So I see the sense in Kuyper’s statement.

On a personal note – When I was about 17, I remember coming to a bit of a crisis of character when I was wrestling over my faith, my identity, and the battle with peer pressure to drink too much etc. I was planning and hoping to pursue acting seriously, and so performed in virtually every play going. I got pretty miserable, and whilst I now look back with embarrassment at my melodramatic self-absorbtion, at the time I felt acutely aware that I was spending so much time being other people that it was affecting my own personal formation. I stopped acting for a year whilst I reassessed my values and plans… I needed the space to discover who I was. As it happened, I still ended up studying drama at University, but I went for the course that required the least possible acting, and ended up coupling it with philosophy because I thought that might help me answer some of my questions (!?!) I thus often tell people I have a first class degree in being melodramatic and argumentative – how character building!

I think I was at a particularly formative and vulnerable point of my adolescence, and ‘the constant and ever-changing presentation of the character of another person’ really did affect me for a period. I’m not sure it ‘finally‘ hampers the moulding of personal character, in so much as people do learn to deal with it. It probably depends a great deal on the stage of life you’re at, the particulars of the role you’re performing, and how well you are counter-balancing it with accountability and spiritual disciplines. Now that I feel more secure in my faith, my identity and the boundaries of my conscience, I would imagine I am less affected by the challenge of entering into the role of other characters. I would still want to avoid certain of the more intensely psychological forms of method acting, but I do think there are ways of entering into theatre whilst still being able to keep a certain healthy distance between you and the role.

There you go… a few thoughts. Now your turn – I’ll swap you a comment for a comment – should I write plays containing swearing? 😉

13 07 2010

Hey Liam
This has taxed me for years, first as a drama student who still feels ashamed of a particular performance I was involved in ( still not sure my Dad’s recovered), more recently as a drama teacher helping GCSE students rehearse some challenging scripts. Coarse language troubles me less than blasphemy and kissing more than both…Paul had some pretty coarse turns of phrase, threatening emasculation and using unrepeatable words to describe sexual practices.
Still don’t know what I think but I think we must not offend our own conscience and care for the weaker brother. I might swear to enhance the reality of my performance.. I would now read out loud swearing in a piece of literature, where once I refused to read “Jesus” in “Of Mice and Men” as a new teacher. I would not snog a fellow actor in a performance. My conscience would not allow it, my husband would not be honoured and I might enjoy it!!!

13 07 2010

Two Hosier comments in the space of 10 minutes! I wonder if this means that swearing was the topic of conversation around the Hosier dinner table tonight? 😉

Helpful comments! I agree re: kissing. Blasphemy I’m not at all settled on. I’d feel less happy saying ‘Jesus’ than ‘god.’ (I used to say god and just tail off into a kind of ‘Goar’ sound as a way of making the director think I was saying the lines, but appeasing my own conscience. Until I realised that a) God/Goar wasn’t fooled and b) everyone still thought I was blaspheming, so I might as well have been!!)

For me, the ‘personal conscience’ and ‘weaker brother’ considerations are key. So even if I were happy to say a particular word in a show, I’d still be selective about who I invited to see the show, because I know for some it would be more of an issue than others. The ‘weaker brother’ consideration still taxes me with regards to the material I write, as someone eventually has to voice the words that I craft! So even if I’m comfortable with using the word, I may cause a brother to stumble…

13 07 2010

Taking things in a slightly different direction — especially thinking about the ‘guilty by association’ question — here’s an interesting observation from a Christianity Today article about Tim Keller:

“The gospel DNA of grace is crucial to Redeemer’s embrace of center-city culture. It gives people permission to try and fail, to mix freely with those of other faiths and morals, and to tolerate ambiguity. Someone who works in advertising or theater may have to serve for many years at projects he or she finds morally ambivalent. Even those who rise to positions of responsibility will find no clearly marked path. Without a grasp of grace, there will be no Christians working in such areas. Keller likes to describe Redeemer’s stance as “cultural presence,” which enhances flavor but doesn’t take over.”

13 07 2010

Oh, and maybe on the swearing issue, the first question to ask yourself is ‘what is wrong with swearing?’ Is it the words, the accompanying emotion, the inability to get your point across in any other way, …?

You might find this interesting: http://www.catapultmagazine.com/objects-of-worship/column/redeeming-our-shock-words. Especially the comments from Calvin Seerveld. He “defends the positive place of strong language, particularly in art. For one thing, he says, the rules of art are different; words or images are deliberately chosen to make a nuanced point within an imagined but representative world.”

14 07 2010
matthew Hosier

Oh we’re always cussing at each other Liam! (Not really, although I am now slightly worried by my wife thinking she might enjoy snogging someone else…!)

In response to your response to me: on Kuyper, try Lectures On Calvinism. On character – it is obviously a subjective judgment on my part, but it is difficult to recall hearing an interview with an A-list actor who didn’t come across as shallow and – in the literal sense – character-less. So I’m not sure it is an issue only for angst ridden adolescents! On swearing – I think so much is shaped by the context. The main problem for me is the ubiquity of swearing, which means it actually loses its power and simply becomes part of the general coarsening of culture which seems to be endemic.

14 07 2010

Rob – thanks for the cleverly hidden John Piper reference 😉

Actually, identifying him is probably helpful, because it reminds me of the exchange between him and Wayne Grudem about profanity in preaching… Also, Driscoll’s talk How Sharp the Edge is interesting, though not strictly relevant to the question of the arts.

16 07 2010

To write the words for, and play the part of a character who swears, in demonstration of that character’s nature, struggles and lifestyle is one thing. But it is not acceptable behaviour for a Christian to swear. Out of the mouth is the contents of the heart, out of the same mouth we use to praise and glorify God. Under no circumstances would it be right to blaspheme as the offense against the Holy Spirit is the greatest one of all. God first, audience second. That’s where I’d draw the line. Simplistic maybe, but that’s how my faith is.

16 07 2010

A public rebuke from my mother… Ouch! 😉

17 07 2010

Oooh – just watched Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam this evening (he was a member of City Church Canterbury in the 90’s before moving away). Good film, but does feature a few choice “phrases” in the dialogue. Made me think of this debate immediately for exactly that reason. Not that it adds much to the debate, but I thought I’d mention it if only for the fact that here’s a very recent case in point…

18 07 2010

Really?! I didn’t realise Stuart was at TCCC!!

20 07 2010

Yeah he was best man for mike & mellissa well strictly speaking just mike.

9 08 2010

Check out this article about a Vulgar Vicar: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/7918465/Vicar-tells-churchgoers-to-swear-more.html

And Dan Rodger’s comments (whose blog brought the article to my attention): http://martyro.blogspot.com/2010/08/incompetent-vicar-swearing-for-jesus.html

3 01 2011
2010 in review « Liam's Blog

[…] Wash your mouth out with soap! July 2010 22 comments 3 […]

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