Friday, January 8, 2010

Cussing in Christian Films?

Here's a reprint of an old blog I wrote in 2007. Thought it was interesting and still relevant...

In the last week alone I've had two detailed email "debates" about the issue of cussing in movies. It's been fascinating. The first one came because my Dad and I got an email from a viewer of the film "Though None Go With Me," which she saw on DVD. She was horrified because at the beginning of the film, one of the characters (a doctor) says, "I brought him into this world, and I'll be damned if I let him suffer because he can't afford medical insurance." She believed that using the word "damned" was inappropriate, sinful, and offensive, and it compromised the Jerry Jenkins name.

I've also been discussing the issue with someone who's interested in helping raise money for "Mountain." In the script, there's a fair amount of cussing (no F-bombs or blasphemy, but a few other choice phrases) because the story is about a bunch of drinking, fighting mountain people in 1920's Virginia.

This issue has always puzzled me in the Christian community. My films aren't intended to be Christian films or made solely for the Christian market, but because my films do come from a Christian perspective and worldview and usually include some Christian characters or references, I have a relationship with the Christian market.

That said, I've always wondered why most Christians have no problem watching films that contain the sins of betrayal, murder, stealing, lying, or drunkenness, but they can't stand to see someone commit the "sin" of saying a bad word. I didn't mean for that sentence to sound condescending, but it does puzzle me. I think that faith-based films have a tendency to be so sugar-coated and sanitized that the ultimate redemption they try to portray is tempered. The message of Christianity is that God can redeem and save the dirtiest of souls, and that hope can be found in the midst of the most vulgar of circumstances. I don't believe that films should be titillating or present wrong behavior in a glorifying or endorsing way (not sure if I'm being grammatically correct right now, but bear with me), but I also believe that sanitizing it in order to be "safe," "clean," or "family friendly" really ignores an important aspect of the Christian message.

The Old Testament, for example, is full of disgusting, horrifying, and yes, vulgar stories. Several translations tell of people "pissing on a wall," "eating their own dung," or one man "spilling his seed on the ground." Of course, the Bible always portrays an overall message of good over evil, of hope and redemption triumphing over immorality.

Therefore, in the case of cussing in films, it seems odd that we would treat that sin as worse than others and as something to avoid at all costs.

But let me illustrate my point through a scene in my script for "Mountain," which is the true story of Bob Childress, a man who went from being the biggest fighter and hardest drinker in the 1920's mountains of Virginia to become a life-changing preacher. Here's a scene that takes place during the period of time when he's trying to be a better man:


Bob talks with other members. A MAN approaches.

The Heller of the Hollow at a Presbyterian church! Childress, you got no right readin' from the Bible.
I'm tellin' yuh, I ain't the same man.
Like hell you ain't! Your cousin Jess, your whole damn family live by stealin' and fightin'!
You jus' watch yerself!
You a sinner your whole life.
I reckon I'm still a sinner...but I been saved.
I don't believe you changed a lick. God got no place for the likes a you.

Bob punches the man, knocking him out. Bob realizes what he's done.

Aw, hell!

He falls to his knees.

Lord, please forgive these damn fists.
(covers his mouth)
And this tongue.


Lelia and Maggie stare at Bob. Reverend Smith walks up.

The Lord changes some slower than he changes others.

Now what's the greater sin portrayed in the scene? The fact that he punched a man or that he swore? I would say that he punched a man. But either way, why would it be okay to show the punch but not hear him say a bad word? This is what has always confused me about certain people's reactions to movies. I think the scene is very poignant and a creative and efficient way to show on screen one man's transformation from the "old" to the "new," which is very difficult to do. Showing a spiritual transformation is about as hard to do on film as anything--it's easy to show someone losing weight, or someone getting smarter, or someone learning how to box, or a building turning more beautiful. And it's also easy to show the moment in which these ideas are formulated--"I need to lose weight because my fat is killing me," or "I need to train for this big event so I can win," or "This building is broken down and ugly and needs improvement."

But showing someone have a spiritual heart change is extraordinarily difficult, and most movies fail at it, which is why most Christian movies never break out of the church basement. The reason is that it's so hard to show, in a short amount of time, someone's NEED for God, and then to show how their relationship with God has changed them. Do they smile more? Do more good things for others? How does their life improve? What if their circumstances don't improve (which is realistic in real life, but is rarely, if ever, shown in faith-based films)?

So how do we effectively and efficiently, in the course of 2 hour movie, show a heart change? Even more difficult, and in our case, how do we show it in the span of the first 40 minutes of the movie so that we can get on to the ministry part of Bob's life? And on that same train of thought, how do we show the transformation of the whole region? Especially when we don't have the benefit of a book format, where you can discuss people's thoughts and motivations without having to show them.
I suppose, if we really wanted the film to be as clean as possible, we could use narration, or we could have characters say things like, "I used to cuss, but I don't anymore." But I believe that would make for a static and sanitized movie. And what it would gain in appealing to church families it would lose in being unrelatable or dynamic to someone who isn't a Christian but was interested in the film.

In my opinion, a great way to show the spiritual transformation of Bob Childress, and subsequently the region, is to use the tools we have as artists--words and actions. In the scene above, in one page, we have efficiently and dramatically shown what is going on inside of Bob's heart, without being cheesy or overly simple. By using rough actions and rough words in the first part of the film, and then showing a lack of those actions and those words in the latter part of the film, we are showing victory. And I confess I wouldn't see the point in sanitizing those words to protect our ears as we watch the film, anymore than I would see the point in sanitizing the actions to protect our eyes. The "F-word," or the Lord's name in vain, would probably be pushing the envelope unnecessarily, because those words are considered so strong and inflammatory in our culture that they can be a distraction. Not that I would be adverse to using the "f-word" in a film if it had a strong and specific purpose, but usually, it's just window dressing.

Anyway, those are some of my recent thoughts on this interestingly controversial topic. FYI, I do believe that there are some movies that can and should do without cussing, especially if they're marketed to families. And I also recognize that certain people go to films for different reasons, and sometimes they don't want to smell the dirty sewer of life, they just want some clean entertainment. That's totally fine. I've been part of movies that fit that description, especially Though None Go With Me (the word "damned" excluded). It's just not the type of film I'll usually make.

(UPDATE: Seeing as how my new film, What If..., is the most clean film I've made, obviously I've made some adjustments since I wrote this, although I still hold to the points made in this article.)

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