The Devil and Meriam Webster
This morning I got a long e-mail from a friend, complimenting me on Dark Debts, which she says she loved. We usually talk to each other on message boards, but she wanted this discussion to be private. See, she's a Christian, and she didn't want other Christians to know that she liked the book, because it is rife with language that...well...let's just say you won't hear it in most churches.
I am troubled by several things here, starting with the fact that I'm a Christian, and I wrote the book she's embarrassed to admit that she likes. And then there's the entire concept of writing a book about Satanic possession in which no one, not even Satan, ever swears.
I'm spending a lot of time these days explaining to friends, relatives and total strangers why I used all those bad words. I thought I'd explain it here once and for all, so the next time someone asks me, I can give them a URL instead of a lecture.
I set out to write a book about Evil. I knew what I wanted to say about Evil: it's a bad thing. Not mildly annoying. Not impish. Nasty. In order to do that, I had to plumb the depths of what my mind is capable of conjuring. Trust me, it wasn't a pleasant experience. But I didn't see any point in writing a book about Evil unless I depicted it as something as ugly and as crude as it is capable of being.
For the purposes of the book, I wrote about the Devil. When I started writing the book, I wasn't even sure I believed in the Devil; by the time I was done, I'd managed to convince myself. I don't believe in a little red man with a pitchfork. But if I am going to believe there is a benevolent Being who created the universe, it is no harder to believe that there is also an Evil one, whose purpose is destruction, whether random or strategic. And if there is an Evil Being who is behind things like Nazi Germany or the Okalohoma City bombing, I don't think that this being, who kills children without a second thought, is careful about his language.
As a writer, I have always been a fiend for realism. If I'm not writing the world as it really is, then I don't see the point. I'm sure there is a point. (Plenty of science fiction writers have gotten rich proving me wrong.) But what I'm interested in is holding a mirror up, so we can see what we look like and possibly learn something from it. I don't want to hold up a whitewashed mirror. The characters I created were based on people that I know, and know intimately. I know how they talk. They use the f-word when they are extremely angry. It's a fact of life.
I did a tremendous amount of research while writing Dark Debts. In the process I learned and/or concluded the following: (1) The occasional Jesuit has been known to use the occasional f-word. (2) Demonically possessed people, or people who are allegedly demonically possessed, seem to have a great deal of affection for the f-word. (And for a lot of other nasty words that I didn't use.) For whatever reason, it seems to go with the demonic possession territory. (3) The Guy in the Flannel Shirt is capable of hearing the f-word and living through it. As he has already proven, it takes a lot more than that to do him in.
Now, if he were the one using foul language, I could understand my friend's concern. But this is not the case. He is his usual calm, well-spoken self, even if he is wearing clothes that for some unknown reason offend writers of tabloid book reviews. Of the characters who are foul-mouthed, one is an atheist, one is an agnostic, and one comes from a long line of Satan worshippers. All of them are fighting demons, in one sense or the other, and their language is a part of the evidence and texture of that fight. And Michael (the protagonist), who is the only Christian in the foul-mouthed bunch, is clearly a different character at the end of the book. Maybe, as the Guy in the Flannel Shirt says, we should remind ourselves that we believe in redemption. Redemption is darned hard to depict if the character is as pure as the driven snow in the prologue.
I am obviously losing a sizeable audience by writing a book that is flagrantly Christian but can't be sold in Christian book stores. My editor even suggested the idea of putting out a "Christian" version of the book. Like "Large Print" for the visually-challenged, this would be a sanitized version for the language-squeamish. I gave the idea several seconds of serious consideration before saying no. Christian book stores are already filled to the brim with books for people who think that God will strike them with a lightning bolt if they read a bad word. I'd rather let them add mine to the pile they're burning.
There is a much larger issue here than language. I firmly believe that conservative Christianity repels as many people as it attracts, if not more. (I say this as a pretty conservative Christian myself, I hasten to point out, before the e-mail starts pouring in.) Much of this has to do with the squeaky-clean image they/we put forth, on behalf of all of Christendom. People (meaning people who aren't Christians, who are considered by most Christians to be people) see the sanitized image, and then they meet us in real life and realize that the image doesn't have a lot to do with reality, and it causes them to distrust us. It causes them to brand us hypocrites. Or it causes them to avoid us like Typhoid Mary. (And sending people scurrying in the opposite direction as if their lives depended on it was not exactly the goal of the Great Commission.)
(I might also point out that if conservative Christians occasionally veered from the KJV and troubled themselves to learn a little Greek, they'd realize that St. Paul would probably never have survived the Disney boycott. But that's another column...)
Jesus was and is attractive, in my opinion, because he was and is real. It's yet another area in which we would do well to follow his example. Hiding our heads in the sand about what is going on in the universe around us -- both seen and unseen -- is not going to get us there. You can't change a tire, let alone the world, without looking at it.
Or without swearing.