Should Christian Movies Use Profanity?

For some reason, I’ve had a number of questions on this subject recently. I’m not sure why, but a number of very sincere Christian filmmakers seem to be wrestling with the subject, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the blog. There are plenty of filmmakers and critics who will give you a snarky, cynical answer, but the truth is, it’s a question worth answering – particularly if you’re creating films and media for family viewing.

Actually, my feeling fairly simple and it’s all based on the character. One of the greatest criticisms of media created by Christians is that it’s simply not believable. You can’t have an outlaw biker, a member of the Mafia, or a drug addict using nice, “family safe” words. The truth is that they use profanity on a regular basis, so to not allow that in a movie at some level, is to cheapen the character and undermine the believability of your story.

So my rule is we don’t use profanity in a gratuitous way, but to help express the nature of the character in his or her present state. To be convincing, it has to be real, authentic, and believable. To do otherwise is to create a fake character, and that does nothing for the presentation of the gospel.

The bottom line is that unless we show how deep the sin, we can’t show how great the salvation. That doesn’t give us a license to use profanity all the time, but it does create the need to show real people, real characters, and real situations.

Now, we just need Christian audiences to stop being so offended when they see authentic behavior on film, and Christian filmmakers with the guts to tell those stories in a compelling way.

Then, we’ll start impacting the culture…

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Angie

    Completely agree with this, Phil — believable and consistent with the character without being gratuitous. I know that some believers feel strongly that a Christian film should never ever have profanity as it would be dishonoring to God, nor do they want to be exposed to profanity. So it’s a fine line to walk. Being true to your character and your story runs the risk of Christians getting up in arms and saying, “We aren’t going to watch that film because it has profanity.” I have said the exact words you used — “How can we show how great a salvation if we don’t show how great the sin?” — when grappling with this question. In the end, I think the movies are great medium to share the Gospel and perhaps we should be less concerned about preaching to the choir and more concerned about reaching the lost with our stories.

  • RWinter195

    made a lot of movies, and Phil is correct; make your characters authentic, their language and their actions. Not many Christian movies are gritty, so not really sure why this is a problem frankly. But I have made R rated films in the past, without issue, because it is authentic for the story and the wider audience. No doubt, if you are making a movie for a strictly Christian audience, know your audience and tell the story for them – in that case you would risk losing your audience.

    • Mike Wech

      Christian movies can and should be gritty. Personally, that is my style and I’m pushing boundaries with this every day. The problem is not with the Christian filmmaker, but the distributors and marketing people who need to throw art into a plug and play box to sell the film. They think they have defined the genre and in doing so will only allow certain kinds of films through their doors with strict rules of engagement.

      One rule is no profanity, then there’s sexual content, drug use, violence and the list goes on. So the Christian filmmaker is forced to compromise their vision to meet these demands if they want to get their film made or choose to go through the mainstream commercial/studio route and face a whole new set of Hollywood rules for genre. Going this route also causes a needless debate on if the film is even Christian.

      My favorite films of the past year (Hacksaw Ridge, Silence and Hidden Figures) had remarkably strong Christian themes, but would not be considered Christian films, nor would they be given marketing support from our so-called Christian film industry.

      We need to re-define the Christian film genre, business model and distribution system if we truly want authenticity.

      • Jeffrey Rose

        Here here! I completely agree with your assessment, Mike!

    • Simon Dillon

      I totally agree with Ralph Winter and Phil. It always depends on the character and context is everything. These principles apply in all storytelling mediums. My own novels do not shy away from dark or problematic subject matter just because it might offend Christians. I believe however that my faith is inherent in the stories I am telling.

  • Doug Smart

    This is a tough one. In film, the story is key. Unless you have a great story to tell, you’re wasting time and money (both yours and that of the intended audience). And the characters in that story absolutely must be authentic in order to serve it effectively. It seems like two separate issues: faith-based films intended for a “strictly Christian audience,” and faith-based films intended for a much wider, general audience. One audience wants “wholesome,” safe, uplifting entertainment that the family can enjoy, and the other audience wants stories with a redemptive theme that accurately reflect the world as we see it. As a both a grandparent and a content creator, I can see both sides of this issue. There’s no “one size fits all” here, at least in my experience.

  • gfisher

    I agree with Phil and the others that within a movie authentic characters are essential for the movie to be believable, entertaining and have an impact on the audience. One of the dilemmas I face is that here at Biola we have a chapel that also makes a good film screening venue but I cannot bring myself to screen some very good authentic films in this space because the chapel’s primary purpose is as a place of worship. Perhaps that is what some filmmakers are also struggling with.

    • Dean Batali

      Biola needs to build a screening space that’s not also a chapel.

      • gfisher

        Yes. Working on that.

  • John David Ware

    Phil, the problem is the “Envelope.” It’s not what’s happening now, it’s what happens next year, and the next, and the next. Artists of all types want to push the envelope to be edgy, relevant, avant grade (Hmm, that sounds like parts of the church, right?). If you and others say that it’s ok for a filmmaker to say “@#$%” today, then what do we get tomorrow? We get “!@#$ %&*()_#$&* % &*( $%# *%$# @)%$ !@#$ %&*()_#$&* % &*( $%# *%$# @)%$,” and more next year. Will the audience really turn off a good story because it’s not vulgar enough? I don’t think so… As you know, the 168 Film Project is an annual short film production competition (entry deadline May 2017, 168film.com). We use the following content rules: No swearing, No using the word “God” or “Jesus” as an expletive, No graphic sex, violence, language or drug use, No overly revealing wardrobe, No “blasphemy. Many of our films are often very hard-hitting and very relevant sans gratuities. When the writing is good, you do not miss the bad language. In worldly films, the language is often foul because the writing is mediocre and/or the writer is lazy–and of course, also due to the envelope pushers. All 168 films use a Biblical scripture for guidance and to assist with thematic cohesiveness (it really helps). “168” films have various “spiritual temperatures,” but verse interpretation and subsequent storyline must be consistent with the core of “orthodox” Christian doctrine. Further, we say that potentially divisive denominational differences should be avoided. Morally ambiguous stories (like purely black comedies), films that wink at or poke fun at hell, taboos and sin, or films that disrespect Jesus, God or the Spirit of God will be neither judged nor screened. We have an exciting Grand Prize in 2017: http://www.einpresswire.com/article/368577662/short-film-winner-to-make-indie-feature

    • John David Ware

      I’m not saying never, and did not have a problem with the depictions in Schindler’s List. But, seriously the audience needs a break from the deluge.

  • Ron_Sellers

    Real mixed emotions on this one. On one hand, I agree that having a movie set in a prison or a military barracks where everyone says “gosh” and “golly gee” would be highly inauthentic. On the other hand, under the “make it authentic” rule, why would Christian films not also show sex, nudity, drug use, gore, and vulgarity from some characters? Under the desire for authenticity, many non-Christian characters should be shown repeatedly using “Jesus Christ” as an expletive, but that’s not something I appreciate in secular films, no less Christian ones.

    Movies made for kids are sanitized, yet many films for younger audiences resonate strongly and authentically even though they’re “cleaned up.” I could make the argument that the nasty character Sid in the first Toy Story movie could easily have used profanity – it would have authentically fit with his character. You could say the same about many Disney villains, from Cruela de Ville to Mother Gothel. The absence of profanity doesn’t harm the power of those films. Just curious, Phil – what’s your thought on that comparison?

    • Fari question Ron, but it’s too different things. Obviously, I wouldn’t use profanity in a kid’s movie like “Toy Story.” I’m talking about serious films for grown-ups. Schindler’s List had some dark stuff like you talk about, but would it have had the impact if it was G-rated? Doubtful.

  • Michael Williams

    Very well said Phil. I have been connected closely with dozens of Christian film makers since 2009.

    I’m also connected to “Hollywood” film makers who want to do films that I say “can change the heart of a nation.” As I have been telling the first group mentioned above we must stop preaching to the choir and make true to life films that show as you have said “how deep the sin, how great the salvation.

    I strongly believe that a team is being built that will unite the two groups above and make films that do exactly that. In fact, I, along with someone else are working to do just that.

    • Michael Williams

      Sorry, I wrote this after a 14 day yesterday so excuse poor sentence construction. Should we cuss? No. Do we?…..I served in the Marines, so use your imagination…the fact is most of us do, and certainly in the drama and comedy of the real world it happens. To show films that can truly touch others it may be necessary, but using the Lords name in vain in any way should never be done in script or anywhere else.

  • Vic Bolton

    Yes and Amen, Phil. If it happens in the world, we cannot be ashamed to include it in a film, within reason. We do not have to be gratuitous or overboard with sex, drugs and rock & roll to get the point across, but it’s gotta be there for authenticity’s sake, or nobody is gonna watch. For example, good filmmakers can make it obvious that a couple has had ‘relations’ without necessarily having to show full nudity or the act itself. You walk right up to the edge, where we all know what’s next, and then you cut to another scene. Same with drug paraphernalia on the table or whatever…for a Christian character to go down into the ‘hood’ and witness to a drug dealer without getting cussed out is so unrealistic it has no credibility, so what would we have accomplished?

  • gvini2012

    Completely agree with you on this Phil – if it is authentic to the character and/or the situation in the film, I think the use of some language and other things is completely appropriate. One problem is that the “faith based” audience is not yet ready for it and even worse, the gatekeepers/Pastors/leaders of great influence will not help to promote films that cross that imaginary line. Two films to note as examples, 1) Machine Gun Preacher and 2) The Song. Both are good/fantastic films but both have language, sex, violence and drug use. However, I feel that both films use these things very authentically and appropriately and they also offer a stark portrait of the depth of the characters sin and the beauty and the greatness of their salvation. If Machine Gun Preacher the main character is released from
    Prison and is picked up by his wife after what appears to be a long time away. The next scene, probably scene 2, there is a quick cut to a long shot of their car parked along a railroad track with steamed up windows and a litttle rocking and rolling. Totally authentic. Was it needed in the film – if that were the only set up scene then maybe not but that particular scene was one of 4 or 5 that set up our main character (another of those scenes shows him drunk/drugged up and another shows him knifing another skum bag in the back of their car after he tries to rip off/kill our main character. This all sets up the main characters jouney and makes the film one of great depth. Unfortunately, Pastors and influencers who liked the film also said they could not promote it because of those scenes. In The Song, some of the same – post drug use, post coitious (feels weird to even write that!) and one mans journey to his darkest places before his faith and the Lords interventions brings him back to life and love. It’s a beautiful story, well told and wonderful directed but it tanked because of some of the same reasons. And lastly, need I mention the “overt usage of cleavage” being the reason Blindside was pulled from Family Christians bookstores and shelves (virtual and brick and mortar). Such a shame that “we” Christians cannot face authenticity, real life and pain. It all has to be so top-layer. Makes me want to produce faith friendly content for the secular market and forget the faith based market – you’ll still probably get half of them anyway. Thx Phil – great subject to discuss!

  • DeAnna Kane

    It’s an interesting topic for discussion. I completely understand the authenticity needed for such characters that are more…rough around the edges. My children are too young for such movies that include adult profanity, so they really aren’t the target market, and can’t be used as an excuse to exclude such language. Personally, I am always uncomfortable hearing profanity, and I don’t use it in everyday conversation. But I certainly wouldn’t deter filmmakers from using it if the language was warranted. The problem is, much of what I do see in secular films is gratuitous. It’s a tough choice when Christian films have to make this decision as it shatters the pre-conceived notions that Christians should always be so proper. The fact of the matter is, all Christians fall short of perfection. What I’d love to see is the reformed mobster turn Christian and decide to forego such language ^_^

  • Simon Dillon

    I totally agree with you Phil. It is all about the character. It also amazes me that many Christians cannot see the difference between depicting something and endorsing something. Offended by bad language? Fine, don’t watch the film. But don’t make a doctrine out of your personal preference.

  • Blake Henry

    What about the intended audience? Doesn’t that help define how writers and filmmakers (Christian or otherwise) craft character and story to convey meaning? Certainly one wouldn’t create media intended for children with profanity or nudity. And media for general adult consumption in the US is certainly fair game for profanity and all the rest. However, I expect that media intended for Christian audiences will find greater success with no nudity or profanity. For me, it has little to do with who is creating the media, it has everything to do with the intended audience and the message of the story.

    • I think you’re right that we need to consider our intended audience. If “War Room” or “God’s Not Dead” had included profanity or nudity, then they would have failed miserably – but that’s because the intended audience of those films is believers, not unbelievers.

      This should bring us the question of “Who is our audience?” If the audience is the church, then absolutely the media in question should avoid such depiction (although that gets back into the realism quandary). But I, for one, think more Christian filmmakers should make more “evangelical movies” – that is to say, films intended not expressly for the church, but for unbelievers who might never set foot in a church but might go to the movies every weekend. Such films need to be told with technical and creative excellence as well as realistic depictions of right and wrong.

      That is not to say that we glorify negative things like profanity and nudity. When the Bible depicts sin, it is never to glorify it, but to expose it in the light (Ephesians 5:6-21).

      • Blake Henry

        And I do agree with Phil that our characters must be written to reflect the reality of the worlds they come from. Only then will they be believable.

        However, we don’t necessarily have to be explicit to achieve believability. A great example is the scene in ‘Key Largo’ when Johnny Rocko whispers vulgarities into Nora’s ear. The audience never hears what he actually says, but our imagination fills in the blanks to convey an even more horrific feeling of profanity to the moment.

        We would do well to follow John Huston’s example of being true to the character and achieve maximum emotional impact through creative storytelling.

        • I agree that implications in storytelling can be extremely impactful without being explicit – there is an article about how the Martin achieved a PG-13 rating while using the f-word once (more than once is auto R) , but implied it’s use several times by using creative camera work – like showing Matt Damon from outside of the rover while he screamed and ranted inside, but we didn’t hear what he was saying). But that is a real character moment, applicable to the story, while avoiding the explicit use of the word.

  • This is something I’ve been debating for a long time. I recently wrote a script based on the Prodigal Son where as the son leaves, he flips off his father. I was advised to remove that from the script because it’s bad. I’m not going argue that it is good – it absolutely is not. But it is in keeping with the character’s state of mind at that point.

    This reminds me of Brian Godawa’s lecture on horror as a Biblical genre – and he is right about it. The Bible does not shy away from talking about and describing horrific things. Even though most Christians don’t read a lot of those passages, it is important exactly for what you say: showing the depravity of sin so we understand both the seriousness of its consequences and the depth of grace and mercy we have been given.

  • Kevin Hackenberg

    I have 3 things to say about this F#ññ7* topic.

    #1. Bible based Skubula. See my comment below about a good writer choosing to use these words. There is a time and a place and because of this knowledgable conversation I think I can accurately assign Phillipians 3:8 a PG-13 rating.
    #2. This song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axmk5-55iuY by the band Kings Kaleidoscope. Because of their use of violent words, I sat up and paid attention, and then when the songs shifted at the end to be the voice of Christ, I was deeply emotionally moved. So, i can say from my own experience that the F-word, mixed with an expression of Christ’s love in this song had a profound impact on my life in the last few months. Without this word, i might not have listened as intently and had been not effected.
    #3. FunnyAndAmen.com I recently started a new venture to focus on producing comedy content that is for a broader audience than just the Christian market… However, when I tell non-Christians the name of the brand, FunnyAndAmen they immediately want to leave to clean lint out of their pockets. Apparently “Amen” is a foreign language to them, a language they have no interest in learning. As soon as I tell them that you can abbreviate FunnyAndAmen as “F*n_Amen”, they get a little chuckle and we are off to some amazing conversations that can often lead to talking about Jesus in a real way that i know would not be as likely had i abbreviated the word “Amen”.
    Here’s our latest – https://www.facebook.com/citylifephilly/videos/vb.190258211008178/1508185449215441/?type=2&theater
    I thought people would comment and be offended by “butt”. Turns out, more Christians were offended my church was having an “Easter” service and not a “Resurrection Day” service.

    * F#ññ7 is a 5-letter word = “Funny”

  • Kent C. Williamson

    Two of my films have the “F”word in them and one has scenes with lesbians making out… now before anyone jumps on my case about it, allow me to explain. Both of these films are documentaries, both “F” word instances occurred while doing “man on the street” interviews, and both times I felt that within the context of the storyline it was appropriate to keep the soundbites in the finished film… one of the film’s deals with Post-Modern thought, and the other with the mess found where the LGBT community and the Christian Church collide.

    I don’t consider myself a “christian filmmaker”… as a matter of fact I really don’t like that label and don’t like when I get pigeon-holed in that category. I am a follower of Christ who makes films and who wants to tell rich stories. As an artist I keep the lines in the film… and then the businessmen (the distributors who know their audience) will often ask me to deliver a “bleeped” version for distribution… to which I happily comply. Now not all of my distributors require this, but if they know their audience will be offended by the “F” word, then why wouldn’t I be willing to bleep it? I personally prefer the un-bleeped versions, but I also understand that this is the “film BUSINESS”… If they can’t sell it, it makes it harder for me to make my next film.

    I would also say that many “christian filmmakers” are really making “family films” with a Jesus message in them. These films are often sanitized, Hallmark-y and over spiritualized. That is it’s own market that certainly has no room for bad words, nudity, etc.

  • Kent C. Williamson

    Here’s a blog post of mine about the Hays Code, the Rating System, and how in 74 years we went from a single “damn” in a movie to over 500 uses of the “F” word in a recent Scorsese picture…

    http://monasticinkwell.com/how-many-fxxxx-are-too-many-in-a-film

  • Michael Williams

    Talk about conviction….here goes. Please ignore my first attempts to comment on this. My wife and I discussed this today, & the truth became evident. We have been leaders in churches in California and Texas. I co-founded a church small media group with my close friend which became CMA Dallas. This group has attracted Christian film makers from all over the nation and world. I have become increasingly frustrated in seeing so many of my talented friends make movies that no one outside the Christian community cares to see. In the 90’s my first western went to a movie studio in Hollywood. They were even to the point of casting for it when I took it back. They wanted me to change it to be more ‘worldly.” Not only did I refuse, but I then took it back to our Churches office (symbolically) and edited out the three cuss words that was in it…..hell damn & ass. I figured as I first wrote it I could get by with those three as I believe I have heard them in sermons before. Anyway, the conviction is this. No, we should not give in and compromise with words that go against what scripture tells us not to use.
    Are we not gifted enough to write content to move and make characters/situations believable to an audience desperately needing the truth and hope? Back in the late 60’s a movie was made that required I believe a court decision on changing it’s code. Since then we have all seen what has happened in the film industry. I had the wisdom and guts years ago to take my western back from the studio and edit the profanity out. Somewhere since then and now I almost wanted to compromise. I didn’t then, and will not now. Leave the profanity to the worlds film makers. We need to write for a more noble & higher truth. Phil, please delete my first comment that was made out of frustration if you feel led to

    • No reason to delete it Michael. I’ve been so impressed by the wide range of thinking on the issue, and your posts are a great example of moving back and forth – this is a good thing. Thanks for the real honesty – that means a lot!