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Sacred and profane

James Cary


It may surprise readers to learn that I am unable to make my living writing monthly for the august publication you currently hold in your hands. My day job is sitcom writing, which is very enjoyable, being fun, rewarding and mostly indoors.

The word 'sitcom' is a poor description of the genre. Situation comedies, when done well, are usually character comedies (although one can see that 'charcom' is a less pleasing word). The sitcom writer needs to be able to think like his characters, work out what they would do in any given situation and write dialogue for them. And here we encounter a strange world of responsibility. Allow me to explain.

At the moment, I'm working on a show in which some of the characters swear like troopers (for reasons that will be obvious when the show airs). Some members of my family will be surprised at the words it turns out that I know - and how deftly I employ them as nouns, verbs and adjectives. Members of my church and my Christian friends generally will be equally surprised - and not a little appalled, I suspect. The reason is that I sit within the evangelical camp. It's a camp I'm broadly happy with. Our music may verge on the naff and our liturgy trite, but we like to think we're very comfortable with the Bible. The evangelical camp does take a view on bad language though: it is not just frowned upon but tutted at.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to swearing and comedy. The first is that swearing simply isn't funny and that resorting to foul language is the mark of creative bankruptcy. The second - and more convincing - school of thought is that swearing can be very funny and that foul language can be pleasingly shocking and breathtakingly inventive. Stephen Fry, one of our greatest wordsmiths, argues that swearing is often done by those with large vocabularies. But quoting Stephen Fry is hardly going to win an argument with a fellow evangelical.

It's no use my arguing that I wrote two pilot scripts: one script was a 'gritty' show (that's TV-speak for 'full of swearing'); the other script was an charming and innocent comedy that contained no foul language, profanity or innuendo. I earnestly prayed that the latter show would be commissioned. And it wasn't. The 'gritty' show was the chosen one.

I could argue that when I write characters in fiction, I am writing words and actions for character who say and do things that I would not say and do. Occasionally, my characters say things that I would say or agree with, but rarely. The Bible is full is people doing and saying things I do not agree with. Were the Bible writers wrong to write them so?  Jesus told stories about foolish people doing foolish things. Was he wrong to tell such stories?

But we're talking about specifically about swearing. And yet, here we see our Bible translators are much more prudish than the original authors. In the Old Testament, for example, there's an expression to do with 'those that piss against the wall' (KJV), which occurs six times. It is fitting that the KJV should be bawdy. This was the king who, upon being told that the crowd wished to see his face, cried out 'God's wounds! I will pull down my breeches and they shall see my arse!' But more recently, the NIV and the ESV have euphemised these verses about mural urination.

Maybe you'd expect this kind of crudity in the Old Testament which is visceral and scatological. But there is strong language in the touch-feely-Testament too, not least on the lips of Jesus who not only used hyperbole, but outright insults when talking to Pharisees and those who exploited their position. His intention was to offend.

St Paul is another. He suggests that those who want to circumcise Gentiles should cut off their own testicles. Some translators suggests that Paul considers his own life to be 'shit' compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus. It seems that we are perhaps more prudish than our biblical heroes.

Perhaps the discomfort for evangelicals is because strong language shows genuine emotion - and this is not something we like to do. The average British evangelical is a triple helping of cold fish. And yet the Bible is full of passionate speech. Perhaps this is what it means to let your conversation be seasoned with salt.

James Cary