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Canadian Author Pushing the Envelope on Language

It was somewhere in the 1970s. It wasn’t either musician Steve Camp or popular speaker Tony Campolo. It was both of them. “Every day thousands of people are dying and going to hell and most you don’t give a s**t. And sadly, more of you are upset about the fact I said s**t than you are about the thousands of people dying and going to hell.”

The quotation may not be word-for-word, but it’s about 90% intact.

Fast forward a few years and a young Lutheran pastor from Colorado takes the stage at a national youth rally and becomes an overnight sensation and is given a book contract. Nadia Bolz-Weber wasn’t trying to use an expletive to make a higher point. It’s just the way she talks. Google her name and you see phrases like, “I love Jesus but I DO swear a little.” Or, “Nadia Bolz-Weber is famous for swearing like a sailor.” Or “Nadia will keep swearing because she is not going to pretend to be someone she is not.” (And those were on page one, without even clicking on the results.) One of her four books starts with “F**k” right on page one.

Part of me admires what Nadia does. Sort of. My wife and I got caught up in the excitement and tuned in weekly to watch her preach at House for All Sinners & Saints, aka HFASS, aka “half-ass.” And that’s the name of her church. We watched because we wanted to know what she was preaching; what her doctrine was all about. Honestly, we were wondering if we could find some heretical content, but each week — despite the fact that her church was full of people she herself described as “queer” — it remained sound doctrine.

But nothing prepared me for Jamie Wright’s book The Very Worst Missionary. It was also the name of her blog and I had followed her for years. I knew she would insert a four-letter word here and there, but with her book, she went all out, even flaunting it on her blog — I redacted the words themselves — as seen in the chart below.

Nadia’s books now resides on a shelf in a back office in our store. I decided I couldn’t risk the books ending up with the wrong customer accidentally. Or worse, having them then tell twenty people they got this horrible book at my store.

With Jamie Wright, the book never made it in the first place. Not even remainder or overstock copies. And I declined a review copy, I think.

Which brings us to Danielle Strickland. Yes, our Danielle Strickland, as in, a Canadian author and until recently a teaching pastor at The Meeting House. Her book The Other Side of Hope is releasing for early August under the W Publishing imprint, which is part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Our sales rep thought we should have a heads up, and many of you received the same email.

We’re warned that the book,

…has a few instances of profanity. This is because many of the stories are between Danielle and people who are down and out (such as homeless people, drug addicts, and even Danielle before she came to Christ). We did scrub the material where we could, but the decision was made to not sanitize the true conversation where it was necessary to convey the real brokenness. There are four occurrences of sh*t, one d*mn, and one h*ll. This book is beautifully gritty and one of the most grounded books on hope. Even in the midst of despair, she compels the reader toward a beautiful hope.

The announcement then goes on to inform us that there is a second book by another author with similar language occurrences and some mentions of abuse which “may be triggering.”

Welcome to Christian bookselling in 2022.

I’m sure there are people who work in the broader publishing industry who are reading this and thinking, “Seriously? That’s all? Four instances of sh*t, and a single damn and a hell each?” (Look at us! I didn’t even redact those last two myself.) But give our little sub-industry a break. For some stores, this is still new territory.

Each of us need to decide for ourselves where we land the plane with these titles.

One of my English professors at U. of T. would use the phrase substandard language when discussing material that one wouldn’t read aloud in polite company. (We won’t even get into the KJV’s use of “him that pisseth against the wall” in 1 Kings 21:21.) It’s become more common to hear people using “OMG” at church (sometimes without the abbreviation) and we’ve seen one or two Christian people use “WTF” on Facebook. (I wrote about this back in 2014.)

This is not a good thing. Much of what God intended for his people was “the maintenance of a distinct identity.” We’re supposed to be … different. (I wrote about our identity in a 2017 devotional.)

I realize that Danielle Strickland has a story to tell, and I’m not going to be too hard on her. I also know that the language probably sets the stage for all that she both experienced herself, and later witnessed doing ministry in some tough, dark places. I have yet to make up my mind whether to stock the book, and if so, whether to display it or have on a shelf in the back next to Nadia.

What I do know that is that for all its shock value, the Steve Camp/Tony Campolo line had a major impact on a lot of people.

 

  1. April 23, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    Sometime about 20 years ago I asked Tony about what was then a rumor (the incident was pre-internet after all). He confirmed it did happen. I haven’t talked with Steve in decades, but it is the sort of thing he could have said.

    I had an English teacher who said people who used those words were betraying their lack of language skills. I have acted accordingly.

    The shock value works only when usage is rare. I recall Bono using it early on to reference American attitudes to the IRA. Unfortunately he has used it too often since for the words to have the same power.

    How much of our unease with certain words is culturally connected? The nature of socially offensive language, i.e swearing, so depends on our background. As North American culture has evolved, the forbidden S and F words are no longer offensive in many corners of society.

    What we find offfensive has also changed. In French-speaking Quebec, profanity remains religiously based for the most part (Chalice and Tabernacle for example) compared to the reproductive or excremental focus found in the rest of the continent. And let’s not even go into the “N” word which may no longer be used by anyone except rappers.

    I can understand using offensive language in direct quotes, but I also find euphemisms acceptable if clearly identified as such. Authors and readers alike have to make their own choices.

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