Our minivan rolled down the freeway in the early morning hours. Outside the window, cows chewed cud by a lake beneath a dark blue sky. The driver had the A/C cranked up, but the summer heat hadn't struck for the day, making it kind of chilly to be wearing a t-shirt.
The guys up front wore tuxedos like Jehovah's Witnesses, but our driver had Korean ancestry, and his companion came from India. I bet they were comfortable.
I glanced at the cute Asian girl in the seat across from me, and she offered me her Tupperware container of homemade sushi.
I waved my hands. "Thanks. Those were great, but I'm kinda full from donuts and stuff."
The small bob-haired girl didn't close the lid until I gave my head a vigorous shake. An older curly haired woman in the seat behind her jabbered something in Korean, prompting an uneasy smile from the sushi chef.
A tan hand came around my headrest with a bottle of sugar free organic juice. I shuddered and shook my head to that as well. "No thank you."
The woman took it back, got in a long non-English conversation with the girl across from me.
Kumar craned around in the front passenger seat to look back at me. "So...Dan. You been to Michigan before?"
"Nope. We going to see anything interesting?"
The look on his face said no. "Well, it is a nice university, and we're going to have an excellent bible conference..."
Kumar turned back around, not talking to me for awhile. The driver talked to him at length about Saint Paul and the Corinthians. Kumar told him a riddle.
Not a lot of interesting sights outside the window. Hills, telephone poles, strip malls and billboards. One of those seedy `gentleman's clubs' resembling a metal barn.
When he turned around to face me again, Kumar said, "I've been reading the stories you've posted online. They're...interesting." Note: Disapproving tone.
"I...noticed that the characters swear a lot."
I furrowed my brow. "Cussing or swearing? People use that word interchangeably these days, but they mean different things."
"I meant frivolous oaths."
"Well, they're in a lot of unusual, scary situations. I'm just trying to make it realistic."
"You've violating the third commandment, taking the Lord's name in vain."
"I'm not doing that to make fun of God or anything. These are serious oaths that I feel someone would really utter in certain circumstances. I mean, if a regular person sees a big car accident, and people's mutilated limbs sprawled on the pavement, they don't say `Oh fiddlesticks,' they generally say something like `Jesus.'"
"Personally, if I were in one of those circumstances, I'd just pray about it, pray for the people involved in the accident."
I rolled my eyes. "Not every character I write about is a Christian. I'm trying to depict what's in the real world."
"Excuse me, but an alien rupturing someone's stomach is not a real world situation."
"Look. A lot of classic books have swearing in them. They capture the way people really talk. Like Hemingway. I mean, movies and stuff too, they seem so lifelike because that's how people really talk. Stephen King..."
At this point, our driver stopped scratching his flat forehead, chiming in with his two cents. "Stephen King is worldly writer. The world give men like that accolade because they write to honor Satan and sinful things of this world. If you write, you should write about godly men, heroes of faith. Like C.S. Lewis."
"Look, I respect the guy, but his characters are a little wooden. Back to my main point: If someone's walking out in the woods, and a bear trap shuts on their ankle—"
"They'd scream loudly," Kumar supplied.
"Well, obviously, but that's not great dialog. After that, most people would swear. Or if you're in an airplane that's about to smash in the side of a mountain, you're not going to say `Eek! Oh pooh, I guess I'm going to die,' you'd probably say `Oh God.'"
"Like I said before, I'd be praying about it, not swearing."
I opened my mouth to say something else, but he added, "It's fiction. The story really didn't happen, so it's not necessary for them to use God's name in vain."
"Well, not if it's a comedy, I suppose, but if you're aiming for drama—"
"Not even then. You're not quoting what real people said. It's not a newspaper story, so you can change things."
"It doesn't seem believable that way. I mean, I guess I could just write a line saying that the character uttered a mild oath, but to do that in every story..."
"A lot of good stories don't involve swearing. Take Ben Hur or Ivanhoe for example..."
"Anything more modern?" I groaned.
He glanced at my Star Trek shirt. "They don't swear in Star Wars."
"Yeah, but that's not serious. That's a comic book set in space. I'd hate to write science fiction just to give an excuse for not having characters swearing and never do drama."
"Actually," said our driver. "Have you heard of...Columbo? It is drama...no swearing. At least, not many I have seen."
I scowled, trying to think of an episode to prove him wrong. I did recall a lot of bits where they squeaked by with a `For Pete's sake!' or `For crying out loud!' "You know, having a fictional character praying is kinda like using God's name in vain too. You're saying a prayer you don't mean for a situation that isn't real."
The look I got indicated I'd made things worse. "Why does it have to be that serious?"
"Um, I don't know. I guess we could be like Moslems and just say that writing fiction is a sin because you're telling lies."
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that, Dan. There's nothing particularly bad about Narnia..."
"Well, except for all those pagan gods and goddesses sprinkled through the whole thing..."
Kumar, of course, trotted out Lewis's argument that Christianity is the only true myth.
"Okay, so I'm limited to only writing Narnia or Left Behind."
"Left behind isn't a good example because the pre-tribulation rapture isn't scriptural."
I blew a raspberry.
"Dan, if you ever got a book published, you realize you'd have to read that out loud, don't you? What are you going to say? Technically you'd be violating the third commandment every time you have a...book meeting."
I sunk in my chair. "You ever study art history?"
"A little. Why?"
"Well, for a long time, churches had a thing against graven images. It was either that or the issue of depicting a realistic human form when it was considered sinful to do studies from nudes, so you'd get all these Gothic sculptures where the drapery is stiff and wooden and doesn't accurately depict a human figure under all those folds of drapery. But somehow Michelangelo did it, and that was okay? It...just feels like I could accomplish something great, but I'd be condemned for attempting that kind of realism."
"Dan, is that kind of greatness worth your soul? Myself, I'd worry more about what God considers a great author."
I frowned, staring out the window.
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