Fathom Mag
Article

I just can’t say that.

Where is the line between art and profanity—and is it different for a pastor?

Published on:
April 22, 2019
Read time:
4 min.
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My first son was just over a year old and I was still tucking my tummy into my pants. I wasn’t sure who I was now. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror—the tired eyes, the rounder cheeks, the baby food smeared onto my cardigans. No one tells you when you have your first child that it won’t always be this way, that you really will sleep again, that this baby won’t always be such a mystery to you—that you’ll learn each other’s rhythms and slowly being a mother to a tiny stranger will feel less like living in a foreign country and a little more like being at home. 

The role felt like a lifeline—a creative outlet in the midst of a lot of gray days.

Fumbling for identity made me sad and lonely, more lonely than I already felt as a pastor in rural America. My church delighted and intrigued me, but in a small town and a small congregation, there is always a divide between the newcomer and the stalwarts, the pastor and the people. It’s healthy for them, borne out of respect for the office and the knowledge that they’re likely to outlast you even if you stay for fifty years. It’s less healthy for the person who moves far from friends and family to minister on the windswept prairies and finds that shepherding a community means that, in many ways, they have no community of their own.

On my day off I’d drive our son to the local library, the one half an hour away, where I was less likely to run into a parishioner and end up turning the outing into an ad-hoc counseling session. My toddler would stack board books and sneak Cheerios out of my purse while I exhaled, loudly and repeatedly, leaving behind the stress of the previous week and fending off the worries about the next one.

It was on one of these library pilgrimages that I saw the flyer.

Auditions, it said. Performing Arts Center, it said. All are welcome.

I snapped a picture and brought it home to my husband, Daryl, finding him buried in a stack of thick tomes in his home office, his dissertation proposal due in mere weeks.

“I want to try out for this play,” I said.

“I think you should,” he said.

A return to the theater?

When I stood on the audition stage a week later, the first proper stage I’d been on since high school, neither of the parts fit me quite right—one was a teenaged girl, but the other was in her forties. Sandwiched between them, I read for both and went home with squared shoulders and uplifted eyes. Whatever the outcome, that’d been fun.

It wasn’t an explicitly Christian play—not by a long shot—but the themes of redemption and grace were profoundly present.

The director emailed days later, offering me the part of the forty-something. I whooped at my computer screen, pausing only a split-second to mourn that I apparently looked closer to forty than the bloom of youth. 

“Can I see the full script?” I emailed back. The director had glanced over my resume at auditions, noticed that I was a pastor, and paused to warn me that the script contained profanity. 

“Would you be okay with that?” she’d asked. I assured her I would, but now I realized I needed to read the full play before signing away my life—and possibly my career. 

She told me to read it over and let her know if I was in.

I read. The script drew me in immediately, a dramatic depiction of a local, true story of family and loss, brokenness and healing. It wasn’t an explicitly Christian play—not by a long shot—but the themes of redemption and grace were profoundly present. It was, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote of her beloved South, “hardly Christ-centered” but most definitely “Christ-haunted.” Then I hit page thirty-six, where I learned that my character would have to say the F-word, and my breath caught in my chest. 

Not all profanity is created equal.

I typed out an email to the director.

“I’m totally in,” I said. “I just can’t say that.” 

“Courtney,” she wrote, “I can’t change or omit any words in the script . . . Though I would be sad to lose you, I completely understand if you choose not to do the show for this reason.”

The question simmered in my mind as I visited a parishioner, went through the day’s mail, and researched the upcoming Sunday’s sermon. The role felt like a lifeline—a creative outlet in the midst of a lot of gray days. We were on the edge of winter and as the days shortened I felt myself grasping for a ray of light to draw me out of my church and my house and my midnight nursing sessions. Out of my head, mostly. 

“I don’t know what I should do,” I told Daryl. 

“I can’t answer that for you,” he said. “I can see the argument either way.”

In Service to a Story That Mattered

I’m not a prude, but language is dear to me. Words matter. I pondered my ordination vows. Serving as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church meant I’d promised to serve the people with “intelligence, creativity, imagination, and love.” Did saying the F-word on a community stage fulfill that or debase it? Who would I be loving and how? What role did the arts have in drawing the community into a beautiful story? In speaking the truth? 

I needed to know of God’s blessing, that somewhere in the divine economy a character in a play could say something I would not, in service to a story that mattered—a true story, in every sense of the word.

A couple of hours later, the director emailed again. “I was giving this some thought and want you to know that I really respect and admire your values,” she wrote. “Please know that there are a lot of acting opportunities in this town. Though I would love to have you in my show, I don’t want you to feel you are compromising anything for it.”

I paced and prayed. I wanted this part. I needed this show. But that was not enough. I needed to know of God’s blessing, that somewhere in the divine economy a character in a play could say something I would not, in service to a story that mattered—a true story, in every sense of the word.

God didn’t speak to me, not audibly, but somewhere in the prayers and the pacing, I felt a release. Permission. Freedom.

So, I emailed her back.

Courtney Ellis
Courtney Ellis is a Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and author of Uncluttered and Almost Holy Mama. She lives in southern California with her husband, kids, and a stash of candy that’s constantly running low. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or over on her blog www.courtneybellis.com.

Cover photo by Kristina Flour.

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