The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).
The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.
Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),
Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.
I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90′s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).
(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)
And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”
Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”
A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.
Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).
One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.
But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:
It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”
But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”
One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).
Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).
Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.
What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?
No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.
There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.
For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?
It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”
I have heard it said in my life on more than one occasion that God sent his Son to save souls. Indeed, for evangelicals, that is certainly true. However, for the professing believer who talks of a deep concern for individual souls my question and answer will either be a gigantic disappointment or it may be a true experience of edification. While all Christian men and women ought to be interested in the salvation of individual souls—God is truly in the redemption business—I contend that, as Leslie Newbigin masterfully argues in his gem of a book, Foolishness to the Greeks, the souls of individuals have been spiritually ravaged as a result of our complete surrender of the key institutions and spheres within our society. Newbigin wrote this a generation ago in reference to the inexplicable surrender of modern science and advanced analytical philosophy to secular humanists. His argument actually simple—in a short-term effort to prioritize souls over spheres and people over institutions, we actually lost both. My belief is that where Newbigin was astutely right decades ago, today’s sphere of surrender from the covenant community of God has actually taken place in the marketplace of our day.
The feature film "Freedom Writers" appeared on DVD this week. It stars two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank as a very young Long Beach (CA) high school teacher assigned to a freshman English class made up of students all destined to fail. The kids are African-American, Asian and Latino inner-city kids raised on drive-by shootings in a hard-core death-based culture. The story is true and the film is genuinely beautiful.
Erin Gruwell, the teacher in the story, gave her students a voice of their own, a sense of place and a future. She empowered her kids by getting them to read, write and think. She accomplished this by getting them to read The Diary of Anne Frank and then by having them write their responses in a personal journal. The experience slowly transformed how these kids understood life and coped with their own past. Gruwell continually battled an uncaring school system that was set up to fail, like most school systems in the cities of America. She was hated by some of her peers for rocking their boats and she lost her husband’s support, and thus her marriage, in the process. (Sadly, her husband is the epitome of a self-centered male who wants his little wife to abide by his desires and then give up her own personal dreams. I know too many Christian males who think this is godly but I will save that sermon for another day!)
The kids learn to tell their own stories and through this they find real freedom. A group of "unteachable" teens discover the power of acceptance, tolerance and love. Their lives are changed and their dreams are recovered in the process. The cast is superb, the script compelling and the end is deeply moving. The movie is rated PG-13 for violence and language, as you would expect. I recommend "Freedom Writers" to teens and adults. Christians have a lot to learn about getting involved in real culture change. Gruwell’s transforming work provides a powerful model that tells a very moving story quite well.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
Speaking of the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, last week ABC News’ Nightline highlighted the work of XXXChurch, a ministry aimed at evangelizing porn stars and pornographers, as well as addressing the spiritual problems associated with consuming pornography. Check out the story, “The Porn Pastors: XXXChurch.com.”
JR Mahon of the ministry says in the piece, “Our biggest critics are Christians.” Sadly this comes as no surprise. When XXXChurch came up with the idea of a New Testament with a cover emblazoned, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars,” resistance from the evangelical community was quick and strong. The American Bible Society refused to publish it.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the time that “I think these guys have crossed a line that I would not cross and I would not commit.”
“I just have to wonder what people think when they see that cover,” Mohler said. “In other words, are they expecting the Bible or are they expecting something else?”
Similar furor has erupted over an Australian Baptist church’s display of a sign that read, “Jesus Loves Osama.” Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog calls such mottoes “bumper sticker Christianity” that is “just so unhelpful.”
The defense in both cases is that the verbiage is that it is simply an attempt to communicate the gospel message in a challenging and thought-provoking way; that we are called to evangelize everyone in the Great Commission and that we are to love our enemies.
There are two errors that are often committed in these areas. The conservative error is to reject both the sinner and the sin in the interests of purity and holiness. The liberal error is to minimize or even celebrate the evil of the sin as good in the interests of acceptance, tolerance, and “love.”
Here are some thoughts from Augustine, that could arguably be pretty well summarized in the bumper sticker slogan, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (clearly in light of the second quote the word “sinner” would need to be properly parsed):
“That is, he should not hate the man because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the man; rather, he should hate the fault but love the man. And when the fault has been healed there will remain only what he ought to love, and nothing that he ought to hate” (City of God, 14.6).
“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).
But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”
Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,
Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.
Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.
Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?
McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.
But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.
“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”
At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.
We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?
Last weekend I had the joy of sharing in a special meeting in Newport Beach, California, that was appropriately named the Issachar Project. This small project is the work, primarily, of my friend Andrew Sandlin of the Center for Cultural Leadership. Andrew is convinced that there must be an intellectual and existential coalition of (1) Christians working in Hollywood and elsewhere in the film industry and (2) serious Christian thinkers in the arts.
You may recall that the sons of Issachar are described in the Scriptures as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Their number was small but their impact was great. This unique gathering included men and women, mostly under forty. The purpose of this group was not to form a “think tank” but rather to explore the neglected dimension of knowing God through beauty and imagination, in other words to explore how we know him incarnationally, not merely intellectually.
Most of the invited participants at this unusual meeting were film and television script writers, producers, teachers of the arts and reviewers. We heard four presentations on subjects like how Genesis 1 provides a storyline for narrative, how we should understand Acts 17 as it relates to the Mars Hill context of our times, and why we should watch films in the first place. Brian Godawa, author of the outstanding, and highly recommended new book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment (InterVarsity Press), was a major contributor to the event, as was Jack Hafer, who produced the fantastic feature film, “To End All War.” (more…)
The question of cultural transformation looms over American Christianity. Should we engage culture? If so, how? In a battle for supremacy over American institutions? Or for the hearts and minds of the people?
Reading through a sermon from Augustine, I was struck by a passage that illustrates how transformation of the world begins (and sometimes ends) in the church:
…pray as much as you can. Evils abound, and God has willed that evils abound. If only evil people didn’t abound, then evils wouldn’t abound. The times are evil, the times are troubled, that’s what they say. Let us live good lives, and the times are good. We ourselves are the times. Whatever we are like, that’s what the times are like.
But what are we to do? We can’t convert the vast majority to a good life, can we? Let the few people who are listening live good lives; let the few who are living good lives bear with the many living bad ones. They are grains of wheat, they are the on the threshing floor; they can have the chaff with them on the threshing floor, they won’t have it with them in the barn. Let them put up with what they don’t want, in order to come to what they do.
Why should we be vexed, and find fault with God? Evils abound in the world to stop us loving the world. Great are the people, real saints are the faithful, who have made light of the beautiful world; we here can’t even make light of the ugly one. The world is evil, yes it’s evil, and yet it is loved as if it were good. And what precisely is this evil world? It isn’t the sky and earth and the waters and all that is in them, fishes, birds, trees. All these things are good. The evil world is the one made by evil people.
But because, as I have said, as long as we live we cannot be without evil people, let us man and groan to the Lord our God, and put up with evils in order to attain to things that are truly good. Don’t let’s find fault with the Father of the family; after all, he cares for us dearly. He is supporting us, not we him. He knows how to manage what he has made. Do what he has told you and hope for what he has promised [The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Sermons, part 3. Trans. Edmund Hill (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1993), Sermon 80.8, pp. 355-56].
Words to remember and to live by, both for the 5th and the 21st centuries I think.