Sex In The Movies Part 2: Is Drama Evil?

macbeth-largeI spent Part 1 of my series on sexuality in movies trying to reframe the ongoing debate over depictions of sex in media. Rather than delve into whether a specific movie is worthy of our attention, I think it’s worth looking at why these debates unfold as they do.

It’s no surprise that the Puritans gave us the modern framework for these debates. But Christian distrust of the arts goes all way back to Tertullian in the year 197. In De Spectaculis, Tertullian writes:

You shall not enter circus or theatre, you shall not look on combat or show.

This quote, more than any of Paul’s admonishments in the Bible, is the one that launched social conservatism as we know it. And it’s interesting how we managed to retain the spirit of Tertullan’s warning while ignoring the fact that the “clean” alternatives American Christians condone (football, violent movies) fit Tertullian’s description far better than a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street does. The point here is that even today’s most conservative Christians find nuance within Tertullian’s statement and make more exceptions than he would have.

So how did we go from Tertullian to the Puritans? First, it’s important to note that the Puritans viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt papists. They were offended by the aesthetic excess of Catholic churches, as well as Rome’s embracement of Renaissance Art that glorified the human form. The Puritan view of the arts – which wasn’t quite as morose as you might think- functioned as a reaction to Rome by embracing minimalism. Puritans felt the need to “justify” their creative outlets by channeling them as expressions of faith (like writing psalms or reverent poetry). If you go back to the comments section of the Trevin Wax post that inspired this series, note how many commenters follow the Puritan argument that time spent away from God’s Word is time wasted.

So the American mentality towards the arts is actually a deep-rooted reaction towards the perceived creative excesses that the Catholic Church fostered. In addition to simple clothing and churches, the Puritan aesthetic also manifested itself in bans against graven images and depictions of the human form. It’s no accident that landscapes became so popular in America; outside of family portraits, depicting people in art was frowned upon.

This brings us to the theater. For more than a century, American Christians fought a vigorous war against plays or theater performances. They believed that drama was evil:

Make no mistake, the root issue that the believer faces is not the evil of the sinful content of drama, but the form of drama itself. In opposition to that evil the believer must look to the Word of God for direction and protection. By evaluating the form of drama in the light of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity the believer discovers that drama is an evil which must be forsaken.

At first their main problem with theater wasn’t sexual content or subject matter. It was the belief that to act in a play is to deliberately lie. The actor portraying Romeo wasn’t really a lovesick man in love with a girl (whose part – like all womens’ roles – was usually played by a male actor). The actor portraying Macbeth wasn’t really a king. The whole show was based on actors intentionally deceiving the audience, and the audience reveling in the actors’ sins.

This wasn’t just a mild debate. Pious Christians rioted, ransacked, and drove out actors whenever anyone attempted to open a theater or put on a play. The war against plays was in many ways the first culture war, and it established the blueprint we still go by.

So how did the theater finally gain footing? Through church services. It was one of the the first artistic truces between church and art in our history, and it foreshadowed the church’s pattern of declaring new art forms Satanic until they found ways to utilize them for spiritual purposes.  And it happened because church attendance was in decline (yes, even in the 19th century, people backslid on attending church). A small number of pastors broke the hardline stance against theater and invited actors to perform morality plays that fit with the morning sermon. The plays were a hit, so the spirit of the free market overtook the spirit of Tertullian, and slowly but surely pastors stopped fighting against theaters.

The irony with our current debate over sex in media is that the church introduced the scandalous elements to our entertainment media. To compete with one another, some churches raised the stakes with more explicit themes. There wasn’t nudity of course, but adultery became the central topic of church plays rather than something that was vaguely hinted at.

Tracts went in the same direction. The first graphic depictions of murder and sex in American literature were written for longform tracts designed as a bait and switch to titillate readers, only to admonish them to stay away from such temptations and repent. As people grew bored with the tracts, the writers made them more salacious. The intent was to keep readers focused on the sinfulness of such behaviors. Eventually the envelope had been pushed too far and the church backed out of morality tales, unleashing them to secular culture.

My point is that the debate about whether The Wolf Of Wall Street is acceptable viewing fare should be seen as a continuation of the centuries-long distrust American Protestants have held towards the arts. And if you take that long view, it’s easy to see that a century from now Christians will probably be a little less neurotic about sex in movies than we are now.

I can understand it if some Christians view this as a validation of the slippery slope argument. And to a degree, it is.  But the problem is, as Tertullian illustrates, no matter how selective modern Christians portray themselves to be, they are much more lax in their entertainment choices than early Christians were. At a certain point they stand their own ground and see grays where Tertullian didn’t, and justify things they enjoy for no deeper reason than the fact that they enjoy it. They might put a Christianese spin on it, but it’s no different than the Christianese spin fans of Martin Scorcese movies use. Many of these these same strict Christians attend churches filled with Satanic rock music, graven images of Christ, and uncovered heads. They choose to ignore these things because they’ve accepted them as cultural norms, and therefore quite reasonable and even pleasant. They choose to battle over The Wolf of Wall Street but look the other way on football.

So I arrive at basically the same ambivalent place Trevin did, although I suspect that I’m much more willing to unapologetically embrace a director’s artistic vision. But this is an issue that Christians must figure out on their own. If Martin Scorcese’s movies lead you to temptation, by all means avoid them. The costs are greater than the gains, and you won’t be able to appreciate them if you can’t move beyond the sex or the violence. But history shows us that anyone making an emphatically declaration of what is or isn’t acceptable entertainment winds up reflecting the mores of their time rather than any universal guidelines.

Sex In The Movies Part 1: Reframing The Debate

puritans25So I’m having a little fun engaging in a discussion at Trevin Wax’s blog about the  merits of sexual content in movies. I think Trevin takes a perfectly reasonable middle ground on the issue: while he rejects the reactionary stance against pop culture that his fundamentalist upbringing bestowed upon him, he also worries that Christians have become too lax about discernment on such matters. The crux of his post comes down to this question:

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I think that’s a fair question, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t attempt to offer a definitive answer, because I don’t think there is one. I don’t really have a problem with people who are overly cautious about exposing themselves to sexuality in the arts if they genuinely struggle with temptation. If you can’t get beyond “that’s hot!” when viewing a sex scene, you’re not likely to appreciate the larger message a director might be trying to convey with that scene.

But what struck me during the course of the discussion that followed his post was how reticent people were to even admit that entertainment itself was an acceptable activity. There was a lot of “I’m more discerning than the other guy” one-upmanship, and some played the “we should be reading our Bibles instead” card. But the reactionary position ran supreme, so much so that many of the most flexible people argued for viewing such movies as a means of cultural engagement (as if they don’t really like American Idol or Iron Man – they’re just viewing it to figure out how to evangelize to their next door neighbor who does.)

I could spend a lot of time pointing out that even the reactionaries spend a hell of a lot more time enjoying pop culture than they’d care to admit – and that’s not a scandalous admission. After all, let’s not forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to liven up a party.

It’s easy for us to mistakenly assume that the parameters of these debates have always remained basically the same, with more discerning Christians staying on the straight and narrow while weaker souls allowed worldly culture to seep into their lives at ever-increasing rates. This line of argument generally assumes that depicting sexuality has always been bad, and it got exponentially worse since the 1960’s. With rare exception, these people are much more flexible about depicting violence.

But that’s not how it really happened. The reality is that while the Puritans were indeed humorless sorts who occasionally burned witches, sex was something they saw a lot of. Some of this was for logistical reasons; if you and your family were  huddled together in one-room or two-room dwellings, then you don’t have the  luxury of privacy. So you get it on in front of your kids, and if you’ve got more than one couple living under one roof, then there will be a lot of rocking and rolling going on. Puritan kids saw more sex than modern kids do, and they didn’t get the “birds and bees” speech to prepare them for it.

The study I linked to also cites public sex as a frequent occurrence. Puritans weren’t concerned with weak souls tempted by the sight of their neighbors getting it on; they were concerned with maintaining social mores, and for them that meant married sex was great no matter where it happened or who it happened in front of, while unmarried sex was a grave offense. if you were the sort of person who might be filled with lusty thoughts at the sight of people having sex, you likely had a rough time avoiding it.

Of course, the Puritans weren’t very good about maintaining sexual mores. The pregnancy rate among unmarried women could be as high as 25-30%. Men in those days did have a relatively easy out on premarital sex, though. It was assumed that premarital sex was just that – sex you had with the person you intended to marry before you got married. Naive women consented because they assumed the act was as much a sealing of the agreement to get married as the engagement is today. in addition, Puritans were just as weak-willed about sex as modern souls were, so they also had their own porn.

(Before I get back to my main topic, i would like to point out that the current evangelical stance against premarital sex is more rigid than the Puritan stance. Think about it: Puritans realized that a committed couple would likely succumb to their passions, so they were okay with premarital sex. In fact, the age of marriage for women in colonial times was surprisingly similar to our modern average: 23-26 years old. But Puritan brides were rarely virgins, and unlike modern Christians, they weren’t taught to be ashamed of that.)

So what does all of this have to do with salacious content in movies? Well, as I’ll explain in Part 2,  it’s true that Americans have always been neurotic about what entertainment they consume. But the distrust of worldly temptations we inherited form the Puritans wasn’t overt sexual content. It was about honesty.

Campus Crusaders Pt 8: Drop A Bomb

526x297-hyDA few months before I joined Campus Crusade, I started taking a drug called Felbatol for my epilepsy. In an ideal world, I would still be taking Felbatol. For me it was the much-coveted Happy Pill that our society has pined for. Yet if you skim its list of potential side effects, it’s the usual stuff: depression, drowsiness, rashes, etc. It doesn’t sound fun, does it? But there’s a little blurb at the top of the list that mentions “trouble sleeping.”  That’s a gigantic understatement.

I didn’t just have insomnia with Felbatol. I had Energy. And it wasn’t the hyper-caffienated energy you get with Red Bull or a listless “darn it I can’t sleep!” insomnia. It felt like an organic High On Life energy, like you just couldn’t wait to start your day. And it was like that all the time. Every day. No crashes, no nodding off, no lows. I stayed awake with my mind racing and my energy cranked at 10 for 24, 48 hours straight. For days on end. When I did sleep, it was never for more than an hour or two, and then I’d pop out of bed (and I always popped!), get something to eat, and find something to do. When I wasn’t painting a storm, I rearranged furniture, cleaned my house, jogged, shopped – all without a break. And I was Happy. All of the time, like the scene in Ruby Sparks (great movie, by the way) where Paul Dano makes Ruby so relentlessly upbeat that everyone gets annoyed by her.  I knew the drug was dangerous – after all, if you don’t sleep,  you go insane or die – but I was like Tyler Durden crossed with a Teletubby.

I felt like I could accomplish anything, and I got a hell of a lot done. I submitted dozens of applications for gallery exhibits, got in touch with old friends, and I also made a concerted effort to advertise my talents for potential clients who might want to commission me. That was an angle on my art career that I knew I needed to pursue, but for years I couldn’t get up the nerve or the motivation to make anything happen.

So first I made up a bunch of business cards. I got way more printed out than I could ever hope to use, but that was my unrelenting optimism at play. I could do anything! Surely I could find a few hundred people who’s want my business card! One of the other things I did to nudge things along was write to a few people in town I admired. Not only did I offer my wares, but I also heaped gushing praise upon them even though I only knew them by their reputation or their status as a public figure. I wasn’t dishonest with any of them; I only wrote to a handful of people, and I didn’t hold back in my enthusiasm for them.

Even though I knew Felbatol was probably slowly killing me, I didn’t want to quit it. I kept quiet about it as long as I could, hoping that I could stay on it as long as possible. I wasn’t normally the joyful extrovert I had become, so a lot people picked up on the change in me. But I kept the insomnia secret for a few weeks, until my mother noticed that I was not sleeping at all. She pressured me to go back to my doctor, and begrudgingly I did. It was the practical thing to do, but boy I still miss those days of unfettered happiness.

So months passed. Soon after my Felbatol saga, I was back on a crappy drug that left me drowsy, unmotivated, and it sent me back to the depression Felbatol had saved me from. January came and I joined the Campus Crusaders, and aside from getting a few paintings accepted for group exhibits at NYC, most of my career efforts were unsuccessful. No one wanted my business cards or responded to my letters until I received a call in late March of ’94.

I remember the day clearly. I was halfway through the new Pink Floyd cd, working on a painting as I  grabbed the phone. It was a woman. I vaguely recognized her voice, and she sounded a little nervous. Then she announced who she was, and my eyes bugged out. She was one of the people I wrote a letter to. I turned my stereo down to zero. Once we both got over our initial awkwardness, she thanked me for the kind letter and said she would like to meet me to talk more about painting her portrait. Holy Crap, I’m thinking. This is going to happen! We agreed to an April meeting at my studio. I  could barely contain myself. Not only was she was one of the public figures I had reached out to, but she was also the one I was really hoping to meet.

That night I met my Bible Study group at the local Christian coffee shop. It was a nice enough place and the owners were very pleasant people, so I didn’t mind supporting their business with my money. But the owners had an annoying habit of booking amateurish Christian musicians who’d sing well known rock songs with Christianized lyrics (like changing Nirvana’s All Apologies to: “What else can I say/Jesus really saves”). Ugh.

But that night I din’t mind the guy strumming his acoustic guitar in the corner and singing bad praise songs. I was knocked silly by the news I had to share, and I realized that my Felbatol-fueled energy had masked a full-blown crush on my soon-to-be client.

The Campus Crusaders only had one question for me: is she a Christian? I can’t say I was surprised by their reaction. That was the default question whenever anyone expressed interest in someone the Bible Study didn’t know. But I was dumbfounded by their decision to go straight to that question first. Even though I was as happy as I was the day I started Felbatol, I knew that my new client was just that: a client. I had no dreams or expectations of anything more than a brief but professional relationship. But it felt good to wallow in my exuberance, so their question barely fazed me. I answered honestly: I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. She wasn’t a girlfriend or even a prospective girlfriend. Hell, she was probably married.

Jason appreciated my enthusiasm more than the others did. I was amazed that he still willingly hung out with the gang even though he despised Dwight and resented Kaitlyn’s rejection of him. But I admired the fact that he kept his resentment hidden from them. As he put it,  Kaitlyn clearly wasn’t in God’s Plan for him, so he had to get over his grudge.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, had the most bizarre reaction of all. She insisted that I was wrong when I admitted that I was holding a candle for my new client. I had a crush on her, she insisted, and I was overjoyed because I was excited to see her at the coffehouse. Mind you, Kaitlyn always showed up  at our coffeehouse meetings. Aside from the fact that she was a little bit nicer to me than the other women and we both went to the Methodist church, we had a little in common. What’s amazing is she had this argument with me while Dwight – her new boyfriend- was sitting with us. Dwight never said a word, and Kaitlyn barely acknowledged him.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: duh! Kaitlyn wanted you! That thought ran through my mind, too. But I didn’t want to put her on the spot because of the whole drama about me using the Bible Study as a meat market. So in private Jason confronted her about it. She insisted that not only was she not attracted to me, she looked upon me as her Project. In other words, she had designated herself the person who would lead me to Jesus. Her proof that I liked her consisted of the following: I often talked to her one-on-one at church; I tended to make small talk with her at Bbiel Study when the guys were busy talking to other people; and, of course, the dozen roses I sent to her house the night I gave all of the women flowers.  But I didn’t feel like arguing with her. I found myself more amused by her insistence than anything. Besides, now I had someone to really pine for.

Authorial Intent Matters Pt 2

Will5Yesterday I spent a few minutes combing through the fan responses the latest episode of Breaking Bad. I wish I hadn’t. If you follow the show closely, you’ll hear creator Vince Gilligan emphasize that Walter White is an evil guy, and at this stage of the game you’re not supposed to be rooting for him. But the Facebook conversation was overwhelmed by fans angry over [SPOILER ALERT] Jesse’s decision to talk to Hank. I have no problem with people having different takes on the show (to a degree), but the venom spewed forth about wanting Jessie to die for his lack of loyalty bothered me. It was a glimpse at the misplaced rage actress Anna Gunn has had to deal with for years. In both cases, the problem is a fanbase that has stuck with a narrative that still sees Walter White as a heroic figure. Gilligan has said that this interpretation is incorrect, and his opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Notice that I did not say “I think” Gilligan’s opinion matters the most. It does matter the most. To the point where, if you’re in disagreement with Gilligan, you’re just plain wrong.

Then I came across Dianna Anderson’s most recent blog post. While her thoughts on literary theory are intended as a set up for her main topic, I think they warrant further analysis:

One of the theories we were introduced to was “Reader Response.” The main takeaway of this theory is that once the text exists as an independent thing, the author’s intent matters very little. You can read historical context and discuss the theory of what he was trying to say, but you have to give primacy to how it is received by the reader – you – and what you’ve brought to the text. How a reader responds to a piece minimizes the intent the author had in promulgating the piece in the first place.

There are parts of this theory I’m uncomfortable with – I do think intent is important when misinterpretation of the work happens – but I agree with the idea that the influence of authorial intent can only take us so far. Because of all the different things readers bring to table, we as writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation to which we contribute before we spout off thoughts. And we need to remember that once a reader has our words, our intent matters very little. [Emphasis hers]

I understand where she’s coming from, and at face value reader response has a certain allure. In theory it can keep literature alive by allowing future generations to project their own meaning into the text. But I think it’s a misguided approach.

As my first post about authorial intent indicated, my feelings about authorial intent shifted when I changed mediums. As an artist I was a zealot for it. But when I switched my focus to writing, I realized how crucial authorial intent was.

Like Dianna, I had some literature professors who subscribed to reader response theory. But here’s a secret: a big reason why they’re into it is because they want the lowest rungs of the class (i.e. the grumbling engineers who are taking the class as an elective) to be engaged in the class discussions and (in theory at least) actually read the books.

I’m not saying that reader response theory is a hoax. Of course most modern literary schools subscribe to some form of it. But it functions primarily as a teaching strategy.

One of the luxuries of attending college when you’re the same age as your professors is that they will confide in you outside of class. And while some professors were true believers in reader response theory, most saw it as a desperate way to keep students engaged in the humanities. They weren’t concerned about the book lovers, though. There will always be those. They were concerned about the “on the bubble” students who would choose a literature elective on a whim. By de-emphasizing the author and appealing to to each student’s ego, they hoped to create new readers, even if they did so at the cost of a book’s artistic integrity.

Nothing illustrates my point about artistic integrity better than this article about reader response theory. The writer uses Yeat’s “The Second Coming” as an example. I cringe when I see the poem dissected this way, because it’s teaching readers to read poetry line by line rather than as a coherent whole. All one has to do is look at a site like songmeanings to see how disastrously that approach can go. But the reality is that they’re dissecting the poem this way because they don’t have faith that readers will “get” it if they try to take it on as a whole. The poet’s intentions go out the window because teachers have convinced themselves that students will only appreciate poems if they think it’s all about their feelings and experiences.

John Petrie has written a wonderful essay on reader response theory that deserves to be read in full:

It does matter what the author meant by his writing, his themes, and his symbolism, and if you interpret them in your own way that is completely outside of his intentions, then yes, you have interpreted them wrong. There is a right way(s) and a wrong way(s) to interpret an author’s meanings and his intentions. The right way is what the author meant or what the author concedes is a perfectly fine interpretation of his work, and the wrong interpretation is one that the author didn’t intend and does not condone after he hears about it.

He goes on to cite a classic example of what happens when readers schooled under reader response theory are faced with an author they’ve studied:

[Ray] Bradbury has repeatedly said Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship but rather about how TV dumbs down people and makes them interested only in superficial, useless little “factoids” presented on TV screens…[Bradbury] walked out of a UCLA classroom because the students refused to accept his insistence that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship or McCarthyism or anything like that.

I believe that reader response theory is effective in the short term for the same reason I appreciated it when I discussed my artwork with viewers. I knew that I couldn’t be there to explain or correct viewers (nor did I want to sully their viewing experience), so allowing for individual interpretations seemed reasonable. But logistical inconvenience doesn’t therefore mean we surrender authorial intent. Dianna says that writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation they contribute to. I think thats a great approach, but ultimately reader response theory dictates that we will all reach a point where all of our caution will get lost in history or cast aside to make room for more questions about how the text makes students feel.

Authorial Intent Matters Pt 1

Eternal BondsThe painting above is called “Eternal Bonds,” and I finished it back in 1990. Not long after the paint dried, it became part of an exhibit of my work. At the gallery’s suggestion, I kept a notebook on a stand where people could write comments. The comments became a fascinating window into the minds of the viewers, and this painting elicited particularly strong reactions. The responses included “The wedding painting is a powerful feminist statement,” “The painting with the bride is sexist crap,” and “Your wedding painting inspired me to propose to my girlfriend.”

Art in general tends to intimidate people. They look at a piece, and they’re not sure what’s going on or what it means, so they’re hesitant to share their thoughts in case they get the wrong answer. I wanted to encourage people to move beyond that insecurity and just allow themselves to interpret the work without worrying about my intent.  I figured that: A) As an artist I couldn’t be standing over their shoulder explaining it to them, and B) They might gain more meaning out of it if they’re allowed to interpret it based on their own experiences.

(The answer, by the way, is that this painting was inspired by a friend of mine who was engaged to a quiverfull-style fundamentalist. From left to right, the first bride represents her turning her back to her friends who pleaded with her not to marry the guy. The second bride with moss growing on her represents the slow decomposition of her future. The triceratops skull represents her fiance’s prehistoric values, and the unexploded bomb the inevitable disaster their marriage would be.

In the right panel, the boy with his spine getting pulled out of his back represents my inability to get up the nerve and share my concerns about the guy. The dead dog the boy is hugging represents the fact that the painting was composed near the anniversary of my dog’s death. The fallen knight splayed atop the rubble means that no one was going to swoop in at the last minute and change her mind. And the framed photo of the woman represents the fact that she had asked me to do a painting for her wedding. The brightly colored x-rays of bones with verbs referring to breakage represents my diagnosis of the girl’s relationship with her fiance: it was brittle and bound to quickly break apart.)

I’m happy that this gloomy painting led to a marriage proposal, but obviously it was not intended to be an optimistic view of one person’s impending nuptials. But my thoughts about audience interpretation didn’t start to shift until I did a series of paintings about God. The painting on the right is entitled “God Pt 4: The Inevitable Moment When Love Becomes Lust.” God Part 4 The Inevitable Moment When Love Becomes LustThe title pretty much explains the painting. The canvas itself represents the brain, with its gears and contraptions showing our thought processes. One the far left is a woman as the eye sees her, and on the far right the brain is breaking down her image into a series of increasingly abstract pixels.

I had hoped its didactic title would reveal my message. The painting is about Total Depravity. Even when viewing someone you genuinely care about, there is a moment when sin enters your thoughts and you objectify him or her. It may be fleeting or it may linger, but in that moment you are focused on your desires and gratification. But even with that explanation, I still had trouble conveying my thoughts. Eventually it would lead me to turn to fiction as a more effective medium to convey my ideas about God, and when that happened my thoughts about artistic expression and the audience changed dramatically.