Christian Logic

hqdefaultWell, I managed a pretty cool accomplishment this past month. I got banned from both a liberal and a conservative website! There’s nothing like moody forum managers to illustrate the truth in my moniker.

I don’t want to name the liberal site because I posted under my real name, but the conservative site was The Gospel Coalition. Since my last post there was a rather innocuous post explaining why employers hesitate to hire employees with evangelical ambitions, I suspect that someone over at TGC took a gander at my blog and decided they didn’t like me anymore.

At the liberal site, my crime was disagreeing with the opinions of people on the forum. Yup, that’s it. My last two posts there was a statement that arguing that hell doesn’t exist makes a number of New Testament verses about hell sound nonsensical, and pointing out (after the forum manager ranted against evangelicals spreading the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra) that the quote actually comes from Augustine.

After engaging fellow Christians on message boards and blogs nearly twenty-years, I’ve found that forums run by liberal Christians tend to be much testier than those run by conservative Christians. There’s a constant culling and deleting of even the mildest dissenters at them. The stakes at conservative sites tend to be much higher (your soul is at stake if you’re wrong), but for the most part administrators at those sites tend to be very permissive of dissenting opinion and rarely delete the evidence. That’s always struck me as odd.

And then it hit me: the answer was hiding in plain sight. Conservative sites are more permissive precisely because for them, the stakes are higher.

For a while now I’ve been toying with writing a post about the different ways conservative and liberal Christians think. I’ve touched on this in various ways on my blog, but last night it crystallized me with two simple, logical equations.

Here’s the conservative perspective about God:

A. God said X.

B. Therefore, a society that believes X will be a more moral one.

Now here’s the liberal perspective:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

You can plug in almost theological debate into these equations and they make things so much clearer. For example:

A. God said that homosexuality is immoral.

B. Therefore, a society that believes that homosexuality is immoral will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes homosexuality is moral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe homosexuality is moral.

Now let’s plug exclusivism into the equation:

A. God said Jesus is the only way.

B. Therefore, a society that believes Jesus is the only way will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes there all religions are true will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe all religions are true.

Now so far, it sounds like I’m saying that the weight of logic falls in favor of the conservatives.  I’m not. And if we plug in slavery, then we’ll see why:

A. God endorses slavery.

B. Therefore, a society that endorses slavery will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes slavery is immoral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe slavery is immoral.

And herein lies a thousand internet debates distilled into their core elements. Now I know that some readers will insist that the conservative logic should say “The Bible says..” But remember that, from the conservative perspective, the Bible = God. And certainly many liberals make a good case that the Bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore their argument fits the conservative equation.

But we’re talking psychology here. Conservatives prefer top-down, authoritarian logic. They believe that God’s opinion weighs supreme, and any discrepancy between mankind’s moral values and God’s must mean that mankind has gone awry.

Liberals prefer bottom-up, evidence-based theology. A pluralistic society strikes them as a more just society than a theocratic one, so that means that the pluralistic society is more reflective of how God wants us to live. Societies with a more loving attitude towards gays tend to be more just, therefore God must endorse homosexual relationships.

These equations also illustrates the strategy each side uses to challenge the other. Liberals ask whether it’s self-evident what God says (or whether conservatives are consistent about this). Conservatives argue that modern society is less moral, and that liberals prioritize societal values over God’s.

Check out Christian blogs for example. Notice how many conservatives blogs start with the question “What does God say about this controversy?” Liberal blogs, on the other hand, usually start with a personal experience or the impact the controversy has on people, and use that to illustrate where God must therefore stand on the issue. For liberals personal experience is evidence in moral debates, while conservatives see it as a nonfactor.

So what does this have to do with surly liberal blogs?

Well, if your theological arguments are evidence-based, then you’re working with a more ambiguous set of proofs than if you believe that God said it. The key difference is confidence. They are confident that the Biblical proofs they provide refute the liberal perspective. Conservatives are confident that liberals posting on their sites allow them to provide wise instruction to a visitor happening upon the debate. In their view, these debates serve a potentially evangelical function.

On the other hand, since liberals base their arguments on evidence, people providing contrary evidence muddy up the waters. A woman who pops into as discussion about gay conversion therapy to say she underwent it and lives a happy life will likely be deleted or banned (as I have witnessed), because the discussion as a whole rested on the case that gay conversion therapy has been awful for everyone involved in it. A man popping in to cite Bible verses to rebuke them gets tossed out because their focus is on evidence, not scripture.

In my case, I suspect that I was kicked out of The Gospel Coalition because my account linked back to my blog, where my liberal views are largely uncontested. The liberal site kicked me out because their case against hell rested on the belief that a God who creates hell would be unworthy of worship. Citing Bible verses muddies up their argument and takes it out of an evidence-based structure.

Millennials Need Honesty

willow_performance2Why are Millennials fleeing the church?

For a lot of people that’s a worn out topic, but it’s crucial one that gets haggled over precisely because no one has come up with a satisfying answer.

Drew Dykes (managing editor of the Christian publication Leadership Journal) has a few thoughts on the issue that warrant some reflection. His main thesis is that churches need to foster intergenerational relationships and stop chasing after the latest fads. But it’s within his secondary points that I find more to chew on.

To begin with, I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Dykes’ books, so my response may cover concerns he’s addressed elsewhere. But if we’re going to examine the problem seriously, then we need to make a distinction between people who’ve left the faith and those who’ve simply left the church.

Consciously or not, most of the prescriptions offered by pastors and columnists are concerned with ex-christians. This explains why the majority of analysts from the pastoral persective emphasize suggest a strategy that emphasizes the Gospel and doubling down on traditional theology. The unspoken assumption is the people leaving these churches are leaving congregations that have failed on these fronts.

But for Millennials who’ve left the church but remain faithful, their concerns are explicitly political. The problem isn’t whether the Gospel is preached, it’s the political conclusions the church has derived from it.

Let’s take a person who’s left the church because of its views on homosexuality as an example. Now discussion and listening are fine, but ultimately one side had to budge. To get that person to return, the church needs to either change its views on homosexuality or persuade her to change her beliefs.

Let me emphasize that this isn’t just a theological question. People aren’t just rejecting the church’s Biblical view of homosexuality, they’re also rejecting the political noise that surrounds it, like conversion therapy, negative propaganda about gays (gays make bad parents or are inclined to pedophilia), and campaigns against gays (see Arizona’s recent right to discriminate bill.) They’re rejecting Christians who cheer on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and favor candidates who promise to fight against gay marriage.

I know plenty of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but they still won’t darken a church doorway because they think Christians are obsessed with the issue. You can win the theological argument and still fail to bring people back to church. .

And let’s face it: a big part of the problem is that churches equate loss of political leverage with loss of their rights. It’s fair to ask whether they want Millennials back for their value in the church body, or whether it’s just to have fresh blood to fight the culture wars.

The perception outside of the Evangelical bubble is that Christians have more influence now than they did eight years ago: womens’ health clinics are being shuttered, the Tea Party (which, like it or not, is equated with evangelical Christianity) has shut down the government and exercises greater control over the Republican party than ever, and instead of reaching out to minorities, evangelicals have broadcast loud and clear that they resent them.

Now I’m sure many are saying that I’m conflating Republican politics with the church. That’s because people outside the Christian bubble view them as one and the same. Aside from a few voices in the wilderness like Jim Wallis, it is safe to say that the political positions the Republican party stands for are the political goals the church advocates. A Republican political victory is viewed as an evangelical victory, so no one outside of Christians themselves believes that they’ve lost power. What they do believe is that down the road Christians will lose power by virtue of demographic trends. But not yet

While Dykes deserves kudos for recognizing that Millennials are waiting to get married and hold off having kids, the question then becomes whether the church wants those Millennials as is, or whether they intend to get them married and pregnant asap. Can the twenty-something woman who has no intention of having kids feel comfortable in a women’s Bible study, or will the women try to get them to conform to the nuclear family model? If the latter is true, then the church needs to be up front about it, and realize that most Millennials will recognize the insincerity involved (i.e. “I like you who you will become if you listen to me, not who you are now.)

I’m not going to go the usual route and suggest that churches change their theology in order to bring people back into the fold. That’s not going to happen. What I would suggest is that they be more honest with themselves and concede what everyone else sees: they are fixated on homosexuality, and they do consider it a bigger deal than other sins. If they want to make a theological case to justifying it, then do so. But don’t deny the fixation.

And finally, admit that a major reason why they want to bring Millenials back to the church is the desire to undo the social values and family trends Millennials reflect. It’s a strategic goal to change marital patterns, pregnancy rates, and reverse multicultural acceptance. Again, make a theological case if you like, but don’t pretend that you’re interested in Millennials as they are now. Admit that the fear of being a cultural minority is directly tied to the desire to reacquire the social leverage you used to have, and saving Millennial souls holds more value to you in the present than they will in the afterlife.

Church Is Hard

glass

I may not be attending a church right now, but I believe that I should be.

Unlike a lot of liberal Christians, I don’t flinch at the notion that we’re obligated to worship as a community. I believe that true spiritual growth can only happen when we’re challenged in life, and Christians who go it alone tend to seek out self-serving outlets for their spirituality. Confirmation bias may be a major problem for the church, but it’s a problem for the unchurched as well. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of limiting your social circles to people who already agree with you. It’s also far too easy to fall out of the habit of prayer and devotional reading when you aren’t surrounded by peers who hold each other accountable. Sure, you can wax poetic about how spirituality shouldn’t operate on a schedule, but in our modern age we’re conditioned to live by schedules. And the deeper into an unstructured spiritual life one goes, the easier it is to let other activities take the place of worship.

This might come as a surprise given the amount of space I’ve devoted here to my misadventures in the Christian wilderness. But it was prompted by an essay by Episcopalian priest Tom Ehrich entitled Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard.

When I first read Ehrich’s post, I found myself agreeing with it enthusiastically. Church should be a safe place. It should be safe to confess our sins. It should be safe to love whoever one feels called to love. It should be safe to fail at these things. And yes, for many church is a dangerous place, and even the most dedicated churchgoers agree that  people in church tend to be:

“guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, [and] required to obey rules.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned Ehrich’s vision. Anyone who insists on these things as a condition for going to church is setting themselves up for disappointment. Mankind is sinful, and any institution we establish, no matter how lofty its goals, will always fall well short of its ambitions. That doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t strive to meet Ehrich’s vision. But it does mean that part of spirituality is learning how to deal with the imperfections of those around you. For many people church is hard, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So when I came across Rod Dreher’s critique of Ehrich, I found myself mostly in agreement with Rod. While I think Dreher jumps too quickly towards assuming that Ehrich’s vision is a “standard liberal Protestant agenda,”  I also believe Dreher provides a more useful vision of a church that functions within the real-life context of sinners trying to make sense of God while they learn to get along with each other. As Dreher puts it:

This is hard. Because our hearts are so hard, the religious life has to be hard as well. Oh, it should be comforting too, in season, but any authentic religion will, at times, be hard. Dying to oneself is hard, but in a Christian sense, if you’re not dying, you’re not living. The saying goes, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” True! But a hospital treats the sick, and helps restore them to health. It doesn’t confirm the sick in their sickness.

As I see it, churches should be able to answer the question “Why Are We Here?” in both the theological sense and the immediate context of a Sunday morning service. I worshipped enthusiastically with a congregation of conservative evangelicals because they could succinctly answer these questions: they worshipped Christ and sought to live love each other and live their lives as He called them to. And they show up on Sunday mornings out of reverence for God rather than their own selfish desires and preferences.

I left that church when I realized that its priorities had shifted towards winning political battles rather than spiritual ones. Their church services, like those of the evangelical churches around them. functioned as a refuge from their theological and political adversaries, and as a place to launch counterattack against the community via the Gender Wars and a Randian political agenda.

But even though I believe that evangelicals have become one of the darkest forces in American politics, I also believe that they have the potential to become a light unto the world once more, and they wouldn’t need to become Episcopalians to do it. Just return to the Gospel. Shed the tea party politics, the homophobia, and the misogyny, and get back to what really matters. I’ll gladly go back to church if I can find a church that strives to follow the Gospel, even if going to church is harder than going it alone.

Hobby Lobby’s Slippery Slope

Hobby-LobbyI scoffed at the Hobby Lobby case when I first about it. I figured the company’s position on birth control coverage would be easily dismissed on the grounds that Hobby Lobby  is a nonreligious, for-profit entity, and therefore its complaints regarding birth control coverage were as irrelevant as a complementation business owner’s views on women working outside the home.Since complementarians must hire women no matter how zealously they dislike women with careers, I incorrectly assumed the Hobby Lobby case would be dismissed.

But now that there’s a good possibility that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, I think we’re faced with the possibility (and maybe even the probability) that Obamacare may ultimately become a trojan horse for the Right. Rather than usher in a new, more liberalized society, Obamacare may help reverse reproductive rights in this country.

I know that sounds alarmist, but it seems as though every concession Obama makes for conservatives, and every ruling the courts make, has undermined health coverage for women. Keep in mind that the very same companies who are complaining about Obamacare’s contraceptive policy had outsourced their insurance coverage to companies who did offer contraceptive coverage. Forcing women to pay out of pocket for contraceptives will mean fewer women have access to them. Combined with the war on women and the mass closing of women’s health clinics, I believe that we’re facing a return to the institutional misogyny of the 50’s.

Annual costs for contraceptives range between $131-$172 a year per person. That may not sound like much, but for many women that’s a financial hit they won’t be able to afford, and that in turn will result in more unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

And more than any principled stance against contraceptives, more unwanted pregnancies are social conservatives’ primary goal. Liberated women who are able to live the life they choose and marry whom they want to, when they want to, and have children when they want to (if they want any children at all) are viewed as The Enemy. In the view of social conservatives, modern society exists because patriarchy has lost its grip, and the best way for patriarchy to regain its hold over society would be to subjugate women, leaving them at the mercy of their reproductive system.

This also explains why evangelicals have so eagerly embraced their inner Catholic. What’s fascinating is how rapidly they’ve shifted from a long history of dismissing (and even mocking) the Catholic Church’s stance against contraceptives, to recasting their reading of scripture so it falls in line with an anti-contraceptive stance. Once again evangelicalism has shown itself to be extremely malleable when their societal ambitions conflict with their traditional theology, and society as a whole is being forced to submit to their views.

The Philippians 4:8 Test

rafael_constru_o_arcaTrevin Wax’s Wolf of Wall Street post is the gift that keeps on giving. During the course of the second wave of debate threads in comments section, I stumbled onto an interesting formula.

Christians who lean on the reactionary side of the Culture Wars often cite Philippians 4:8-9 as one of their proof texts for avoiding movies with lots of swearing or naughty bits:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Christians who cite this verse assume that it clarifies the debate: if you don’t obey Philippians 4:8, then you’re a backsliding believer (at best). As I pointed out in Part 1 and Part 2 of my series about R-rated content in movies, the boundaries of this debate have shifted so dramatically over time that it’s impossible to set up objective standards.

Then I had my eureka moment.

It started with a little back and forth about the Philippians passage (you can find it in the bottom half of the comments section). Initially my point was that Christians used Philippians to discourage movies and stories that tackle complex stories in a mature fashion. But I also wanted to prove that Wolf of Wall Street scored better on the “Philippians Test” than conservatives assumed. Here was my breakdown of the movie:

Is WoWS true? Yes, it is.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It attempts to uphold honor by scrutinizing dishonorable people, but there’s some disagreement beyond the Christian bubble about how effective it is.

Is it just? Not sure about that, although sometimes you can say a lot more about justice by focusing on injustice. The documentary Blackfish focuses on injustice towards whales, but showing a tragic problem did more to motivate people towards justice than a happy ending would have.

Is it pure or lovely? No, but most of the stories of the Bible aren’t pure or lovely, either. By definition all stories must contain sin, otherwise there is no conflict and therefore no story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely. It’s getting rave reviews and being discussed as a candidate for Best Picture.

My conclusion was that, if you score it conservatively, WoWS passed 2 out of 5 categories. If you allow for more nuance in storytelling and are willing to accept movies that don’t spell out moral lessons with speeches or the villain’s comeuppance, then it scores a 4 out of 5.

But the point I had hoped to emphasize was that no story can pass the “pure and lovely” part, and therefore no story can pass the Philippians Test. To make my point, I put one of the most popular evqngelical movies- Fireproof – through the test:

Is Fireproof true? Yes, it is, for the same reason WoWS is: the movie depicts the human condition.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It tries to be, but the behavior of the characters is loathsome even after the “happy” ending. Unlike WoWS, Fireproof want us to praise very disturbing behavior.

(For more about how reprehensible the movie is, check out Sarah Moon’s analysis and Waneta Dawn’s multi-part breakdown of the movie.)

Is it just? Absolutely not. The movie depicts a woman who is married to an abusive husband and implies that her only justifiable choice is to remain in an unhealthy relationship. The abusive husband never stops being abusive; he just finds new ways to control her. The movie wants us to believe that she needs to change even though she wasn’t at fault for his behavior in the first place.

Is it pure or lovely? No, for the same reason WoWS isn’t pure: it depicts sin. Almost every story will fail this category.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely not. It fails on every artistic level as a movie: it’s poorly acted, poorly directed, etc.

So Fireproof scores 1 out of 5 – even worse than WoWS.

Then I realize that I was aiming to low with Fireproof. What if we apply the Test to the Bible itself?

Let’s put Noah through the Test:

Is the Noah’s Ark story true? This is trickier to answer than Fireproof or WoWS. If you’re a fundamentalist, then of course it is. If you believe in Divine Inspiration,  then it’s true, but not necessarily a historical event. If you’re a liberal Christian or a nonchrisitan, then it’s probably not true.

Is it honorable? Again, this is debatable. It honors God, but the story itself is about global genocide and ends with Noah getting drunk and cursing his son for seeing him naked. No one acts honorably. 

Is it just? This is also debatable. If you believe that God was justified to cause the flood and everything that happened follows God’s Will, then sure, it’s just. But anyone willing to look at it more critically will find no justice in the story.

Is it pure or lovely? No. Even if you believe that the story passes the above categories, you can’t get beyond the fact that it’s an ugly story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? It’s one of them most well-known stories in the history of western culture, so I’ll have to say it’s excellent. Although nowadays it’s mainly remembered because of its awesome visuals and the role it plays in creationism and theodicy debates.

So depending how you score it, Noah’s story scores anywhere between 4 out of 5 or 0 out of 5. So even one of the most famous Biblical tales doesn’t pass the Philippians Test.

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.