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.

The Right Seeks Converts, The Left Seeks Traitors

alec-baldwinBack in the 90’s I used to hang out at Christian messageboards. Ar first they helped serve as an outlet for the frustrations I felt dealing with the evangelicals I was hanging out with. Locking horns with fundamentalists online had fewer social consequences than doing the same with my Bible Study friends.

For me the most fascinating discussions took place when two fundamentalists found themselves on opposing sides of an issue, like the dating vs courting craze: Fundamentalist A would say that closely monitored dating was acceptable, while fundamentalist B would call A a foolish liberal and insist that courting was Biblically mandated. Or Fundamentalist A would b an Old Earth Creationist, while B would be a Young Earther.

Inevitably the more extreme Christian would accuse their brother or sister in Christ of being a heretic or dangerously misguided. A fascinating phenomenon would then take place: the fundamentalist whose faith was being questioned would start speaking like a moderate, and their tone would become much more polite while they defended their positions. This dynamic would escalate – the extremist becoming more aggressive, and the accused more delicate even as they pleaded for a truce – until an atheist or feminist showed up to give both fundamentalists a sweeter target.

You don’t see that happen on liberal forums. Liberals have a much harder time coping with dissension within their ranks. Witness the recent blowup regarding Alec Baldwin’s videotaped rant. I won’t delve into the particulars of Baldwin’s case; Wes Alwan has a good summary of it. Russell Brand is another example of a lefty found guilty of not being pure enough. Brand’s worthwhile essay (from which I lifted this post’s title) sums up the conservatism’s built-in political advantage well:

The right has all the advantages, just as the devil has all the best tunes. Conservatism appeals to our selfishness and fear, our desire and self-interest; they neatly nurture and then harvest the inherent and incubating individualism.

With that kind of disadvantage, the Left needs all of the help it can get. Instead, we see liberals engaging in a constant cycle of purging sinners like Baldwin, and doing so with more zeal than the conservatives who already despised the man for his politics. Women’s heath care clinics are being shut down across the country and liberals are busy fretting over whether Hollywood actors known for their off-color remarks can still be a part of the club.

Now you might be thinking that I’m guilty of making false equivalencies here. That fundamentalists sparring over doctrinal issues are in no way similar to Baldwin’s gay slurs. But here’s the point: in my examples, Fundamentalist B believes that A is preaching a false Gospel. In the end they come to no compromise, and B still believes that A is facing damnation. But they know how to make a truce and focus on their real adversaries.

Think about this: many evangelicals adore Glenn Beck. I know many evangelicals who buy Beck’s books, subscribe to his website. and follow his radio show religiously (pun intended). These people all know that Beck is a Mormon. They also believe that Glenn Beck is going to hell when he dies. That Beck’s religion has doomed millions to hellfire. They believe that Rush Limbaugh is bound for hell, too. And so is that doomed Catholic Rick Santorum.

These people don’t just disagree on minor issues like whether you can tell raunchy jokes and still be called a feminist. They believe that the moral foundation of their allies is built on falsehoods. And they look away. They take a utilitarian view and decide that these people are useful for their causes. Limbaugh and Beck might be going to hell, but they’re great at giving marching orders and rallying the troops. Not only do they get to stay in the club, they get promoted to be their loudest voices. Santorum is a warrior for one of their biggest causes, so they hold their nose, tolerate his Catholic values, and praise all the good he’s done for the pro-life cause. In spite of their reputation of being simple-minded sheep, the Right is able to approach politics with enough nuance to recognize that even heretics can join the team if they serve a useful role. While liberals fret whether they should ever allow Alec Baldwin to utter another word on causes that he’s supported for decades.

Campus Crusaders Pt 6: 1001 Reasons Why I Wasn’t Saved

Kurt Cobain picture I Hate Myself And I Wanna DieKurt Cobain saved my life.

Back during my days with Campus Crusade For Christ, I kept the above poster in my studio. People who saw it were always unnerved by the stark declaration under Kurt’s grinning face, and they’d worry about my mental health. The Christian line on a poster like this was that it was the devil’s influence, and I needed to get it out of my house asap. But that poster kept me sane. It was a constant reminder of the consequences of suicide: the horrible things people said about Cobain, the silencing of his voice, and the commodification of his death. Every day, I would see that poster and regain my incentive to live another day.

The Campus Crusaders had me pegged as unsaved long before they got an eyeful of that poster. Back in the 90’s young Christians were more concerned with pop culture than politics. What movies you watched and what music you listened to was a stronger gauge of your standing with God than your testimony or even your political beliefs. Being a liberal was a major red flag for them of course, but a true believer was supposed to purge themselves of any secular influences. The act of throwing out your old CD’s and movies and buying only Christian media was  supposed to be the first step on the path to ridding yourself of your old heathen ways. Anyone who was still listening to secular music ten years after getting saved hadn’t been truly saved.

To give you a sense of the comic proportions of this mentality,  my friend Jason was a metal head. He loved Metallica and 80’s hair bands. But when he became  a Christian he tossed his CD’s into the trash and got into Christian metal. But Jason didn’t like Christian metal. In fact, he found a lot of it painful to listen to. But they sang about Jesus, and that was more important to him than whether he actually liked the music. So he’d buy gobs of Christian CD’s by artists he didn’t really like because their sound was the closest he could get to the secular songs he was trying to avoid.

He wasn’t alone. The Christians I met were constantly trying to find Christian equivalents of the music I listened to. Everywhere I went, I’d see these charts that were sort of like Amazon Recommendation lists: if you like Led Zep, listen to Stryper instead. If you like Nirvana, then listen to DC Talk. I tried to appreciate their efforts, but the stuff I heard all sounded plastic and phony to me, and it bothered me that this wasn’t a case of sharing their favorite tunes with new friends. They wanted to convert me to the virtues of the Newsboys as much as they wanted to get me saved.

And even within their Christian rock conclave, they were constantly arguing over whether a given artist was a true Christian. Amy Grant was the Devil Incarnate to them because she dared to get a divorce and sign with a secular label. U2 gave them fits, and they could go deep into the night arguing whether Bono was saved. The case against him usually resided on two points; he never said Jesus’s name in his songs, and he dressed like Satan for their ZooTV tour. I quickly learned that it wasn’t enough to be a Christian artist. You had to include Jesus’s name in your lyrics, and the more didactic the lyrics were, the better. Ambiguity left room for wandering minds to go astray.

A Divinely Inspired Mess

the_holy_bibleI believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. I also believe that it is full of errors and contradictions.

Normally questions of the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God rest on two assumptions: all scripture is God-breathed, and therefore because God is Truth, scripture contains no errors. Odds are you either give an emphatic “Yes!” to that statement, or you roll your eyes at it and chalk it up as a misguided assumption that a little bit of education can cure. But I believe that both positions can be true.

Andrew Wilson has a post over at The Gospel Coalition about inerrancy. I posted a few of my thoughts over there and decided to expand upon them here. To briefly summarize, Wilson takes the classic inerrancy position: the Bible is inerrant, and arguments against inerrancy make incorrect assumptions or interpretations about the text.

I began my response by pointing out that the Bible itself cannot be a proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. That’s a circular argument. But I also took pains to say that, in spite of the holes one can poke into the inerrancy argument,  when the chips are down, in spirit I still side with it.  I recognize that inerrancy is an inherently illogical position. But I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature.

The foundation of Christianity assumes that mankind is sinful, hence the need for Christ’s sacrifice. I embrace that assumption. But the traditional position has been that God guided sinners like Moses or the Apostles to create inerrant scripture. To me this violates the doctrine of sin.

For example, I have no problem believing that some missionary friends of mine are doing God’s work. They say that God called them to Montreal or Tanzania, and I trust them at their word. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do as missionaries is part of the divine message God wants them to deliver. They, like all of us, are full of  the same sins you and I have, and those sins can gum up the message, so that message can be tainted by ego or just plain incorrect teachings.

I see scripture in the same light.  I don’t think that Paul was any less prone to error than my missionary friends are. He even called himself the worst of sinners. So I think it’s quite possible that some of Paul’s teachings are flawed, and yet I also believe that God called on him to write his epistles, and for us to treasure them. Therefore, while at their core most of Paul’s epistles are inerrant Truth, I have no doubt that he let some of his shortcomings as a human being slip in, and therein lies the errors. So in spite of their imperfect condition, I believe that Paul’s teachings exist as God intended, and therefore we should treat them in much the same way as Wilson does, with the one important caveat: we can acknowledge that Paul may have gotten some things wrong.

For now, I’m not going to speculate on what those errors might be. I have  my own suspicions of course, but I don’t wish to detract from my larger point. I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy:” while the Bible exists as God intended it, its writers probably made a few doctrinal and factual errors along the way, mostly because it was composed by an ancient culture with a limited understanding of the world. In addition, throughout scripture its writers repeatedly confess God’s incomprehensible perfection. If you appoint imperfect sinners to make a valiant attempt at describing an incomprehensibly perfect Creator, then you’re going to fall short of perfection.

Let’s use the documentary hypothesis as an example. The documentary hypothesis claims that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from the writings of four radically different authors, some of whom possessed a polytheistic worldview. I believe that the documentary hypothesis is the most persuasive explanation as to how these books came to be. The traditional teaching that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books) doesn’t hold up to modern scholarship.

For Christians who subscribe to inerrancy, this would be a deal breaker. If the documentary hypothesis were true, they say, then the reliability of the whole Bible collapses, making it little more than the ravings of an ancient people. But if God could inspire Moses to write divine scripture, then surely he could have inspired four anonymous authors to do the same, each without knowing how the end result would look.

In other words, each author captured important truths about God’s relationship to mankind, so God deemed each worthy of inclusion. The fact that some authors may have written under a mistaken belief in polytheism does not matter – what they wrote was divinely inspired and spoke truth about God.

Take the creation story as an example. The documentary hypothesis teaches us that there are actually two creation stories, the second one beginning at Genesis 2:4. Both were included because they spoke truth about God. The specific details – which are irreconcilable  if one insists that they depict literal events – are less important than what they teach us about God’s nature and our relationship to God. These allegories do not need to be literally true to convey the spiritual lessons contained within them.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all ancient Hebrews understood them to be allegories, and it’s only the foolish fundamentalists who boxed them in and claimed them to be science lessons. I have no doubt that a majority of ancient Hebrews took them literally. They were, after all, a nomadic culture composed of illiterate craftsmen and sheep herders. But what mattered was that the common sheep herders arrived at the same place of understanding as the Rabbi who interpreted them allegorically. So the messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.

Killing Childrens’ Imagination

Mike Wall has an article  at space.com about the problem (or lack of one) the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would pose for the world’s religions. The gist of his essay is that he doesn’t expect that there would be a significant impact on them, largely because many religious people have already embraced the notion that there is life on other planets.

I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but let me tell you about the other side.

Two years ago I was teaching Sunday School to my fifth grade class.  We were talking about how God created the universe, and I asked the kids if they’ve ever wondered if there is life on other planets. Now I’ve asked this question many times before in different forms to Sunday School kids, elementary kids, and so on. Immediately you expect their faces to light up and think: Star Wars! Star Trek! Men In Black! and so on, and then dive deep into speculating about what life on other planets might be like. Most of the time as a teacher I’d have to manage the discussion so kids won’t talk over each other.

Not this time.

This time when I asked them if they thought there was life on other planets, I got silence. Dead silence. Then slowly, they all shook their heads. And it wasn’t the kind of head-shaking where  they sensed that they were supposed to shake their heads because maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of them talking about aliens and outer space. It was numb, indifferent head shaking. It was like I had asked them if they knew what the higgs-boson particle was.

I jumped in, my face full of shock. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there are aliens out there? Maybe with green skin or six arms or scales instead of skin?” My voice was bright and joyful to show them that this was something that was fun to think about.

Again, heads shook. “There is no life on other planets,” one of them said with supreme confidence. Others chimed in with similar statements. Their responses weren’t defiant; it was simply a fact to them that earth was alone. They could care less about speculating over something that wasn’t true.

I tried to drill them on movies and  tv shows they had surely seen or read about. None of them had seen any of them. Not even comic books that dabbled in science fiction. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, but I wanted to whip out that bar scene from one of the earlier movies with all the different aliens hanging out together. Forget science; I wanted to wow their imaginations.

I didn’t need to ask their parents to know what was going on. Some fundamentalists – not many, but some – see astronomy as just as dangerous to faith as biology, if not moreso, since the logistics of explaining distance and time in space makes it much harder to defend a 6,000 year old earth than evolution does. So they shut down any secular ideas about outer space the same way many parents forbid their kids to read Harry Potter. Except usually the kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter know that the series exists and that Harry Potter is “bad” because of witchcraft. These kids (mind you, they were 9 and 10 years old) didn’t even know that Star Wars or Star Trek were things that existed in our universe, pop culture or otherwise.

As a friend of mine put it, those parents should have been arrested for killing their kids’ imaginations.