Thursday, August 24, 2017

Beach preaching

1. There's been an explosion of Christian material on pornography. But from what I've read, there's a lack of clarity in how the issued is delineated. Many of the stock arguments are weak arguments. In fairness, people can sometimes instinctively sense that something is wrong, even though they don't have a readymade arguments at their fingertips. But some sifting is in order. If you use bad arguments, there are people who can see through bad arguments, and that's counterproductive.

Admittedly, I haven't done in-depth study of the issue. It doesn't interest me that much. And there's such a plethora of material on the subject in Christian circles that it's hard to know where to start to derive a representative sample of the arguments. 

2. Offhand, I'd say the issue of pornography is bound up with three related categories: nudity, modesty, obscenity. These categories overlap, and from what I've read, Christian critics of porn treat nudity as a synonym for obscenity or pornography. That, however, overlooks some basic or potential distinctions:

i) It's common in our culture to draw a roughhewn distinction between preadolescent nudity and adolescent/adult nudity. Many people, including many Christians, don't consider preadolescent nudity to be intrinsically obscene. 

That, however, can be dicey. Innocent nudity of that sort must be distinguished from pedophile fare. 

ii) Nudity per se isn't sexually provocative. Nudity can be repellent rather than appealing. It's not coincidental that pornographic nudes aren't obese or middle-aged. Pornographic nudes are typically men and women in their physical prime with fit and trim bodies. Indeed, not just average bodies, but men with athletic physiques and women with voluptuous figures. 

iii) Some distinction needs to be drawn between the responsibilities of single men and women and married men and women. What's inappropriate for a spouse, where a commitment has been made to one person, isn't necessarily inappropriate to bachelor or bachelorette who's reviewing a number of candidates to find a spouse.  

iv) Sex scenes needn't involve any nudity. There are cinematic depictions of couples having sex under the bed covers. Is that still pornographic? 

v) What about the sexually provocative imagery in the Song of Solomon? Doesn't that intentionally appeal to the reader's imagination? 

vi) Is there a moral distinction to be drawn between male on female nudity in contrast to male on male nudity or female on female nudity? I'll revisit that issue (see below). 

3. Social mores regarding what is immodest or obscene are culturally diverse. I don't say that as an argument for cultural relativism. I'm not suggesting mere cultural diversity regarding immodesty or obscenity means all distinctions are arbitrary. Some cultures are more deranged than others. 

However, the phenomenon of diverse social mores, between different cultures and even within the same culture at different times, requires us to separate moral principles from unconscious social conditioning. 

i) Here's an anecdote. When I took high school German back in the mid-70s, our teacher, who was a native German (a WWII war bride) mentioned that in Germany, when a family went to the beach, there was a little tent on the beach where families would disrobe in front of each other to put on their swimwear. That wasn't considered immodest or obscene. My immediate point isn't to evaluate that custom, but just cite that to illustrate diverse social mores regarding nudity. 

ii) Another example is what we might dub National Geographic nudity. Culturally, that's distinguished from pornographic magazines. But is that a difference of kind, a difference of degree, or is there any relevant difference? 

iii) A somewhat ironic example is that at one time pants suits were controversial. That was considered mannish. A dress was the proper attire for women. Yet a dress is generally more revealing than a pants suit. 

iv) Recently I was sitting in a church service where some of the women were elegantly attired in sleeveless blouses. That's due to the summer heat.

By contrast, I knew an older relative who, many years ago, took a trip to Rome. This was late summer, so she wore a sleeveless blouse. When she entered one of the Roman churches, she was scolded for her "immodest" attire. Women were expected to wear a prayer shawl to cover their bare shoulders! She thought this was ridiculous considering the fact that Rome is studded with naked statues. Compared to that, what's the fuss over a sleeveless blouse? 

4. Apropos (3), it's striking how Christian critics of pornography usually focus on nudity, even though, in many cultures, what is deemed to be immodest, obscene, or sexually provocative falls far short of nudity. So many Christian critics are setting the bar very low. Is that a principled distinction, or a reflection of cultural conditioning? 

In fairness, there are Christian critics of sexually provocative clothing. Nevertheless, Christian critics of pornography typically define pornography in terms of nudity. 

5. Let's consider some generic Christian objections I've run across to pornography: 

i) Addictive

a) There's no doubt that pornography is addictive for some viewers. 

However, the same could be said for alcohol consumption. Likewise, many people, including many Christians, engage in recreational sports, which carries a gratuitous risk of harm. I say "gratuitous" because they don't have to engage in recreational sports. Is risky behavior inherently illicit? 

b) In addition, there's the issue of whether nudity and pornography are interchangeable. Sometimes that's the case. But the relationship is more complicated (see above and below). 

ii) Exploitative

a) There's definitely a sense in which pornography exploits women. At the same time, many critics of pornography seem to have an idealized view of women, as if women are necessarily "victims". But from what I've read, some women make a calculated business decision to sell their bodies (e.g. prostitutes, centerfolds, porn stars, strippers, courtesans) because they can make more money that way than working other jobs. Some women use sex to move up the social ladder.

Likewise, X-rated films generally require male as well as female performers to do sex scenes together. Does that exploit male actors? 

b) Apropos (a), even if behavior is voluntary or consensual, that doesn't automatically make it a morally licit transaction. Take popular demand for heroine, cocaine, &c. Doesn't make it right to be a dope dealer. Likewise, there's consensual homosexual behavior. Doesn't make it right.

c) Strictly speaking, this would be an argument to put a moratorium on the future production of pornography. But preexisting pornography doesn't continuously exploit the performers. It's like objections to vaccination because some vaccines were developed from aborted fetuses. But while it's evil to produce vaccines that way, it's not evil to use vaccines produced that way unless supply and demand requires the perpetuation of that method. 

Of course, one can argue that pornography doesn't have the compensatory benefits or extenuating circumstances that mitigate vaccines. But that's a different argument. 

d) Once again, even if pornography is intrinsically wrong, that doesn't ipso facto make nudity intrinsically wrong. Possible both are wrong, but all the objections to pornography don't necessarily carry over to nudity per se. 

iii) Privacy

The objection is that sex is something that couples should do in private. Sex is not for spectators. 

But a problem with that objection is that it's rather anachronistic and elitist. It presumes a degree of affluence, in which married couples have separate bedrooms, with walls and doors. But throughout history, most couples haven't had that luxury. Like it or not, they had to be less inhibited. 

We might say sexual privacy is ideal. But practically speaking, it's hard to see how that's a moral requirement if privacy is unattainable. 

iv) Selfish

a) The objection is that sex is supposed to be a shared experience. Indeed, that sex shouldn't be about what makes you happy, but what makes your spouse happy. 

But that's a half-truth. Marriage isn't primarily altruistic. To the contrary, marriage exists, in part, to satisfy deep-seated physical and psychological needs. What you hope to get out of marriage is a legitimate motivation. 

b) Of course, pornography could still be wrong given the specific telos of sex, where sex is supposed to be a shared, monogamous experience. That's a stronger argument than appealing to a general principle about "selfishness", which invites many counterexamples. 

v) Invidious comparisons

a) The objection is that pornography fosters unrealistic and improper expectations. You're mentally comparing your wife to a physical ideal to which few women either can or ought to conform. Pornography ruins men for real women. 

b) From what I've read, there's definitely evidence that porn can have that poisoning effect. However, a problem with that objection is how it draws an arbitrary line with pornography. From the time of the silent film era, Hollywood has recruited actors and actresses who represent a physical ideal. Doesn't that stock the imagination of male and female viewers with impossibly "high" standards of physical perfection and sex appeal? Isn't that an argument for boycotting films and TV dramas generally? 

And even apart from Hollywood, in junior high and high school, students notice the best-looking members of the opposite sex. They mentally distinguish those classmates from ordinary-looking classmates. 

c) And, once again, even if that's a conclusive objection to pornography, there's the question of whether pornography and nudity are morally equivalent. 

6. Having considered some generic objections to pornography, I'd like to consider objections by specific critics:

While Paul specifically combats one type of sexual immorality in this passage (i.e., having sex with a prostitute), what he says applies to any kind of immoral sex—including indulging in pornography, which is a type of sexual immorality.

i) I agree with Naselli that 1 Cor 6:18 should figure in our assessment of pornography. Unfortunately, the argument he deploys is blatantly circular. Essentially, he's saying pornography is immoral because Paul condemns prostitution, which is morally analogous to pornography. Paul inculcates a general principle which covers specific instances, including pornography, inasmuch as pornography is a type of sexual immortality. But it's fallacious to use 1 Cor 6:18 to prove that pornography is immoral because Paul condemns immorality, for Naselli's inference presumes that pornography is immoral, which is the very question at issue! He requires some evidence independent of his prooftext to plug that classification into his prooftext.

ii) What he needs to do is provide an argument for why pornography is relevantly analogous to prostitution. That may well be a promising strategy. Perhaps he should team up with a Christian philosopher. 

iii) Moreover, the immorality of pornography doesn't entail the immorality of nudity. The challenge is to isolate and identify where they intersect. 

7. Piper says:

Knowing the supremacy of Christ enlarges the soul so that sex and its little thrills become as small as they really are.

Notice that Piper isn't talking about pornography, but sex in general, including sex within marriage. Are Christian conjugal relations properly characterized as "little thrills"? Is that minimizing description adequate?

I don't have a detailed knowledge of Piper's theology, but it's my impression that Piper is Christocentric to a fault. You might ask how it's possible to be too Christocentric. Well, I think Piper illustrates that possibility. From what I can tell, Piper views human relationships as temporary stopgaps until we die and go to heaven. Jesus is all we need. 

If that's his position, then I think he fundamentally misunderstands God's design for human nature as well as how we normally experience God. We are social creatures by design. There are distinctive kinds of love, viz. maternal love, paternal love, filial love, brotherly love, romantic love, friendship. As a rule, our experience of God is mediated through natural goods. That should be a source of gratitude. 

8. Piper says:

My eyes are as magnetized toward excessive female skin as most men’s. I am not designed for beach evangelism. I find airports to be problematic enough. I have zero tolerance for nudity in films — or even suggestiveness (which rules out almost all of them). One reason (among many) is that any sexually charged image lodges itself in my mind, with regrettable effects.

To his credit, Piper is consistent. He isn't myopically focussed on nudity. That said:

i) Where do his scruples leave beach evangelism? Given his strictures, mustn't Christians neglect beach evangelism for fear of lodging sexually charged images in the mind? Yet how can we reach the lost if we refuse to go where they congregate? 

ii) By his own admission, the logic of his position necessitates boycotting nearly all films and TV dramas. That's consistent, but is that an overreaction? By taking his principles to a logical extreme, does he unwittingly demonstrate that his priorities are out of balance? 

9. Piper says:

Nudity is not like murder and violence on the screen. Violence on a screen is make-believe; nobody really gets killed. But nudity is not make-believe.

I have a high tolerance for violence, high tolerance for bad language, and zero tolerance for nudity. There is a reason for these differences. The violence is make-believe. They don’t really mean those bad words. But that lady is really naked, and I am really watching. And somewhere she has a brokenhearted father.

i) When Piper refers to nudity, is that shorthand for female nudity? Or does he mean nudity in general? Does he mean any nudity in any film is intolerable?

For instance, suppose there's a sports film with a locker room scene. Suppose it briefly shows nude men. Sports films cater to a male demographic. Does Piper think it's wrong for a male audience to incidentally view male nudity on screen? Is viewing a locker room scene on film different from actually being inside a locker room? Perhaps, when Piper makes blanket statements about nudity, the implied caveat is female nudity. 

ii) Is Piper such a babe-in-the-woods that he's never heard of virtual porn? There is such a thing as make-believe nudity, in the sense of computer simulated nude characters. That's not a real actor or actress. 

So where does that leave his argument? Consider virtual kiddie porn. By Piper's logic, there's nothing wrong with that. But I expect Piper would balk at drawing that consequence from his argument. Surely something has gone drastically awry if the argument lets virtual kiddie porn slip through the sieve. Even if virtual kiddie porn didn't harm any actual child, what makes it wrong is that it's evil to even think about children that way. 

iii) I'm also struck by Piper's self-confident moral intuitions. There are, after all, Christian social commentators who have low tolerance for cinematic violence and profanity. There are people who think gratuitous simulated violence has a desensitizing effect on viewers. 

I don't think profanity is intrinsically wrong. However, routine profanity generally reflects an angry, thankless outlook on life. And it's typically a substitute for rational analysis.

I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s. The few exceptions include doctors, morticians, and fathers changing diapers.

i) Are those exceptions grounded in moral principle or unconscious social conditioning? For instance, Muslims oppose male doctors with female patients and female doctors/nurses with male patients. Of course, I put no stock in Muslim morality, but the point is that Piper is awfully facile about his moral distinctions. 

ii) Notice, also, Piper's fixation on female nudity. What about female doctors or nurses with male patients? 

iii) What's a possible justification for "co-ed" medical service? One might argue that while, all things being equal, it's best for nudity to be sexually segregated, that would be very inefficient in a medical setting, and medical priorities override prima facie modesty. 

10. Piper says:

 “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). What the eyes see really matters. “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).

i) I'm puzzled by his facile prooftexting. He's a capable exegete. But there are obvious problems with his appeal to Job 31:1. 

a) To begin with, not every speaker in Scripture is inspired or authoritative. Scripture sometimes quotes speakers who are uninspired or mistaken. Surely Piper is alert to that distinction in other contexts. 

b) In addition, what does Job 31:1 have in mind? Does it mean a teenage boy should never gaze at a virgin? Are men supposed to marry women sight unseen (and vice versa)? Isn't sexual attraction a motivation for marriage? That's not the only consideration, but it's a legitimate incentive. In his commentary, Walton thinks Job is eschewing a harem (323). 

ii) He quotes Mt 5:38, but he doesn't exegete Mt 5:38. And commentators struggle with what Jesus had in mind. Carson thinks the statement prohibits seduction: 

Klaus Haacker (“Der Rechtsatz Jesu zum Thema Ehebruch,” BZ 21 [1977]: 113-16) has convincingly argued that the second auten (“[committed adultery] with her”) is contrary to the common interpretation of this verse. In Greek it is unnecessary, especially if the sin is entirely the man’s. But it is explainable if pros to epithymesai auten, commonly understood to mean “with a view to lusting for her,” is translated “so as to get her to lust” The evidence for this interpretation is strong (see Notes). The man is therefore looking at the woman with a view to enticing her to lust.

If Haacker (see above) is right in his contention that the second auten is unnecessary on the customary reading of this verse, the problem is resolved if the first auten within the expression pros to epithymesai auten functions as the accusative of reference (i.e., the quasisubject) of the infinite (as in the equivalent construction in Lk 18:1) to generate the translation “so that she lusts,” Matthew and Mark, NEBC (Zondevan, rev. ed., 2010), 9:184-85.

But if Carson is right, then it's hard to see how that constitutes a general prohibition against nudity. 

11. Piper says:

There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t. There are creative ways to be true to reality without turning sex into a spectator’s sport and without putting actors and actresses in morally compromised situations on the set.

i) One problem with that statement is that, by his own admission, Piper rarely watches movies, so what's his frame of reference? He can't have many examples in mind. So it's just an armchair assertion. 

ii) Off the top of my head, let's consider two or three examples. Many years ago, when I was just a boy, my parents took me to a film about an American Indian. I don't remember the title or the name of the actor. But there was a scene in which the Indian and his wife making love at night on the prairie. Then they're attacked by some cowboys. When the actor stood up, he was naked. 

The dramatic function of that scene is that he was vulnerable. He wasn't holstered with his six-shooter. He didn't have his rifle swung around his neck. He was caught off-guard, which put him at a disadvantage.  

iii) Europa Europa is a movie about Jewish teenager who must pretend to be a Nazi to survive. Most of the time he can pass as a Nazi. As a native German Jew, he speaks fluent, idiomatic German (and Russian). And many German Jews had an Aryan appearance. Often, Jewish and gentile Germans were racially indistinguishable. 

However, he's chronically at risk of detection because, unlike his gentile counterparts, he's circumcised, and it's difficult for him to avoid exposure. He can't shower in the locker room. He must evade physical exams. He must resist sexual overtures. Although it only has a few nude scenes, the element of nudity is a central dramatic motif in the story, because that's his vulnerability.  

iv) The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a film about Italian Jews during WWII. Giorgio has been hopelessly in love with Micòl ever since he was an adolescent boy. She alternately flirts with him and shuns him. In one scene they are playing tennis when there's a sudden downpour. They take refuge inside a carriage in the garage. Due to the rain, her blouse becomes see-through. There's a moment where she seems to be open to his advances, but he hesitates. That illustrates one of the themes running through the film. Giorgio fails to seize the moment, letting opportunities slip away. 

In another scene, he dimly spies Micòl in the arms of Bruno, his rival. The room is dark, but when she sees him peering through the window, she turns the light on, revealing her topless figure, with a defiant expression on her face. The dramatic function of that scene is to drive Giorgio away. Give up on her as a lost cause. And in the larger arc, that saves he from the death camps. Because there's no longer anything to keep him there, he flees the country before his Jewish friends and neighbors are apprehend by the Nazis and carted off to the concentration camps. 

I don't think these fleeting examples of cinematic nudity constitute pornography or anything close to pornography. One can make a case against pornography. It's harder to make a case against nudity per se. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't watch Game of Thrones, but I did watch the sitcom Friends. The following article argues that the former isn't porn, while the later is. Interesting argument: