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Cultivating a Christian Imagination in a Pornographic Age

October 29th, 2020 | 9 min read

By Casey Chalk

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” declared Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:8). It’s interesting that Christ directly associates purity with the ability to perceive God, and, as many interpreters argue, the Beatific Vision itself, foreshadowed in Christ’s transfiguration, His face shining “like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). This being true, so one assumes is the opposite: a lack of purity obscures the Christian’s ability to see God. Pornography, perhaps the most visceral, addictive attack on purity, then, represents a fundamental assault on the Christian faith, because it vitiates our ability to know Him as He is.

Recognizing this threat, Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Cultivating a Sacramental Imagination in an Age of Pornography, edited by Elizabeth T. Groppe and featuring essays by an impressive group of theologians, scholars, psychologists, therapists, and artists, represents a necessary counter-assault on the pornography plague of our age. With essays discussing the effects of pornography on both men and women, the essential visual character of Christian culture and its sacramental imagination, and how to begin the process of healing and restoration for both our “pornified” culture and the many victims, it is an ambitious and exciting project.

The digital age is old enough that children graduating college have no conception of life without the Internet. (“What was it like before Google, grandpa?”) High-schoolers cannot contemplate existence before the smartphone. Those two facts alone are enough to show why pornography has become so pervasive. American children, including many in elementary school, possess what Catholic theologian Chad Pecknold calls a “red-light district in everyone’s pocket.”

When I was in elementary school in the 1990s, pornography had to be purchased at a store or delivered in the mail. Now it can be accessed from the comfort of one’s home, during one’s morning or evening commute, or even one’s cubicle at work, if one is so brazen. A majority of teens and young adults have received a nude image via text, and almost half have sent one.

Alternatively, it’s truly a wonder how little has been done by our political and cultural elites to combat pornography and its manifold deleterious effects. As marriage and family therapist Jilly Manning deftly explains, porn is “directly associated with the exploitation of human persons.” It miseducates its viewers on sex, objectifies persons, complicates romantic relations, contributes to negative body image among women, increases sexual abuse, and damages marriages. More than a quarter of divorce cases involve internet pornography.

Porn affects the same brain circuitry as that “activated by addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines,” notes psychologists William M. Struthers and Kyler Mulhauser. It increases risk-taking and impulsivity, becomes a problematic stress reliever, facilitates a dependency on a supranormal stimulus, and encourages dehumanization of the other while aggravating social isolation in its consumer. Porn undermines human sexual behavior, evidenced in increased rates of erectile dysfunction and sexual dissatisfaction among regular porn users.

Yet, as Groppe explains in the first chapter, the dangers of porn are not only social, psychological, and biological, but theological and spiritual. Consider this insidious aesthetic inverse. In the Christian icon, the visible image of the divine or the saint illuminates the invisible and transcendent. In pornography, the visible obscures broken lives and real evils perperated against persons, as many of those involved in porn come from broken homes or abusive relationships, and porn actors often struggle with substance abuse.

Here’s another iniquitous paradox. Christians who participate in the sacraments personally engage in a liturgy of vulnerability and love that facilitates freedom and holiness. But those who indulge in porn are voyeurs in other persons’ vulnerability and lust, while becoming enslaved to their passions. Porn, argues John Cavadini, is a “kind of anti-sacrament, a visible sign that makes powerfully present the essence of male sexual ‘enjoyment.’” To appropriate a phrase from Augustine, porn results in incurvatus in se, a turning in on oneself. Liturgy and sacraments, alternatively, draw the Christian out of himself and into God and love of neighbor.

If porn represents a sort of adulteration of the liturgy and sacraments, part of resisting its power must be a return to the visual and sacramental character of Christian worship. Though this may seem too “Catholic” or “Eastern Orthodox,” such a theological disposition also has Reformed roots. Luther, notes Groppe, urged the inclusion of printed images in the 1534 German Bible “for the sake of remembrance and better understanding.” Even Calvin, for all of his iconoclasm, believed that images of God manifested in creation, or even Christ Himself, “transform the person contemplating them into the image of God, from one degree of glory to another, so that we might become more and more like God in order to be united with God.”

The Christians of the East are helpful guides in visual worship. Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware explains: “an Orthodox act of liturgical prayer is unthinkable without the presence of icons.” Randi Sider-Rose in his chapter on the sacred vision of Byzantine iconography notes that Orthodox Christians maintain at least one icon corner or devotional area in their home as a sacred space to serve as a “little church.” He cites John of Damascus (675-749), who, defending iconography against charges of idolatry, declared: “I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake…. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God.” Indeed, as many defenders of icons have argued, the very Christ we worship is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

Dianne Phillips in her discussion of Catholic visual culture cites Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who argues that Christianity has articulated three reasons for religious art: (1) it teaches Christian doctrine to the illiterate; (2) it aids the memory of the believer; and (3) it stimulates devotion to Christ. Certainly many who have seen and been inspired by Franco Zeffirrelli’s 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth, or Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ would agree. So too would Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen, whose contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son radically transformed his life and ministry. The man shaped by pornogaphy, alternatively, becomes increasingly blind to spiritual realities.

The mind tainted by pornography and its powerfull visual and auditory influence must have its memory reformed, as Ann W. Astell explains. Memorizing Scripture for the purposes of prayer is one means of this spiritual “reprogramming.” Nathaniel Peters in turn argues that there is an ancient Christian tradition that understands memory not just in a utilitarian sense as useful for storing information, but actually as an “important dimension of human personhood and community.” What we remember, either by choice or habit, says a lot about us and what we love. Peters explains: “A person without memory would be not just a person with inadequate intellectual ability, but someone without moral and spiritual formation.”

Consider how different is the man who can easily call to mind the many naked women he has seen — a “harem of imaginary brides” in a memorable phrase coined by C.S. Lewis — versus the man who contemplates, perhaps for many hours, the passion of our Lord. Boyd Taylor Coolman recommends the latter exercise as a “countermeasure” to porn’s dehumanizing tendencies, precisely because Christ’s body was “wounded and vulnerable,” he suffered in nakedness and humiliation. In purposefully orienting our intellects towards the divine and the biblical narrative, we sanctify them, and make ourselves capable of being touched by God.

What then of the liturgy and sacraments? David W. Fagerberg argues that “in the sacramental imagination, we see one thing with our eyes and understand more deeply with our heart.” In the liturgy, we enter into a fuller form of worship that, depending on one’s theological and ecclesial tradition, is a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, or even a mystical participation in it. The liturgy, even in Protestant traditions, has a unique sensory function. The liturgy engages the senses because man is sensual; indeed, to try and minimize or extract the sensual from worship reflects a sort of gnosticism, as if men were not embodied souls, but detached intellects.

Depending on the tradition, participants stand, sit, and kneel; they sing and move their hands, sometimes as parts of ancient ecclesial rites; they hear the Scriptures and the Word of God preached; they listen to liturgical music; sometimes they light candles, ring bells, and smell incense. In Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, the Christian enters into a deeper communion with Christ, whether it be merely commemorative, spiritual, or mystical, physical union. The veneration of icons — if one’s conscience permits — can help facilitate this orientation towards trandscence as an “integral dimension of the liturgical and sacramental space,” writes Groppe.

A theme throughout Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart is how porn reflects a deterioration of real sexuality. Groppe cites Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley, who, drawing on St. Paul, distinguishes between a Spirit-filled heart of love marked by self-control, and the abuse of sexual love that disintegrates into self-indulgence. “Pornography extracts physical bodies from persons,” notes Jennifer Newsome Martin. Nicholas Ogle agrees: “The problem with pornography is therefore not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” St. Pope John Paul II is cited more than once for his famous statement that chastity isn’t a rejection of human sexuality but rather “signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it towards its full realization.”

To foster this kind of robust and real chaste sexuality is not a transformation that typically happens over night. As Jennifer Newsome Martin argues, people have to learn to be enraptured by true beauty rather than its poor parody. They have to intentionally change what images they choose to study, what music they listen to, what things they read. Learning to recognize and appreciate authentic beauty is something that requires training and practice.

Yet the stakes couldn’t be higher. Porn is quite simply destroying American society, ravaging the country’s men, of whom estimates suggest somewhere between 5 to 20 percent suffer from sex addiction. Women, in turn, are exploited and dehumanized, sometimes under the banner of female empowerment, as they learn to view sex as fundamentally about power and money, not love and conception of human life. But, as Groppe’s excellent book demonstrates, the effects are even more pernicious than that. Porn threatens our very relationship with God, deadening our ability to hear His voice or perceive His beauty. All the more reason for us to heed the words of the disciple whom Jesus loved: “No one has ever seen God. Yet if we love one another, God remains in us and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12).

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