According to its director, Don Jon (2013) is not about porn. Despite its hard R-rating, “it’s actually about love and relationships… and what gets in the way of it,” insisted Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “I thought a story about a man who watches too much pornography… would be a really funny way to explore those questions,” he continued.
His appreciative critics largely agreed: “The film could have come off as a frankly smutty exercise. The images on [the protagonist’s] laptop are explicit, often degrading. But the lurid visuals serve a larger goal,” according to USA Today. The Jesuit Catholic magazine Americawrote: “For all its cheap jokes and calculated crudity, Don Jon is actually a very moral movie.” Even the Evangelical magazine of record, Christianity Today, said “the literal last thing in the world that this movie does is glorify porn”—anyone critiquing the film as ‘immoral’ or ‘detestable’ “profoundly misses the point” (albeit with a caveat that perhaps some Christians might find the explicit nudity and pornography throughout “too much”).
These evaluations are manifestly ridiculous and self-deluded, but in a world that is oversaturated with the lurid, the lascivious, and the pornographic, they are not altogether surprising. Like slow-boiling frogs, we have acclimated to our surroundings, even to our own peril. While the apostle Paul gave clear warnings that “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3), sexual immorality is now so pervasive that we are no longer able to “take a hint” and name smut for what it is.
The pornographic is the water that we are all swimming in. Like the little fish in David Foster Wallace’s proverb, we find ourselves both completely surrounded and completely unaware. In the 1960s, a Supreme Court justice could credibly claim that, while he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. In our digital, pornified age, however, we find ourselves in the opposite position: always seeing porn but never knowing it, except in the most extreme instances.
Because our culture has become thoroughly pornified, even our most earnest critiques of today’s sexual insanity often end up reproducing the very wrongs they set out to overcome. We can take Gordon-Levitt at his word when he insists the intent of his film is not to promote porn but to critically examine the way it wreaks havoc in our relationships. Even still, porn functions like a virus. As much as Don Jon’s director might hope that it is sufficiently weakened to inoculate us against further evils, it is too resilient to be turned to our noble ends. Some things simply cannot be tamed. Kavin Rowe rightfully warns that “contrary to our contemporary sense that images are inert, Christian reflection on their power has repeatedly discerned that images are in fact more powerful than we are. They are often our masters, and not we theirs.”
Even moving from the medium of film to the medium of writing, this is still a live concern. Take, for example, Every Man’s Battle (2000), a Christian bestseller about “winning the war on sexual temptation.” In an attempt to be relatable and highlight the dire need for victory against sexual sin, the book begins with an anecdote in which the author lasciviously objectifies a woman’s body to his own detriment. However, as Tim Challies observes, the language and content of the book led many readers to despair, finding that “their imaginations are fired rather than freed by the authors’ detailed descriptions of their lust and the objects of their lust.” It would not be fair to say “the cure is worse than the disease,” but the ‘cure’ certainly served as a ready accomplice to a diseased and imprisoned understanding of sexuality.
The problems we can readily identify about explicit images and sensual anecdotes also pertain to the specific language we choose to use when talking about sex (in fact, “pornography” initially referred to writing about sex, not depictions of it). Josh Butler’s Beautiful Union (2023) is a useful example here. Despite the fact that the promotion of early excerpts from the book created a firestorm that led to resignations, retractions, and a spectacle of public embarrassment, it is clear that Butler earnestly sought to offer a holistic Christian vision of the significance of our bodies and sexual desire to those for whom “sex and romance are a source of pain, frustration, confusion, or anger.” What was missed in most of the backlash, however, was the way in which the project failed to live up to its own aims.
Commenting on Paul’s description of sex as a mega mysterion (Ephesians 5:32), Butler laments that “while our culture has put sex in a ‘mega’ place, it has stripped it of its mystery.” And yet his lurid description of sex throughout the first chapter plays into that cultural stripping of the mystery. Even if Solomon and early Christian interpreters of his Song of Songs could make use of similar language in their own time, our pornified context has corrupted our ability to talk about sex. The words we use to talk about sex have tremendous power, and unfortunately, that power comes more from the ubiquity of porn than Solomon’s love book.
As much as we desire to exorcise sex talk from these cultural demons, we all too often find ourselves like the dismayed disciples in Mark 9. Some evils simply will not succumb to our most earnest intentions.
Christians do have good news to share about sex, but in this age perhaps the greatest part of that news is that sex is a great mystery. If we would not become unwitting accomplices to the spirit of this age, then a mystery it must remain. “The secret things,” after all, “belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.