Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Sex, Lies, and Magazine Surveys

BostonThis week in class, one of my seminarians brought up a new article in Boston magazine on sex in the city (it’s in the February 2016 issue, but at the time of this writing, I couldn’t find an online version of it).  It was a series of 10 anecdotes about various non-traditional elements or approaches to sex and dating, along with some statistical “data” gleaned from a poll offered by the magazine.  By way of review, I found the article occasionally appalling, often predictable, and mostly pathetic.  What I “learned” is that the single life is hard, some people like to act kinky behind closed doors, and it’s OK to have sex for money if it pays your way through school.  I also learned that the average number of times people have sex per month averaged between three (for people not in a relationship – telling in itself) and nine (for people who have been in a relationship for less than five years, but who weren’t married).

There is nothing especially new in this survey, other than perhaps the article’s introduction, which praises Massachusetts as being so “ahead of the curve” in misunderstanding the meaning of human sexuality. But this style of survey can be found in any number of other magazines.  In fact, it seems such a survey is found pretty much every month in that bastion of forward thinking, Cosmopolitan.

The relevance of this statistical data is dubious at best. The Boston survey notes that it is the compiled results of 612 Bostonians aged 18 to 54.  So we have a self-selected anonymous survey of readers of the magazine that represents less than 1/1000th of the population of the city.  I seriously suspect even less work was done on other such surveys; perhaps an impromptu poll around the office.  No one should take these results seriously.  No one.

Of course, I doubt anyone does take these surveys very seriously.  Or, at least, that’s what most of us claim.  The problem is that many people read them, even if it is only out of prurient curiosity, and this becomes an element of one’s own particular brain-washing.  You see, every one of us is brain-washed.  It is absolutely unavoidable in our culture.  But, in truth, we have a good amount of control about what actually washes our brains.  This form of discernment, especially in light of these surveys, is part of the virtue of chastity.

When we fail to exercise this discernment, even as we laugh our way through the stats on display, we are subtly affected by what we read. We logically conclude that these kinds of quotes and anecdotes about unusual sexual behavior are not the norm, but we sometimes fail to see the brokenness of the persons involved in these tales.  And we start to think that maybe if there is one person like this, maybe, just maybe, there are more people also secretly just like this.  And then we might think: if I find this behavior unusual, maybe I’m the one who is prudish, or out of touch, or not as progressive as I might want to think.  At that point, even if we never change our behavior one bit, our momentary confusion, a consequence of brain-washing, has hindered us in our responsiveness to the grace of Christ that makes us fully human.

So we have to practice discernment. We must, to use one of those old-fashioned traditionalist phrases, “discipline our senses.”  We need to make prudent choices about what we allow to live in our brains, to become strongholds in our mind, and when we do hear about or read these surveys, we have to turn to prayer for ourselves and for our whole culture that the Kingdom might become more fully alive among us.

In the meantime, if you happen to be one of those people who enjoys the acts proper to your sacrament in a loving, unitive embrace that is open to new life, or if you’re a single person who respects yourself and those with whom you are in relationship because you recognize that you are wonderfully made in the image of God, or if you are a celibate who lives a holy vocation as a sexual human being, offering yourself in acts of love and service, then according to these surveys, we’re the freaky ones.  Let your freak flag fly, baby!

Advertisements

Hope and Joy in a Time of War

spiritual warfare.jpg

On this Gaudete Sunday, I thought I would take a much different approach to this Feast of Joy. Those of you who know me personally know that I take the notion of spiritual warfare very seriously.  By “spiritual warfare,” I am referring to the idea that our lives here are part of a cosmic struggle in which evil tries to undermine the glory of God before the final consummation of all things.  Despite this being an element of my personal spirituality, it sometimes requires a little more prudence for me to address this concept as a professional theologian – which, honestly, doesn’t make much sense, but I guess there’s an expectation of an academic to be more “grounded.”  Be that as it may, as we move through the liturgical drama of the Advent season, instead of reflecting on the joy of Christ’s coming directly, I want to offer a reflection about why we need Christ to come into our world – the spiritual battle still raging between Christ’s Kingdom and the power of evil.

The battle that seems most obvious to so many these days is the one involving the actions of violent, radical Islam against the West. I think Pope Francis is right when he calls these actions (both by and against ISIS) part of a “piecemeal World War III.”  For myself, for the purposes of this post, I am going to sidestep trying to navigate through the complexity of discerning how to act against terrorist violence without stereotyping all the adherents of an entire religious tradition (something Christians should be more sympathetic to than many examples I’ve seen in the past month or so), or of offering aid to refugees while being vigilant against covert infiltration by dangerous extremists.  These are important and complicated issues, and while I certainly have thoughts on them, they are not my concern right here, right now.

More germane to our prayerful reflections this season is the fact that all of the anxiety, fear, heartache, anger, and violence associated with these events are aspects of the spiritual war in which we are all engaged. It is consuming our attention at the moment, and not without good reason.

But the satanic scheme to undermine our confidence in God’s love and providence is rarely as blunt and in-your-face as brutal violence perpetrated in the name of God Himself. It is undoubtedly effective (as evidenced by the evergreen-but-historically-inaccurate notion going around that “religion is the cause of all the violence in the world”), but in truth, I suggest that this is merely a smokescreen.

At this point, I need to be very clear. I am in no way downplaying the significance of these terrorist attacks or attempting to minimize the horrific tragedies introduced into so many lives.  I am not suggesting that this is only a problem of misunderstanding or that if we ignore this issue, it will go away.  But I am trying to demonstrate a higher level, if you will, to the problem.

By way of further explanation, let me use a much different example that is another battlefield in this spiritual war. Here in Massachusetts, the State Senate recently passed a bill that would make Planned Parenthood’s sex ed curriculum the default curriculum for all public schools that have a sex education program, grades K-12.  This is just a single assault in the ongoing battle over the truth about human sexuality, but it is an important one, as the arguments that allowed this bill to pass 32-6 demonstrated ideologically and emotively driven arguments that proved unusually resistant to reason and documented fact.

I suppose a traditionalist Catholic moral theologian bemoaning the sad status of sex education in a secularized culture is hardly novel. But this is a far more insidious attack on the Kingdom of God than jihadist ultraviolence because of its subtlety.  As a professional observer of the sexual revolution and its effects, it is fascinating and unsettling to see how slowly but surely, from many different angles, we have come to the place our culture presently finds itself.  While obviously many factors contribute to this, a spiritual primary cause must be recognized: the desire of personified evil to undermine the wisdom and beauty of God’s plan for love and sexuality.

And before we have a chance to consider how to respond to such a situation, the enemy launches an attack from a different angle: the unusual circumstances of the recent shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood facility, giving numerous outlets for the nation’s largest abortion provider and its supporters to play the martyr in the press, noting their righteous plight in offering “essential health services” while threatened by “Christian domestic terrorists.”

This move has temporarily undermined the brilliant work of the Center for Medical Progress in revealing, not just the legality or illegality of Planned Parenthood’s practices regarding body parts of aborted children, but more importantly, the thoroughly inhuman attitude towards human life on display in these videos. The Colorado shooting has turned the tables back around in favor of Planned Parenthood, however.  From the higher perspective of spiritual warfare, one can see the influence of spiritual forces moving a mentally challenged man to violence and making it look like it was motivated by Christian devotion.

(Of course, in the rapid movement of contemporary news cycles, however, someone evidently forgot to check with Screwtape before motivating another shooting so soon in San Bernardino. )

In all of these instances, human decisions bring great evil and suffering into the world. I am not suggesting that these people have no responsibility for their actions; that would clearly be an irrational conclusion.  But behind all of this human agency are the notes of a cosmic symphony, and those looking to play out a beautiful song of creation contend with those who only seek discordance.

Recognizing this symphony is what Jesus meant when he said we need to be as “shrewd as serpents” (Mt 10:16) and what John meant when he said we must “test the spirits” (I Jn 4). We are baptized as prophets and kings to give witness to the truth and to be responsible stewards of the Kingdom.  We are formed in Christ during a time of war, since the final battle and the end of the world began at the cross.

As Christians, we cannot see these situations from the comfortable perspective of a worldly ideology that neatly categorizes the world along the lines of political positions. This too is part of the enemy’s plan: to keep us thinking small, to allow us to diminish ourselves – not only by our sinful actions, but also by our superficial, sinful judgments of others.  This is not just about seeing Christ in everyone we meet (a truthful command that has unfortunately been diminished to the level of a platitude), but also seeing the stakes involved in this battle: the very soul of the human race.

The whole season of Advent is, of course, a season of joyful expectation. But in addition to participating in the drama of the Incarnation in history, we are also look forward to the Second Advent – the final revelation of Christ at the end of all things.  Our lives here now exist in a time of tension between what has been and what is still to come.  We should feel ill at ease, like we’re waiting for something to happen at any moment.  Like a soldier on a battlefield, knowing the Enemy is near.

Yet today reminds us that, in the midst of darkness and strife, we should also hold onto hope, knowing that our enemy’s final defeat is swiftly at hand and we only need to hold the line until He comes. Let’s keep alert to the battle behind the evidence of our senses, the battle beyond our reason too often focused solely only on this world and the mad, mad events going on around us.  The war is bigger, the enemy greater and more powerful, but our salvation stronger and surer still.  Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! A Blessed Advent to you all.

Naked Reality

Gomez

Over on mtv.com, stacey grant (hey, she doesn’t bother to capitalize her name, so I won’t either) has written against the body shaming of Selena Gomez after Gomez posted her new album cover on Instagram. I’ll be honest in saying that I wasn’t sure how one should properly define “body shaming,” but grant provided me with a working definition: “For a society that’s heavily focused on our own personal gain, we sure do spend a lot of time obsessing over other people’s — especially women’s — bodies. She’s too fat, she’s too thin, she’s too tall, she’s too short, etc. No matter how a person looks, someone will point out a “flaw” they personally deem unattractive. Which, in all truthfulness, has gotten really, really old.”

As a culture, we do obsess over women’s bodies, to the detriment of us all. Women are dehumanized when we see them as objects of erotic longing rather than as persons made in the image and likeness of God. Men are dehumanized when they are encouraged to see their own meaning as men in their ability to categorize, evaluate, and use women’s bodies without recognizing their personhood.

But this definition of body shaming seems to suggest that one is not allowed to make a subjective evaluation of appearance, even with the most chaste intent. To suggest a preference of some kind is evidently an implicit attack on anyone who lacks the characteristic in question. This is an irrational degree of sensitivity that has become all too common.

The rest of the article is loaded with more irrational contradictions. My favorite is that while Gomez admits that her image has been Photoshopped, the author points out, “she still looks absolutely flawless.” This isn’t sarcasm or irony; this is an utter triumph of illusion over reality. It doesn’t matter how things really are – as long as everything looks good, reality is unimportant. Evidently, even the reality that we don’t question when 23-year old young women feel the need to pose naked to promote music.

If we want our relationships to be more truthful, more real, more authentic, we have to really know and love persons as persons. When our first parents ate from the tree of knowledge, they imagined they would be like gods (Gen 3:5). But we didn’t become gods; instead, we just pretend that we are. We look in a mirror and see whatever we want to see and pretend that it’s real and that it’s good and that we don’t really need to SEE anyone else. But in truth, we only see through a mirror darkly (I Cor 13:12). Very darkly. But in the light of Christ, we can see one another “face to face” and then, only then, will love triumph over illusion.

Come Hear Me Speak: “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”

PleasuredomeOn Wednesday, July 8th, 6:30 PM, I will be speaking at Immaculate Conception parish in Worcester.
New year, new Supreme Court decisions, new conversations about the meaning of marriage and sex.  And now people are even talking about what it means to be a man or a woman too.  Come hear me explain what’s going on today in regard to the Church, the meaning of marriage, sex, and gender, and also learn how this is all actually a very, very old story.
(And I’ll even try to make sense out of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Coleridge’s poetry, and Caitlyn Jenner while I’m at it.)

Elijah, Prophecy, and the Supreme Court

ElijahI’m not surprised about the Supreme Court decision today.  Disappointed? Sure.  But not surprised.  Even if proponents for the rational definition of marriage had won the day today, this issue was not going to go away.  In a twisted sense, we can feel some release of tension as we now move on to the next stage of this battle for our culture.

And this next stage is probably going to last a very, very long time.  Consider the issue of abortion rights: there, we are dealing with an issue where many people can clearly see the evil involved in the legal murder of children, even people who might still support so-called “abortion rights,” lamenting it as a “necessary evil for hard circumstances.”  Yet despite the comparative clarity of that issue, 42 years later, we are still a long way away from seeing an end to abortion in this country.

Compare that now to the issue of “marriage equality,” an issue with which many people, including people who might be hesitant about defending it, have a hard time seeing anything at all wrong.  For many, this is not a “lamentable necessity” like abortion – this is a triumph of human rights.  We will need to see the social effects of this change before anyone will consider looking at the issue in another way, and that is likely to take a couple generations to occur.

These social changes will not come about because of same sex marriage directly.  They will come about through the continued disintegration of heterosexual marriage and family, through the diminishing of any meaningful responsibility in marriage beyond one’s affective commitment and/or sexual satisfaction.

I understand that many proponents of the rational definition of marriage may be a little depressed today.  Fortunately, we have a Scriptural model to guide us.  In 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet tries to get the people to commit to Yahweh instead of vacillating between Yahweh and Baal, the god of their king and queen, a god who demanded less than the covenant fidelity of Yahweh.  In a glorious and ultimately violent act (check it out in 1 Kgs 18), Elijah angers the political powers that be in defense of the truth.

Then in the next chapter, he runs away and hides.  He runs away to Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where God first revealed his Name to Moses and then later gave the people the Law.  And there, Elijah prays for death, because he is convinced that he is all alone, that his mission is a failure, and that he is going to be killed.  God doesn’t tolerate Elijah’s pity-party and instead chooses to make himself known, not in storm or earthquake or fire, but only in a whisper.  We’ll come back to this.

God asks the prophet a question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah fails to get God’s meaning in the question, which is much more like Mustafa’s vision to Simba in The Lion King: “Remember who you are.”  After Elijah bemoans his own depression, fears, and perceived failures, God reveals the future to Elijah, and the change that is coming to the political regime in power.  He concludes with an important point: “I will spare 7000 in Israel – every knee that has not bent to Baal” (1 Kgs 19:18).  Elijah not only must continue to be prophet, but importantly, he is not alone.

There are about 12.5 million people with same sex attraction in the United States.  When talking about this issue with my students, some of them point out that that’s a lot of people.  Well, as of today, there are about 100 million people in this country who support the rational definition of marriage in contrast to the Supreme Court ruling.  That’s also a lot of people.  Before today, only about 2/3 of states had laws allowing same sex marriage.  In the Supreme Court decision, the opposition won by a 5-4 vote.

My point here is that we are not “alone.”  We may no longer represent the majority point of view, but despite the inevitability of mainstream media from this point forward proclaiming that “everyone” supports marriage equality, it is simply not true.

But it could become true if we simply wail to God and pray for death.  Instead, we must trust in God and get back to work.  While the situations are not fully equivalent, there is much to learn from the recent ruling in Ireland: we have done a poor job of not only defending marriage, we have also done a poor job witnessing to the meaning of marriage.  We are baptized as prophets, and those who are married must prophesy to the truth of God’s love through our relationship with our spouse and especially through the domestic church formed with our children.  People should see us and know there is something different about us.

This contemporary moment has passed and we now have to prepare for the literally decades of work to come.  We must stop waiting for the storm and the earthquake and the fire.  Instead, let us be ever more attentive to that still, small voice and demonstrate that we stand for something better than what has been sold to us today.

Real Men

1414505574_bruce-jenner-olympics-zoomSeveral people have asked me what I think about the Bruce Jenner situation.  “Situation” may seem like an odd word choice here, but that’s what it is: it is certainly more than just what he has chosen to do with the last portion of his life.  It is a situation; a moment in time in which we have an opportunity to see “what we’re made of” as a culture.  And what it reveals is interesting on a lot of levels.

I’m not going to comment directly on Bruce Jenner’s decision to take drastic steps to be like a woman.  This has been covered well in many places, no matter where you happen to find yourself in regard to his decision.  If you are looking for some good commentaries on it, I recommend Matt Fradd’s straightforward piece (for which critics decided to crash his website for a time) and Matt Walsh’s piece, especially as how this version of transgenderism should make all actual women sit up and take notice.

Actually, before I continue, I can’t resist just stating the objective truth: Bruce Jenner (or whatever name he chooses to call himself) is still a man, no matter what he has done in terms of dress, makeup, cosmetic surgery, hormonal adjustment, or even internal reconstructive surgery.  He remains a man biologically, and I assert that he also remains “male,” for those who want to insist on a (wholly made up) absolute divide between the categories of “sex” and “gender.”  There are elements of his presentation and attitude that are “female,” such as his manner of dress and behavior perhaps, and his hormones are now confused by pharmaceutical adjustment, but in no objective way beyond his own self-understanding is he female.  This is not just the case with Jenner; this is the case for all persons who take active steps towards “transition.”

Transgenderism is a complicated phenomenon, and even though I have no problem stating that human beings are born specifically men or women, the experiences of people who experience gender dysphoria are no doubt extraordinarily difficult.  It is important that we hear their stories, not in order to justify their incorrect assumptions about themselves, but so that we might share with them the love due to all human beings.  The pastoral challenge of transgenderism is to find the mean between the extremes of unconditional acceptance of their poor choices and erroneous perspectives on the one hand, and a mocking disdain or dismissal of their experiences on the other.

Aside from the specific instance of this “celebrity” undergoing this transformation (and showing it in an embarrassing display on a magazine cover), what is more interesting to me is what this says about our culture.  There is no question that we have profound misunderstandings about the meaning of sex in our culture and much more still needs to be said about this (and with the Synod this fall, there will be no shortage of commentary on it).  But the rise in our culture’s open acceptance of transgenderism speaks to me not only about a misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of sex, not only about the logical consequences of radical illogical subjectivity, but also something more.

A number of different studies consistently reveal that the incidence of male-to-female (MTF) transgenderism outnumbers female-to-male (FTM) by anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1.  As some of this data is obtained from statistics regarding so-called “reassignment” surgery, and MTF surgery is easier, some conclude that this disparity is irrelevant.  But other studies reveal that this is the case even apart from reassignment.  Many reasons are offered to explain this, but I think there is one that is often overlooked: we are still experiencing a crisis of masculinity in our culture.

Back in the 1990s, there was a recognition that, with the rise of certain strands of feminism, the distinct experiences of men were being lost.  In response to woman being the forgotten “other” in contrast to man, a full 180 degree shift had occurred (at least in some quarters) in which men were understood as little more than “everything bad.”  This attitude is still around, even if it is not a fair representation of authentic feminism.  As a response, the men’s movement began, starting with Robert Bly’s Iron John and subsequently supported by a number of excellent writers.

iron_johnThe movement strove to find a distinctly masculine voice for the fears and challenges of being human.  Despite all the tough guy imagery and rhetoric of so much of modern Western culture, men learned to express their doubts and fears, especially their insecurities about their roles in their families and jobs.  Men learned to better express themselves not in opposition to women, but in an authentic, complementary masculine voice, for the betterment of relationships between men and women overall.

Like many good movements, it was not immune to parody and the image of a group of middle-aged men sitting shirtless around a fire in the woods, beating on a drum while they cry on each other’s shoulders became a common representation of the movement in sitcoms.  By the early 2000s, the movement lost its moment in the fast-paced pop culture spotlight and now, when it’s not the subject of a joke, it is forgotten.

The issues brought up by the men’s movement haven’t gone away.  I would argue that it is more difficult to ascertain an authentic masculinity now than it was 20 years ago.  And the reason for this difficulty can be laid squarely at the feet of our pop culture idols.  The image of the idiotic dad, the sexual predator, the emotionally dead power-player, and the violent gangster are all alive and well and often celebrated in our most successful TV shows and movies.  Many men find themselves confused about how they are “supposed” to act, especially in relation to women, and so many retreat to either acting as the testosterone-fueled idiots they are expected to be or timid and afraid to say the wrong thing at the risk of causing offense.

If men don’t know how to actually be men, real men, how can we expect for marriage to make sense? Why should we expect to see feminism actually bear meaningful fruit in our society?  And apropos to current events, why should we be surprised that a man who has endured seven years of televised nonsense surrounded by four of the most self-absorbed women the world has ever seen say finally, “Hi, I’m Caitlyn”?

Women’s issues are important to the future of the Church and the world.  But so are men’s issues.  And as long as we refuse to see that there are important, essential differences between the two that make us better when we recognize them, we can’t hope to see the Kingdom among us.

Towards this end, I invoke nothing less than the greatest man ever, Jesus of Nazareth, who conveniently also happens to be the God who spins planets off his fingertips, in communion with the whole Church Triumphant, the greatest collection of men and women the world has ever known, with the greatest woman at the head of the charge.  Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us! Immacuate Heart of Mary, pray for us! All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!

Women’s Bodies – Valentine’s Day 2015

blog

In this week’s Entertainment Weekly, frequent Vanity Fair contributor Leslie Bennetts wrote a piece entitled “Sex, Lies, & Fifty Shades.”  I’m not going to use this space to tell you why you shouldn’t waste your time seeing the movie Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend or that the success of the book has been a dramatic example of how badly we misunderstand intimate relationships.  There are plenty of articles and blogs out there on that subject already.

Instead, I want to comment on Bennetts’ analysis of why she thinks this story has been so successful.  In her five-page article (uncharacteristically long for EW), she provides a fairly standard presentation of the script that women have never had control of their sexuality until the recent past, how S&M sexuality is not about feminine guilt over freedom, and how the shape of feminine sexual expression is undergoing transformation.  She’s not writing an academic piece, but still, her arguments are so riddled with unsubstantiated presumption as to call into question the value of the article as a whole.  Still, let me present you with a few key points.

First, she unapologetically calls the book “pornography,” which is honest, but which is also contrary to many of the book’s fans that I’ve spoken to (generally 21-year old female college students).  This is important: by owning this descriptor, we are admitting that we are comfortable with the complete mainstreaming of pornography into massive commercial success.

But after this, we get to the statement of her thesis and it’s a very important one.  She writes, “The real reasons for the popularity [of the book]…are rooted in what it actually means to live life in a female body.”  She goes on to explain that the “transgressive” thoughts of modern women do not necessarily translate into what they actually want to do in the real world…as if our thoughts have no effect on how we live in our bodies.  In fact, she sees S&M sexuality as a willful acceptance on the part of a woman to express traditional gender roles writ large, which is a pretty horrible way to look at men.

Then Bennetts describes how Anastasia turns the tables on Christian by her sexual submission by ultimately demonstrating her control over him *and* she experiences mind-blowing orgasms while her lover inflicts humiliating pain on her.  “The princess saves the prince.”  This is a hideously ugly way to look at male-female intimacy: instead of love and self-sacrifice defining their relationship, happiness is mired in games of power and control.  But everyone is happy and consenting, so it’s all OK.  Forgive my rationality: how can anyone not see how broken this is?

The final part of her article is a sobering anecdotal litany of bodily transgressions she and her friends have experienced that have never been reported as crimes.  Her point: women experience bodily violation in all sorts of ways far beyond what constitutes illegal behavior in our culture.  She says this is the sad truth about living in a woman’s body in the 21st century.   And I can’t disagree.

So she comes to her conclusion: no one should pontificate about the meaning of women’s bodies because our traditional paradigms of male-female dynamics are still present in something like Fifty Shades of Grey.  Her point is that we don’t know what the real future of female sexuality is, but the success of the book reveals women’s new open-mindedness for the future.

Do you see the problem? Bennetts identifies that it is difficult to be a woman’s body in the world today, but she also asserts that S&M sexuality is merely a confirmation of traditional gender roles and that we may be at the tip of the iceberg of transgression against traditional ideas.  Her conclusion is confusing when it is not contradictory.  She fails to see that her starting premise regarding the meanings of body and relationship are seriously flawed.

The meaning of women’s bodies leads us to another event from this week: the release of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  Hannah Davis, the 24-year old cover model, is seen on the cover pulling down her bikini bottoms so far that we can practically see where her future children will come from.  What’s the narrative of a woman’s body here? Is it fun in the sun, enjoying the beach weather? Nope.  Instead, the model’s facial expression and bodily action makes her not a subject of aesthetic appreciation, but instead an object for sexual use by another.

What’s even worse is that the Photoshop job done on this young woman makes her “revelation,” as it were, not as an adult woman, but rather as possessing the secondary sex characteristics of a prepubescent girl.  So not only is she reduced to being an object for sexual consumption, but she is further infantilized in the process.

So what is the meaning of a woman’s body? Neither 50 Shades of Grey nor Sports Illustrated give us a satisfying answer to this question, as each presents women as either objects to be used or as subjects who need to subject themselves to the fantasy that by their humiliating de-personalization, they will find happily ever after.  Until we take women’s bodies seriously in the fullness of their revelation, which should not neglect their distinctive capacities to give life and love, we’ll continue to be confused.  This Valentine’s Day, if you are in a romantic relationship, show love and respect for the fullness of your beloved’s personhood, in the awesome, wondrous way in which they image the Creator.  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

New Year’s Resolutions for our Popular Culture

2015

Since everyone is getting ready to make New Year’s resolutions, I thought I would do the same.  But I’m not going to make them for myself (actually I am – but those are too boring to be fodder for this here illustrious blog).  Rather, I’m going to make some suggestions for New Year’s resolutions for our popular culture, especially as it pertains to my particular interests as a sexual ethicist.

And, just like real resolutions, even if these would ever be considered by our culture, they will no doubt be forgotten around, oh, the end of the week.  So here we go.

My first suggested resolution for the culture: Celebrity women, please stop doing photoshoots of yourselves topless and somehow describing this as empowering.  Keira Knightly, women’s bodies may be a battleground as you assert, but certainly not in the way that you seem to think.  It is not empowering to show your breasts to us; it is objectifying.  I assure you that the people who seek out your empowering photos do not have your personhood in mind.

The second resolution relates to the attitude found driving many movies and TV shows right now.  Unfortunately, the architects of American pop culture believe that their consumers are all disillusioned single 25-year olds with loads of disposable income.  This is the only explanation I can find for the editorial stances of any website or magazine focused on movies and TV.  Attitudes towards life always skew toward the cynical and reduce anything noble, virtuous, or even just “traditional” (whatever that might mean) to a caricature.  Fortunately, while this cynicism is widespread, it is not universal.  So, second resolution: let’s see less cynicism.

The year 2014 brought us some high profile stories about sexual assault, an act that Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World said “poisons humanity” (GS 27).  Unfortunately, attitudes toward those accused of sexual assault vary widely, in large part depending on whether one likes the celebrity or not.  There is a certain unconscious mercy behind such attitudes, but this is undone by the brutal abuse heaped upon the celebrities we don’t like or don’t care about.  Third resolution: let’s understand the act of assault as a horrific offense against the human person that always must be condemned, and try to remember that our attitude towards the offender should not be based on whether we like their work or if we agree with their politics, and that we are all in need of mercy and forgiveness.

The proliferation of pornography and the increased “pornification” of our culture continues unabated.  The sociological data and the anecdotal stories of damage caused by porn continue to mount.  Yet not only does there seem to be little interest in changing this attitude in our popular culture, but the prevalence of porn continues to set explicit or implied standards of what people should look like, act like, or what expectations in relationships should be.  So for my fourth resolution, let’s resolve to take the sexual objectification of people across media more seriously.

Fifth resolution: As a culture, let us understand the actual prevalence of same sex attraction in our culture.  It remains, as it has for decades of measuring such data, around 3-4% of all persons.  Yet, people believe amazingly incorrect numbers in this regard.  The result is a skewed perception of the experiences of persons with same sex attraction and concern for their representation.  Yet there are plenty of other statistical minorities who do not get nearly the same attention.  How about we start with faithful Christians who are not ludicrous stereotypes.

Sixth resolution: perhaps our culture could re-think what we mean by terms such as “transawareness.”  This term has come to mean that we need better media representation for a phenomenon that occurs in fewer than 1 in 400 people and furthermore, that awareness readily implies unquestioned acceptance of the subjectivity of gender.  With our current climate of greater openness about matters of sexuality (a phenomenon that, in itself, is not all bad), perhaps fruitful conversations could be had about the struggles of persons who consider themselves transgender, including the hurtful cultural circumstances that both mistreat such persons as well as foster inaccurate assessments about the meaning of gender and how we should treat it.  Instead, we choose to have no conversation at all, and assume that as long as a person asserts some vague notion of “happiness,” their subjective self-definition is entirely sufficient in itself.

And on the subject of gender, I have often wondered why we can have heated debates about the so-called “war on women” (and many similar issues – see unnecessary topless photos and porn, above) and then in the next breath say that a person’s gender is entirely subjective.  If this latter point is true, then we need to stop caring at all about the meaning of being a woman.  Or a man.  I finally realized that which perspective you held depended on who you are, who you were talking to, and what you wanted.  Because in our popular culture, our personal sense of self-satisfaction is always most important.  My seventh and last suggested resolution is that we lose this irrational inconsistency so we can actually know what conversation we’re supposed to be having.

And there you have it.  The common thread among my proposed resolutions is that they all demonstrate a failure to understand the meaning of being human – a problem as old as Adam and Eve, yet distinctly magnified in the past 250 years, and possessed of a laser-sharp focus right now – and an inability to communicate the truth about ourselves and our relationships.  The result is a vast host of people broken not only by their sins (as we all are), but further beat down by a confused and abused culture.  This does not have to be this way.  I’m honestly not expecting a change overnight, or even in the whole of the year 2015.  But can’t we at least resolve to do better? I pray that we can.

The book was better

Exodus Last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s new Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale as Moses.  It is inevitable that when a person of faith sees a biblically-based movie made by non-believers that there are going to be critiques.  Here are mine.  Needless to say, there are ample spoilers throughout this post, so you have been warned.

Since most of what I’m going to say is critical, let me begin with a couple caveats.  First, I am not saying this was a bad movie.  I was very engaged, the spectacle of the plague narrative was phenomenal, and I found the loving dialogue between Moses and his wife Zipporah (sadly never mentioned by name) to be beautiful.  If I have any problem with it simply as a movie, it is that it was about a half hour too long; some of the material in the beginning of the movie could have been compressed or omitted with little effect.

Second, I am a theologian, not a Talmudic scholar.  The filmmakers claimed that they researched Midrashic sources while making the film, so some of the material may have some basis in sources unfamiliar to me.  I’m going to be commenting on the film solely from the perspective of the Biblical text of Exodus.

The film spends far too much time getting through the first two and half chapters, which one must admit is a lot less exciting than what happens later.  This film follows the tradition of both Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in establishing Moses and Ramses (who is never identified as Ramses in the Biblical text) as step-brothers with a close relationship as Egyptian royalty, despite nothing of the sort found in the text.

Some early characterizations are important.  Moses is portrayed as a militaristic war hero and Ramses is portrayed as weak and ineffectual.  But it is the portrayal of the Hebrews that is especially important.  The Hebrews are seen as seditious and on the verge of rebellion.  This is an important change.  In the text, the Hebrews don’t like being slaves and cry out to God, but they have also become far too comfortable with it.  When Moses first attempts to liberate them, they don’t want it, and when they finally do get liberated, they complain about the hardships of actually being free.  For the direction of the whole Bible, it is important to realize the lesson that Exodus teaches us: human beings will tolerate slavery when it appears easier than the burden of actual responsibility.  In Scott’s film, the Hebrews just need someone to organize them more effectively.

Moses is a man who does not know his past.  This is fine, as it is unclear in the text exactly how Moses understood himself, though it becomes clear that he eventually understood that he was a Hebrew.  What is more ridiculous in the film (in fact, perhaps its biggest failure) is the characterization of Moses as a skeptic, not just about Yahweh, but about the idea of faith in the supernatural in general.  Such a modern approach to our place in the universe is untenable for a film set in ancient Egypt.

This leads to the important burning bush scene, which is handled well enough.  The portrayal of God’s messenger (and according to an interview with Scott, it is supposed to be an angel, not God Himself) as an 11-year old boy is fine, though I’m not sure why the filmmaker went this route.  I loved hearing the name “I AM.”

Moses leaves his wife and son behind in Midian in order to highlight the radicalness of his new call.  By contrast, in the book of Exodus, Moses’ family goes with him on his return to Egypt (and he’s also, according to the text, 80 years old at this point, by the way).  When he arrives back in Egypt, he mobilizes a Hebrew resistance and teaches them to fight.  This is time wasted in the film, as it ultimately fails and adds little to the story.  Its sole purpose seems to be to set up Moses’ conversation with the angel, in which the angel says that armed rebellion isn’t working fast enough.  Moses rightfully questions why God has waited 400 years if he wanted “fast.”  In the film, this is a fair question, and one that is never adequately answered.  But in the text, God never explicitly explains why he waits 400 years to liberate them; God simply acts in the “kairos” for their liberation – the proper time – not because of some implied time table.  In any case, this conversation is the set-up for the plague narrative, which is the angel’s answer to Moses’ question about what he intends to do to speed things up.

The plagues are wondrous and horrifying to behold on screen.  This is when the film really came alive for me.  Little is spared in showing how terrible these plagues were in affecting the people, and they are unambiguously miraculous.  I have an issue with the rather gory first plague, the water turned to blood, which the film instead attributes to a massive crocodile invasion.  I think if God actually sent an army of bloodthirsty crocodiles, the first plague would have been recorded in the tradition as “giant crocodile invasion,” not “the water will be changed into blood.”  But the rest of them are all accurately and gruesomely portrayed in accordance with the text.

One detail is missing here and one detail is inadequately developed.  In the text, there is a constant dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh during the plagues: “Let my people go!” This serves to establish the tension between God and Pharaoh, it serves to show God’s restraint in not wanting to ravage the Egyptians by giving the Pharaoh a chance to relent, and it shows the Pharaoh’s stubbornness in letting his own people suffer for his pride.  None of that is present in the film.  Instead, God just unrelentingly beats on the Egyptians while they (somewhat humorously) try to explain away what is happening to them.

The plague narrative is also to be understood as a battle sequence between Yahweh and Pharaoh because Pharaoh imagines himself an equal to the God of the Hebrews.  In the film, Ramses does proclaim that he is God, but he says it out of frustration and desperation, and only once.  It is fine that he shows anxiety, given what is happening to him, but the declaration seems made out of confusion rather than out of pride.

Now we arrive at the preparations for Passover, which are described much more briefly than the Biblical text, omitting even the Passover meal itself, the detail that the lamb to be sacrificed must be unblemished, or that the Hebrews need to be ready for flight on this night.  Instead, we just get “paint the doors with lamb’s blood.”

The Passover itself is tense and horrifying and any parent watching it will feel the horror of the scene profoundly.  This is especially so with Ramses’ own son, who is the recipient of one of the most affecting lines in the film.  The movie shows well the dramatic effect of every first born son dying in one night.  But rather than seeing this as the inevitable consequence of Pharaoh’s failure to relent after prolonged forceful negotiations between God and Pharaoh, God just looks like a bully.  This is unfortunate.

The flight to the Red Sea is portrayed well as a journey of a few days, rather than the few hours it reads like in the Biblical text.  The parting of the Red Sea is less dramatic than I would have liked, but the return of the waters after the Hebrews cross over totally make up for it.

Throughout the film, Moses is portrayed as a war hero, and there is much emphasis on a sword given to him by his step-father.  It is instrumental in the parting of the Red Sea.  But there is no sword in the Biblical text – rather, there is a staff that is wholly absent from the film.  I think the change is significant.  The film shows Moses as a warrior: at war with Ramses and the Egyptians, the Egyptians’ enemies, and even with God Himself.  As such, he wields a sword.  But in the text, he leads God’s people with the staff of a shepherd, caring for his sheep.  I think the difference is important.

The film concludes with an adequate if undramatic scene of the Ten Commandments (blink and you’ll miss the golden calf) and elderly Moses on his way to Canaan with an equally undramatic ark of the covenant by his side.  The end of the film is appropriately hopeful.

As I said at the beginning, it might seem that I am being overly critical of the film, but given the importance of the source material, a film like this deserves special fidelity that it doesn’t always receive.  It is not a bad film.  For people unfamiliar with the text and disinclined to read it, see the film, enjoy the spectacle – but then go read the original to see what this is really all about.  God and Moses both deserve it.

How to Get Away with Immorality

600x800“How To Get Away With Murder” is a successful new show this season, conceived by one of the protégés of Shonda Rhimes, who has established a very lucrative career writing fast-paced soap operas about people who actually lack the human ability to enter into and maintain functional relationships (c.f., Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal).  This new show has come to attention for a number of reasons, one of which is its frank portrayal of sex between men.

The showrunner, Pete Nowalk, has stated in an interview that one of his goals in writing the show’s sexually promiscuous homosexual character (Connor) is “to destigmatize gay sex on TV.” He goes on to say:

“Visibility leads to acceptance…I am a little surprised how much of a reaction it’s getting. Maybe it’s because I’m a gay man.  We have another gay writer on staff and we’re just writing what we know.”

Two important observations need to be made here. The key line in the above quote is “visibility leads to acceptance.”  This is simply not true.  Visibility does not lead to acceptance; it leads to apathy and desensitization.  And this leads to the second observation: while the starting point for my present reflection is the so-called “destigmatization of gay sex on TV,” what I am saying about apathy and desensitization applies to all portrayals of immorality on TV and films, not just gay sex.

If visibility leads to acceptance, then the fact that I regularly witness countless acts of violence on TV and in movies leads to the conclusion that such acts should be morally acceptable, even celebrated, because, after all, this is the way life really is. But that’s not true and no one defending violent content in media would seriously try to defend this.

The accumulation of violence on screen doesn’t lead to greater social or moral acceptability. It leads to our desensitization about seeing such things until we don’t really care that we’re seeing it.  Pete Nowalk intends for greater social acceptability with his frank portrayal of gay sex.  Chances are, people will eventually say that his efforts and the efforts of others like him have been successful in bringing the culture to a greater acceptance of homosexual persons.  But it hasn’t.  All that has actually happened is that we have become deadened to any sort of reaction to immoral actions on screen (and please remember that what I’m saying here applies to all portrayals of immorality on screen, including heterosexual and homosexual immorality, as well as brutal violence).

If Nowalk’s intention is to encourage greater respect for people with same sex attraction and a greater appreciation for them as more than stereotypes, he needs to stop doing them the disservice of characterizing them primarily by their sex lives. While we have largely moved away from the harshest stereotypes of persons with same sex attraction, Hollywood foolishly thinks that letting the audience see them having sex humanizes them.  Seeing people engaged in sexual activity on screen (regardless of who is involved) doesn’t humanize the characters; it reduces them and de-humanizes both the actors and the viewers.

Maybe I’m just demonstrating myself to be hopelessly idealistic and old-fashioned. Maybe I need to see more so I’ll accept more.  But I doubt it.  We have mistaken apathy for approval and desensitization as open-mindedness.  We deserve richer portrayals of human beings than focusing on who they’re sleeping with.

Post Navigation