The Problem with Porn Part 1: Beyond “Just Don’t Do It”

In this three part series, I will consider the issue of pornography in America in order to assist the Christian Church in developing a theologically informed ethic of sexuality in general and porn consumption in particular. Throughout these posts, experience, reason, tradition, and scripture will be utilized in order to demonstrate the thesis that a covenantal view of sexuality, in conjunction with necessary Christian practices, may help the Church empower Christians whose character and virtue it is to meet the harms of porn with the justice and redemption of the Triune God.

Photo by Allison Wiltshire. Click for a link to her blog.

Photo by Allison Wiltshire. Click for a link to her blog.

In this post (part 1), we’ll observe a common problem in Church culture before offering what may be a more helpful ethical framework based on beliefs central to Christianity.

In part 2, we’ll look at some of the unchecked assumptions folks have about porn and how these scripts might corrode one’s relationship with self, other, and God.

In part 3, we’ll look at a few Christian practices which may help the Church empower Christians whose character and virtue it is to meet the harms of porn with the justice and redemption of the triune God.

The Problem with “Just Don’t Do It Ethics” 

keep-calm-and-don-t-do-it-2If one reared in circles of Evangelicalism were to ponder which habits most cause them shame, insecurity, and isolation in their worshiping community, pornography consumption would, in all probability, make the short list. Christian leaders who find themselves ministering to youth and young adults might especially find that pornography is difficult to discuss and even harder to explain its effects on unmarried young people. Despite the overwhelming likelihood that many of churchgoing adults are consumers of pornography, the topic is often avoided altogether—especially between pastors and parishioners. When pornography is discussed, it is often a dialog in spaces of gender segregation and therefore somewhat non-communally. Certainly, most churches might teach that pornography consumption is ‘sinful.’ Yet too often the conversation stops then, leaving churchgoers with experiences of overly simplistic and ultimately flimsy ‘don’t do that’ ethical instruction. Therefore while many Christians may confess that pornography is sinful, they are left without the proper tools and motivations to live a porn-free life, let alone withdraw from already ongoing use.

While the above description depicts well the experience of the author, it seems certainly representative of the modern American churchgoer. If this is the case, then the experiences of these Christians signal a pressing need for the Church to provide a more robust and theologically informed ethic of sexuality in general and of pornography use in particular. Looking to the Christian understanding of covenantal sexuality as contrasted with other popular philosophies of sexuality, the Church may better provide an ethic to Christians who desire virtue in responding to issues of pornography. This ultimately requires the Church to possess a countercultural impulse rooted in formative practices which may correct pornography’s potential to damage relationships with self, other, and God.

The Covenantal View of Human Sexuality in Christian Tradition and Scripture

A prominent way Christianity has come to understand human sexuality is through the biblical drama of covenant which so richly informs the Judeo-Christian tradition. Walter Brueggemann explains that covenant between God and God’s people—indeed, sometimes between God and individuals—is a defining affirmation in the Old Testament often remembered by prayer and liturgy, reminding the community that the “God of all creation has made an abiding commitment of fidelity to his chosen people, Israel.”[1] This commitment between God and God’s people becomes metaphorical in the divine/human romance depicted in Exodus, Hosea, and Song of Songs. Eventually this metaphor is adopted by the New Testament writers who understand the identity of the Church of Christ through a Divine covenantal commitment (Jn. 3:29; Mk. 2:19; Eph. 5:22-33 Rev. 19:7).

Seen most obviously in weddings and other liturgy, this traditional image of covenantal relationships between God and humans remains today a powerful metaphor for Christian self-understanding. Doctrinally, Christian marriages are understood as relationships of committed, monogamous fidelity between persons just as between Christ and the Church. Yet, even more basic than marriage, ‘covenantal sexuality’ has become a way for Christian ethicists and theologians to speak of the erotic life.

kingdom ethicsAs sexuality brings together the most intimate and internal aspects of a person with the external and bodily world, one’s sexuality is simultaneously influenced and influencing one’s community and interpersonal relationships. For this reason, Glen Stassen and David Gushee–in their groundbreaking work, Kingdom Ethics–find it necessary to notice that Jesus’ teachings about sex and sexuality are often framed within a “context of covenantal relationships.”[2]  If human sexuality is relational, it is best embodied when sexual energies allow one to seek justice in the world, better one’s community, improve personal relationships, and develop self-understanding as an image bearer of Creator God. Stassen and Gushee have aptly explained how a covenantal understanding of the erotic life might translate into embodied reality as they suggest: “sexual ethics has to do with sexual integrity, with sexual character—with the total reclaiming of human sexuality for the covenant purposes for which God created it.”[3] As Christians are to live in relationships marked by, mutuality, redemption, and justice, sexual ethics must be concerned with character and virtue rather than ‘dos and don’ts.’

If a covenantal view of human sexuality puts stress on the need for relational unity and fidelity then it can easily be contrasted with the consumer mentality and individualism which pervades much of modern American society. American culture has its own assumptions about the erotic life and these (un)spoken scripts indeed shape the actions of individuals.[4] Even more, these assumptions can shape the perceived morality of popular systems of sexuality such as the porn industry. And so, if a system such as the industry of pornography is in fact antithetical to the Christian understanding of covenantal sexuality, then Christ following communities will likely be labeled judgmental and hypocritical in their protest. The Church however must take on the challenge to become prophetically countercultural, finding their wisdom in the cross of Christ. With eyes turned to the body of the crucified Lord, Christians might pursue right relationships with self, others, and God by practicing faith, hope, love, and equality in cross-shaped ways (Gal. 3:28, 5:5-6; 1 Cor. 13:13).

– Michael Wiltshire

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 37. [2] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 292. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid.