When I was a boy, my uncle, who lived in the house in front of our’s, showed me his stash of contraband. It wasn’t drugs but it may as well have been. It was his stash of Playboy magazines. In an odd twist of the story, I asked if I could have some. When he approached my parents, I’m sure they must have had some sort of discussion about it, going back and forth, but when the dust had settled I was the new owner of a stack of magazines that any kid my age would have killed for.
That was the beginning of my learning what loving a woman was all about: keeping her at arms length while being mesmerized by her seeming perfection and wanting her not for her character but for her physical features. It was the beginning of a love affair not with a real person but with an object of desire. Along the long journey back, I’ve found that the desire was not derailed by telling myself “Stop it” and it magically disappears. The scars of that early addiction are ever present.
As I read today that Playboy magazine is getting out of offering nude photos in their magazine, there is very little to celebrate. At the height of circulation, Hugh Hefner’s flagship business had some 5.6 million subscribers. With readership dwindling to about 800,000 it forced the company to adjust its magazine offerings to “provocative poses”. Why? It’s what I found out. It’s hard to keep the consumption of porn “light” and “provocative”. The internet has made pornography easily accessible but also much more graphic in nature as it continues to enslave so many men today (woman have access to it but it seems to be predominantly a “guy thing”). Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive recently told the NY Times, “The battle has been fought and won. You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free and so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
But why is pornography bad for the soul? Why is it at cross-purposes with real spiritual transformation at a deep level? I mean, isn’t it natural and who doesn’t slip a bit by wanting a peek of the forbidden fruit? For some this will not be convincing at all because it’s hard to reason yourself out of a behavior that you didn’t use reason to get yourself into. Yet, there is something about pornography that is deeply corrosive to the soul.
For one, the addictive nature of pornography is clear. For every guy I’ve spoken to who is locked into constantly viewing pornography, they will tell you how hard it is to stop. While physical attraction is an important part of a marriage covenant, pornography is “lust” as Paul describes it as epithumia in Galatians 5. The literal translation would be something like “over-desire” or something (anything) that) is desired with too much power, toward the wrong thing, at the wrong time, or in the wrong context. “Lust” then for anything, takes something good and beautiful and cheapens it, ironically by elevating and making it an ultimate desire. Addiction, which is in part the body’s physical response to the desire, is the body’s automatic response, this time with the click of a mouse.
Second, there is an accompanying guilt. Men that are courageous enough to admit publicly that pornography has an inordinate hold on their lives will express a deep sense of guilt. While a person could numb the guilt by rationalizing it away, people express being conflicted between the desires of the Spirit and the desires (epithumia) of the flesh (5:16-17). This produces a tremendous amount of guilt where one is mired in a behavior ruled by an over-desire that for many guys leads them to giving up because of how constant and wearying the battle seems to be.
Third, pornography is corrosive to the soul because it leads us to objectify the opposite sex. Simply put, you begin to see a woman not as a real person, who have real needs, emotions, longings, and a real backstory (this is someone’s daughter), but as an object, a thing that will never say anything back to you. Just like technology, the “person-ness” is gone because an object only exists to serve a function, in this case to provide pleasure. It is one of the greatest evidences of this “curved-inwardness” that Augustine spoke of with Luther later coining it as incurvatus en se.
Finally, pornography is corrosive because it devalues marital commitment. This should make sense because one doesn’t have to commit themselves to be fully known with an image. But in another way, pornography undermines real marriage commitment by providing men with a standard that most of our wives will never meet and for sure won’t meet as we grow older. It’s a way to live in a fake world filled with image but no substance while keeping sex in the realm of consumerism (I consume but give nothing in return). It keeps men at an adolescent state of commitment.
The list could go on. Again, it’s hard to reason people out of a behavior that they didn’t reason themselves into. Let’s admit that pornography is not going away and it’s availability will be increasingly present. So how do we actually live counter-culturally in this area? For starters, men should be talking about this in their small groups. There should be a spirit of openness knowing that other guys wrestle with this and our admission won’t lead to being looked down upon. It would be incredibly beneficial for men to gather and encourage one another by being honest and then pointing to the One who gave Himself, even for the use of pornography. Small groups take men from the pews to sitting face to face with each other, sharing not only the tipping points of using pornography but then reminding ourselves of the greater beauty of the Savior and the good news He brings.This is a particular area that we do need to keep fighting for joy, even if it means small steps of doing the right thing in the same direction. It’s beneficial for our souls as well as announcing to our kids that there is something worthy of fighting for.
6 thoughts on “Pornography and the formation of the soul”
I couldn’t agree with you more, Jon, about a “spirit of openness” among men. Yet, I often wonder why even in small groups, men’s gatherings, and other safe places, this is still so difficult to draw out of men? You mention an “accompanying guilt” that comes with the admission of looking at porn, which is spot-on, but prior to this, I wonder about the fear of shame that myself and other men have felt and put ourselves through. There’s the looming “man you really did it again?” and “you really should be better than this; I can’t believe you’re still struggling with this” mentality. Back to sharing the struggle in public, I guess I’m wondering how to break down the guilt/shame stigma that we feel inside which seems to lend to pornography a even more powerful grip. This is over-simplified, but do you think the less we talk about porn, and boldly, the more power it has?
Aaron, sorry that it took me awhile to respond! I think the questions you are important and not quickly answered. We (including me) will have to continue to rehearse the Christian meta-narrative: the death and resurrection of Christ not only secures something I so deeply need because of the guilt and shame that continually gets dredged up, but that He actually loves me (likes me) for who I am and still relationally re-invites me in as His friend. So the thing that causes me the deepest grief in terms of guilt and shame is the opportunity to re-enter into what He’s done for me. Over a period of time, maybe our lifetime, the reality of the gospel has to sink deeper into our hearts.
Then I think it’s at least going to take honesty and courage on the part of men. Honesty in the sense of agreeing that this is a horrible way to live with real, devastating effects. But also courage which is rarely spoken of today in right ways. C.S. Lewis taught this when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” I think what Lewis meant was that courage is what emboldens you to “lean into something”, to keep pressing forward as a pivot point for the all the other virtues (e.g. you can’t be humble unless you have the courage to “lean into” a kind of self-forgetfulness).
A few thoughts! Hope you are well and loving being married!
I think what Aaron said, talking about it BOLDLY, is the key. In college, the only looming shame I experienced in a small group setting was self inflicted, because the response from all the other guys was so underwhelming. It was as if none of us believed that lust was a big enough deal, or that it truly couldn’t be conquered, or maybe we really didn’t want to move past it in the first place. And so the response was a shrug and other guys saying “yeah me too” and “alright, who wants to pray about it this week?” The cycle never ended because there was nothing bold about the response.
Side note, nice blog Jon! I didn’t know about it until Aaron posted this on Facebook.
Thanks so much for your honest and concise words, Jon. With that recent Playboy announcement, this is the perfect time for a post like this. I appreciate the way you broke your argument for porn’s corrosive nature into four distinct reasons.
I read a really helpful book on your first premise, namely that porn is addictive, called “Your Brain on Porn” by a guy named Gary Wilson (http://www.amazon.com/Your-Brain-Porn-Pornography-Addiction-ebook/dp/B00N2AH8NW). The author here writes from a neurological standpoint why modern, high-speed internet porn is hurting so many young guys (this is relevant to we in the church, although the author I don’t believe is a Christian). With its endless novelty and virtually unlimited supply, Wilson says this new breed of porn is far more potent and harmful than playboys of old.
Understanding the science behind this all was a (literal?) godsend for me in showing how porn is a cheap substitute for real loving relationships with others. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy, or maybe it’s because I like apologetics or something, but having solid reasons and arguments for this has been so helpful. Hope all is well!
Great book reference, David. I’m going to check it out now!
Dude I may be paying a visit to Portland before the year is over. I’d love to talk about it with you!