Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Start Supporting Pornography or Stop Supporting “The Wolf of Wall Street”

After last year’s Video Music Awards, Christianity Today posted an article mourning over how Miley Cyrus gave in to the cultural idea that “in-your-face sexuality is the easiest way to get attention.” Four months later, the magazine used a different emotional tone when addressing Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street, which revels in depictions of explicit sexuality. The article states, “The Wolf of Wall Street is a great and possibly terrific movie.”

In another corner of cyberspace, Christ and Pop Culture examined the implications of Miley Cyrus spending “the majority of her 6 minutes on stage ‘twerking.’” The magazine summarized the sexualized spectacle as “exuberant, banal, nihilism.” Several months later, while examining Scorsese’s filmmaking and stylistic choices, this same magazine adamantly proposed that The Wolf of Wall Street was not only “redeemable,” but also “an incredibly moral film.”
How can the Christian community disapprove of a young woman pretending to have sex while half naked, then turn around and praise a 40-year-old for “flopping around naked” (as DiCaprio himself put it) in a major motion picture? To answer succinctly, and to borrow a phrase from Keving DeYoung, it’s because there is a “hole in our holiness.” We’re living out a twisted version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the townsfolk are no longer pretending their ruler has clothes on—they’re actually convinced nothing is amiss.

Am I coming down too hard on this film? Am I comparing apples to oranges? Let’s examine some key arguments to see if The Wolf of Wall Street (henceforth WoWS) is not the wolf in sheep’s clothing I’m claiming it to be.

“The message of the movie is a moral one.”

Maybe someone would say that, while Miley was glorifying vice with her dance number, Scorsese was condemning vice with his film’s sex scenes. The movie’s sexual inundation is excusable ultimately because of the intention behind the inundation. In other words, the ultimate message of the movie determines whether the rampant sexuality is glorified or not.

Christ and Pop Culture sought to explore the intent behind WoWS, citing the messages behind certain songs Scorsese selected to play over certain scenes. Granted, such an investigation isn’t necessarily without merit. Nevertheless, the gymnastics necessary to turn debauchery into righteousness is, at best, awkward. (The article might have been improved if it also examined the petition Scorsese signed in defense of child rapist Roman Polanski. Such a stance reveals his warped views on sex—a pertinent point when evaluating Scorsese’s ability to handle sexual themes rightly.)

For the Christian, a story’s method should be just as important as its message. Not all techniques are created equal. A supposedly moral message doesn’t give the storyteller a free pass to use whatever method he or she wants. No amount of metamorphosis can transform obscene sexual images into clean entertainment. In fact, a story can send contradictory messages by using improper methods. In the end, we are all accountable to God, not just for what we say, but also for how we say it.

“But the sex is portrayed as objectionable, not commendable.”

It could be argued that the sex acts portrayed on screen were never designed to depict sex as it should be, but rather sex gone awry—sex that is unrestrained, perverted, and dirty. Therefore, it isn’t tantalizing or problematic.

But how could we better describe pornography than with those same words? The porn industry thrives on displaying sexual acts that are unrestrained, perverted, and dirty. The very nature of sexual lust is, as Josh Harris says, “coveting the forbidden.”

The reason all sex outside marriage—from the socially acceptable to the fairly “kinky” to the outright violent—is tantalizing is because it’s forbidden. Therefore, displaying a sex act on screen (real or simulated) is to display sex as it should not be. In other words, it is tantalizing. In other words, it is pornographic.

Pornography cannot rightly be used to communicate a moral message. It isn’t possible. Whether it was designed to be a morality play or not, WoWS is an immorality play.

“The Bible itself is R-rated (or worse).”

Now here’s a real example of comparing apples to oranges! To be fair, the Bible does handle some serious sexual topics, including prostitution, adultery, incest, and rape. But Scripture never lingers over details.

Even in the case of David and Bathsheba, which involves voyeurism, no anatomical descriptions are given. We’re told she is “very beautiful to behold” (2 Sam. 11:2), but that’s it. We aren’t invited by the writer to gaze on her along with David. And when the act of adultery comes, it’s over after one verse: “Then David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her, for she was cleansed from her impurity; and she returned to her house” (v. 4). No lengthy exposition, no play-by-play narration, no sexual imagery.

Contrast that scene with the written descriptions of the sex scenes in WoWS. (Warning: the material is intensely graphic.) There’s no comparison; the Bible is discreet, wheras WoWS doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

Granted, if the story of David and Bathsheba were put to film, it could possibly be raunchy, depending on how the filmmakers adapted the material. It could also just as possibly be handled chastely without harming the integrity of the story.

So yes, if we turned the Bible into something that it isn’t—i.e., a visually told story—it might very well be seedy and perverted. But because the Bible isn’t a movie, and because it doesn’t revel in depicting depraved sexual acts, it is far from R-rated.

“What right do you have to critique a film you haven’t seen?”

It’s true, I have not seen the movie. But let me ask you this: do you consider it improper to condemn pornography without watching all (or even any) of it? Probably not. Pornography is a format that is inherently unredeemable. And the pornographic elements of WoWS are all that I’ve focused on.

Surely you know I’m not exaggerating. Film critic James Berardinelli says WoWS is “replete with naked bodies and acts of sexual depravity.” Commentator Jackie Cooper says it’s a movie with “nudity aplenty and the sex scenes are fairly graphic. . . . This is a hard R and borderline NC-17.” According to reviewer Adam R. Holz, “there are 22 sex scenes in this movie. (But it’s an admittedly difficult tally to be dogmatic about since sometimes it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.)”

I’ve researched a great deal while writing this blog post. I’ve sought to include only fair and accurate descriptions. If you have seen the movie and you still think I am distorting it, please leave a comment. But there’s no denying the graphic sexuality discussed above. No one can pretend WoWS is an exercise in restraint.

The method is the message.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual themes in movies. They can be handled delicately and tastefully. WoWS handles them crassly, sending a message that contradicts the (apparent) moral of the story. To quote film critic Jonathan Kiefer, “Glorification [of vice] may not be an intention [of WoWS] but may be a consequence.”

Whatever Scorsese’s intent, the end result is a glorification of depraved sexuality, a pornographic film that speaks out of both sides of its mouth, a morality play in name only. Stories that use such evil methods shouldn’t be lauded—especially by Christians.

photo credit: Criag Duffy via flickr, CC

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My Daughter Doesn’t Trust Me

When Shannon and I took our infant daughter to the ER last month, we didn’t plan on a week-long hospital stay. We didn’t plan on days of scary bouts of pertussis-induced apnea. We didn’t plan on getting snowed in at the hospital, nor on me coming down with food poisoning, nor on Shannon developing a sinus infection. It was a comedy of errors, and while we weren’t exactly laughing, we weren’t despairing either: God’s was at work in the midst of our suffering.

During our stay in the hospital, we repeatedly had to suction Elanor’s nose out to keep it clear. Sometimes we used an electronic aspirator and sometimes we used a handheld bulb. Each time, Elanor protested the invasion of her sinuses with pitiable vehemence.

It was obvious that she didn’t fully understand what was going on and didn’t appreciate the discomfort that came along with her treatments. And in these respects, she reminded me of myself: how I—and, I suspect, many people—relate to God. More specifically, she helped me see two factors that affect our negative responses to God’s dealings with us.

1. Knowledge gap

For the time being, Elanor’s cognitive abilities are…well, infantile. She speaks in incoherent—albeit adorable—gibberish. She often protests (not so adorably) whenever I put new clothes on her; something about her head and arms going through cloth holes strikes her as unnecessarily harsh. And though she’s been poked by several needles, not the least of which was a spinal tap, she still responds most harshly to benign forms of treatment, like having her ears checked. Yes, Elanor’s understanding of the world around her has a lot of growing up to do.

Elanor is separated from me by 33 years. That’s it. In three decades or less, she may very well surpass me in knowledge. For now, though, that 33-year gap, while fairly small in the grand scheme of things, provides a huge chasm in cognitive abilities. We often aren’t on the same page, let alone the same book. Our mental wavelengths are vastly different, leading her to resist some of my efforts to care for her well-being.

Likewise, we find a knowledge gap between God and us, but on a vastly greater scale. We’re separated by a lot more than just a handful of years. He existed before “the beginning” (Gen. 1:1), so His experience reaches beyond the boundaries of time itself. He is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. His ways are far above our own (Isa. 55:9), and yet we find it so easy to critique His methodologies. Questioning God’s authority or His Word or His character may be vogue in our culture, but these responses reveal our infantile perceptions, not His.

2. A wrong view of pain

It is clear that when I dress Elanor or suction out her nose, she often misinterprets the actions as antagonistic. Her brain quickly catalogues instances of pain and discomfort into the “worst possible scenario” category. Anything unpleasant is evil.

It may be that one of her greatest perceived needs is to avoid pain and discomfort, even if she’s having trouble breathing and needs help. In those moments, she’s blind to her real need, leading to a false assumption about the necessity of nose suction. She doesn’t understand why I want to hurt her.

Of course, my desire isn’t to hurt her. I just know her need to breathe requires a procedure that, unfortunately, involves discomfort. I value my daughter’s oxygen intake more than her desire to live a pain-free existence.

Similarly, our perceived needs are often different from, if not contradictory to, our real needs. God knows that the greatest danger we will ever face is our own sin, and His plan of redemption involves rescuing us from the penalty and the power of that sin. This plan often requires pain—not because God is a sadist, but because God is out for our ultimate good. While we worry and fret when God takes out the metaphorical aspirator, God is focused on making sure we can keep breathing.

I’m far from perfect, but I do want what is best for Elanor. God has graced me with the desire and ability to seek her good. Generally speaking, I can be trusted in those situations where she might be tempted to question me.

So it is with God. He desires what is best for us. And He is properly motivated by love to pursue those desires. And He has the power to make those desires come to pass. And He has the wisdom necessary to use His power rightly, achieving the most beneficial outcome.

Yes, our Heavenly Father can be trusted—in all instances. Even when His loving purposes are hidden by the harsh clouds of pain and trials, we can trust that “behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Valentine’s Day is for Singles Too

Interestingly, one of the most famous pieces of Christian literature ever written on romance and marriage was addressed to singles. Evidently, single people need to understand marriage and romance just as much as married people do. I know I did.

Due in part to my idolatrous view of marriage, the last several years of my singleness were some of the most acutely painful years of my entire life. Paradoxically, those years also ended up being some of the most fruitful of my life. I guess you could say it was the best of times and the worst of times.

It was the best of times because God was doing a lot of beneficial work on my heart. It was the worst of times because I was a single person living in a married person’s world, and I longed to be married. Events like Valentine’s Day only served to remind me of what I didn’t have.

What I needed to read was that famous piece of literature addressed to singles about marriage. Being a good Christian guy, I’d glanced at it before, but when I buckled down and studied it in depth, my romance-starved heart was pierced—in a good way. Here’s the passage:

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32-35, NIV)

One thing that stuck out to me was the word “please,” used three times in the passage (all of which have been italicized above). According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek means, “to strive to please; to accommodate one’s self to the opinions, desires, and interests of others.”

That’s what I want, I thought. I want to get married so I can have someone to accommodate my opinions, desires, and interests. Paul seems to imply there’s a lot of pleasure involved in the marriage relationship, and I want to experience it.

I soon realized, though, that I had missed Paul’s point entirely. The biblical goal of a husband is not to be pleased by his wife but to seek to please her. Likewise, the biblical goal of a wife is not to be pleased by her husband, but to seek to please him. Marriage and romance provide a context in which to learn how to accommodate the opinions, desires, and interests of someone other than yourself.

Marriage (the true goal of romance) is a means to pursue service, not self-interest. The question for a married person is, “How can I serve and honor and please my spouse?”—not, “How can my spouse serve and honor and please me?”

One of the great paradoxes of the Christian life, for single and married people alike, is that we must die in order to live. We find our life by losing it. The greater blessing comes when we seek to serve, not when we seek to be served (Acts 20:35).

Here is what I wrote in my journal as an application for myself as a single man:

In verse 35, Paul writes, “I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you.” So this passage was written for our benefit, to help us. Are we encouraged by this passage, or are we only made more aware of what we don’t have? Does this passage encourage discontentment in our heart? It shouldn’t. If it does, something is wrong. Could it be that we are looking at marriage as an opportunity to have our selfish expectations met? If so, we need to reorient our thinking so that we look to marriage as an opportunity to glorify God by serving someone else—and, in the process, find true joy.

I don’t want to be insensitive to the plight of my single friends just because I’m married. Even now, I still remember the anguish of my unfulfilled desire to enjoy holy matrimony. Rest assured, I am not attempting to say that you need to learn a particular lesson before God allows you to marry. I’m certainly not implying that if you just get over yourself your struggles as a single person will magically dissipate.

What I am saying is that when you lose sight of those around you due to the cloud of your overwhelming desires, you’re setting yourself up to miss out on both happiness and holiness. Ask yourself, “What am I wanting right now? What craving is causing me to lose sight of the opinions, desires, and interests of others?” You may well discover that much of your turmoil may be caused by internal sources rather than external sources. You may also need to be reminded of the One who laid down His life to accommodate Himself to your greatest need—reconciliation with God, the all-satisfying fountain of joy.

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and it’s all about romance: cards, jewelry, candlelight, fancy meals, and teddy bears holding hearts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things (well, except maybe heart-holding teddy bears). But for the Christian, true and lasting and satisfying romance is rooted in the soil of self-sacrifice. You don’t have to know this truth in order to get married, but the more you’ve put that truth into practice, the happier—and the holier—you’ll be.