Monday, July 18, 2016

Christians, Porn and Culture

Is a porn platform plank just pandering to religious conservatives or is there a problem?

There’s a problem. But who should do what?

Republicans provided a 2016 political platform and porn is a part of the final document.

According to Judith Shulevitz writing in the New York Times (July 16, 2016), efforts to restrict access to porn have not fared well. Some attempts at legislation in the U.S. fell to First Amendment rights concerns. Software filters are not powerful or pervasive enough to limit exposure to porn for children. In the end, Shulevitz draws our attention to examples of current trends in porn and challenges parents—especially liberal parents—to consider what their children will be viewing at age 11—the average age of exposure to internet porn.

The Politics of Porn

Given Christian concerns about sexuality in the culture, it’s no surprise to see sexual issues arise in the Republican party where significant numbers of evangelicals find a political home. The question is, what about porn makes it a political issue?

I think Shulevitz has a point. Porn is a problem—at least the protection of children from exposure to porn is a social issue of concern to many parents. We limit speech rights when it comes to inciting violence or threats of harm. We have reasonable evidence that at least some forms of porn pose psychological harm. Reviewing the scientific evidence, or even funding new studies aimed at identifying the porn-harm connection, might be a reasonable path for legislatures to consider in dealing with porn in the United States. Government can also offer grants to support better filtering technology. Obviously, people with advanced technical skills will find ways around most digital controls, but that ought not to stop governments from trying to limit access.

Christians and porn

Instead of looking to government for assistance, Christians have resources available online to help them understand the problem and install software controls. There are controls on browsers and smart TVs. The limitations are not perfect but they are available. Keeping computers in public places in the home has been used by some though I do not know how effective that is.

Children will be exposed to porn regardless of what parents do. So, a comprehensive sex-education program is needed. You will need to start early. If your church does not address the issue, then consider a book study with other parents as a way to start a discussion. Think broadly about sexuality, morality, and culture (a not subtle hint at my book A House Divided). Then consider more details about a sex education program (see Chapter 7; More resources below).

Here’s a suggestion. Don’t lie to children about biblical morality and sexuality. Intelligent youth will see through the often flimsy arguments in Christian sex books and end up tossing the whole purity speech in the toilet. Honesty requires us to deal with the troubling stories in the Bible. And a sound program requires grounding in principles of morality, virtue ethics, and an appreciation of weighing real (not trumped up) consequences of risky sex.

Psychological Science and Porn

Human sexuality has been studied by psychologists for decades. Obviously, sexuality is not simply a biological process. The full range of psychological dimensions of functioning may be added to the biology of sex—thinking, feeling, personality, and social context. And I would add to these, the spiritual dimension.

The American Psychological Association (2014) has an online article you may wish to read because it includes some statistics. The article summarizes some studies revealing differences in how men and women use porn. It also reviews research suggesting how porn use interferes with relationships. Problems of intimacy and depression exist for some users.

The APA article discusses “porn addiction” or better "compulsive pornography use." In one study by Valerie Voon, the brains of compulsive porn users resembled the brains of alcoholics. Scientists debate the nature of the problem but that does not mean a problem does not exist. Here’s a quote from the article: Whether or not pornography is a diagnosable addiction, it's clear it hurts some people.

References and Resources

My book, A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, & Christian Cultures is available from the publisher at FREE copies are available to reviewers and teachers.  It is also available at a low priced Kindle book from Amazon.

I have provided a FREE study guide, which you can download from the book’s web page.

Here’s the link to the APA article on porn
The National Association of Evangelicals has an online booklet available "Theology of Sex."  

A documentary that includes Voon's research on porn addiction is available on line along with other research studies from Cambridge University. The film is titled, "Your Brain on Porn." 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Christians Respond to Same-Sex Couples

Are gay people welcome in your church? 

Yesterday I had the experience of feeling like a misfit. I thought I was heading into the Convention Center in Overland Park Kansas for the National N-Scale Model Railroad annual convention. When I entered the parking lot I was directed to a spot by multiple men in suits. And it was nearly full. After parking, I looked around at a sea of people that reminded me of a Sunday morning in the 1950s. But it was Saturday. And men were wearing colorful suits with dress shirts and stylish ties. Women wore an array of beautiful dresses—many with attractive hats. Boy and girls were all dressed up too as if they were going to a wedding.

I’d come along way so I plunged into the sea and entered the Convention Center despite my well-worn outdoor hiking shirt, hiking shorts, sneakers, and wide-brimmed hat—my summer gear. People greeted me with kindly smiles-- though it was obvious I didn’t look like I belonged here. I looked for signs—nothing. At the top of the escalator I asked an officious-looking suit if he knew about the train convention. He smiled and pointed to the Sheraton next door. Gracias. It turns out all these nice people were headed to a Spanish Jehovah’s Witness Convention.

I found the railroad folks. And despite the friendly faces of the JWs, my life was on a different track.

Throughout the week I have been thinking about what to share with a group of conservative Christians who had invited me back to share some thoughts on a Christian response to sexual minorities—this in view of the tragedy in Orlando. Last year we spent three hours discussing same-sex orientation, sexual attraction, and same-sex marriage -- now they were interested in more dialogue about behaving like Christians.

We’re all aware of those Bible verses that prohibit same-sex sex. And we are familiar with the arguments by those who put forward challenges to various translations and interpretations. These are college educated folks—some with doctoral degrees.

So I began with my short story and everybody had a good laugh. But wouldn’t it be sad if people came into our churches and group discussions but felt like they didn’t fit in? Hospitality requires us to make people feel at home. Here are a few thoughts I shared.

A Christian response ought to be grounded in love of God.

Matt 22:36-38 (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.

As Christians, we won’t get far in loving others until we focus on our primary faith-duty of loving God. People full of the love of God have been able to overcome cultural and ethnic barriers and stop hurting others. Jesus consistently reached out to heal those who were on the margins of society. Peter learned to love non-Jews (sheet and animal story). Paul learned to stop persecuting Christians (light-strike story). No doubt Peter and Paul thought they were on the right track. But they weren't.

I start with this commandment because I think we too often focus on people without recognizing that our duty to others flows from our duty toward God. Commandments entail an obligation or a duty. 

A Christian response ought to be grounded in love of others.
 Matt 22: 39-40.

39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The second greatest commandment is the foundation of Christian morality. To love others as we love ourselves includes an understanding of justice as fairness (think philosopher John Rawls). Christian morality includes concerns for fairness and equality. We recognize that the rights and privileges we want are those others want as well. In this context, we must love others— that includes people with whom we disagree.

I’m being practical here. We want to rent or buy a place to live, earn a living, enjoy friends, and so forth. So why are some Christians seemingly so uncaring when it comes to making sure sexual minorities are guaranteed basic rights? Of course they need special protection—without it they are denied those basic rights we have. Don't forget Orlando. Some people not only want to deny rights to sexual minorities, they actually want to kill them.  Do unto others…

A Christian response ought to consider how people are hurt by unjust rules or laws.
Mark 2:23-27; Matt 12: 1-13.

Jesus knew the rule about honoring the Sabbath—it was God’s law. But he tried to help others see the law was made for man. (I’d include women. But that’s another story.) Strict adherence to rules without considering the consequences can lead to harming rather than caring for others. Rules are important for a just society but the blind application of rules yields horrible results.

Let me give you another example. For years the only biblical justification for the ending of a marriage was adultery. And even when a husband committed adultery, clergy often encouraged wives to forgive and remain in the marriage. In the last few decades, most Christians came to realize that it was morally wrong to force women to remain with an abusing spouse—that’s after centuries of abuse! The Bible does not say a woman can divorce her husband for reasons of abuse. But caring people have reasoned that this exception to the rule make sense. (Christians still argue about remarriage but that would take me too far off track.)

A Christian response ought to consider individual conscience.
 Romans 14:5

Christians have been divided over interpretations of Scripture since Jesus was on earth. Paul’s rule in Romans 14:5 advises people to be fully convinced in their own minds.

Many of us in Western nations have religious freedom, which includes freedom to live according to our conscience. I’m not talking about some frivolous acts made up to test a legal limit. I’m talking about serious matters like killing other humans. People like the Amish have permission to live differently within negotiated parameters. Respect of conscience is important.

In this context, I think Christians need to respect the various views of their fellow Christians who have deeply held convictions about birth control, divorce and remarriage, and sexual orientation among other contemporary issues. If a group wishes to set certain conservative moral boundaries I say let them do so as long as they are not harming others or forcing others to accept the guidance of their conscience.

A Christian response ought to include spiritual virtues or fruit.
Matt 5-7; Gal 5:22-23

Any list of Christian fruit or virtues provides a challenge for most of us. Sometimes what people say is contradicted by their tone of voice or the actions they take. Virtue is deep. Virtue is more than words.

The texts I refer to are too long to summarize here. What I am saying is that there are so many positive virtues that could grab the focus of our attention and contribute to the historical notion of a moral person. A person who possess moral character.

So in summary I think we Christians ought to be about a moral response grounded in just rules consistent with Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves. And the rules ought to be tempered by evaluating the consequences of acting on a rule in all circumstances. And finally, moral responses might more readily flow from someone whose character reflects Christian virtues.

I’ve written about same-sex marriage and other issues in  A House Divided

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Notes and sources

The idea of the second commandment and equality comes from William K. Frankena, Ethics (1963). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

The idea of considering consequences is of course a consequentialist approach derived from various authors such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (On Liberty) and more recently evaluated by Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes. See also Utilitarianism.

I also drew upon On Liberty when thinking about religious freedom.