Why Can’t Progressives Talk About Smut?

I have a piece at First Things today (my first ever!) on the uneasiness of modern liberalism when it comes to pornography.

Here’s an excerpt:

Despite much emerging data, including research on the psychological costs of addiction, it seems that the American left rarely talks about porn and culture. A celebrity iCloud hack or the firing of a schoolteacher tend to inspire a round of takes on body-shaming and feminism, of course. And occasionally a Game of Thrones episode will trigger a backlash against simulated rape. Otherwise, it seems that pornography is the pink elephant in the room for most mainstream liberals.

One glaring example of this can be found in a recent New York Times piece by Roni Caryn Rabin, an alarming profile on the growing popularity, among teenage girls, of genital cosmetic surgery. “Labiaplasties” are surging in demand among girls under 18, despite the warnings of doctors against the procedures. What could be driving this demand for perfectly engineered nether-regions?

Read the entire article here.

How to Save Christian Music

Let me tell you about a recent Christian concert I attended.

There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville, whose lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a famous contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence; they won over the audience quickly.. From what I could tell, most of their lyrics were either about relationships or the general angst of life (think Foster the People). These weren’t Sunday morning worship songs. I’m sure most people at the show had no idea who the singer’s father was, or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.

The rest of the artists were the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock band, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to an impressive light show.

This was no pseudo church service or youth camp showcase. It was a rock show. But it was, obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.

There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.

All of this made an impression on me because  I realized, as a lifelong “insider” to contemporary Christian music, that Christian pop and rock can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian belief to intersect with one another, and sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever together. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”

I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last few years with music that’s produced and promoted merely because it manages to appeal to a particular target demographic that some “Christian record label” executive is trying to slice into. When it comes to quality, the secular acts have a monopoly. The goal is so often not to produce something outstanding in its own right, but to  convincingly ape a superior artist, adding only watery, non-denominational jargon.

The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Christian FM radio is banal; historic music festivals for Christian artists are going bankrupt.  Many of the Christian retailers who were formative in building the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the CCM industry.

But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard at my concert came to their audience as entertainers, song writers and storytellers, rather than worship leaders or evangelists. Their Christian identity was not located in what label represented them a  or what retail chain sold their LP; rather, it was in the art itself. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.

I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.

If CCM is to survive, it needs more than performers. It needs artists. Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What a contrast this would be to the spectacle of half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with all feminine references simply swapped to more metaphysical ones. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.

Evangelicals and Toxic Masculinity

One of the worst trends in our culture today is the dominance of identity politics. Now by “identity politics” I am not trying to signal an oncoming conservative diatribe about social progressivism and liberal politicians. The identity politics I have in mind are everywhere–on the right, on the left, down the middle, and even in the margins. American discourse, whether political, religious, or otherwise, is riddled with tribalism and virtue signaling on the one hand, and cynicism and paranoia on the other. The result is that it’s becoming rare to see two opposite sides of an ideological spectrum actually learn something from one another.

The example I have in mind is something of a confession. When I began reading a few years ago complaints from a leftward branch in American evangelicalism about a “toxic masculinity” in our culture, I instinctively dismissed them. I knew that many of these voices abhorred ideas I cherish, such as the complementary roles of men and women in home and church. Several of them were beyond the borders of orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality and the definition of marriage. Many of the writers I saw most concerned with toxic masculinity held doctrinal views that would disqualify them from membership in my church. So, I chalked up their critiques to a wholly dysfunctional worldview, and reminded myself that going wrong on first principles inevitably leads down untrustworthy roads (which is true).

Trouble was, I began seeing inarguable evidence that they were right. Data emerged about men, pornography, and relationships that told a terrifying story. I started reading testimonies daily of women who had been harassed and degraded, very often in the male-dominated corners of the internet. Then came a relentless series of moral failings and shocking behavior from well-known Christian men, some of whom I had counted as exemplars; reading through a sad array of “official statements,”I noticed common themes of harsh, arrogant leadership and resistance to accountability.

Each of these things, in isolation, might be chalked up to nothing more sinister than the same sinful human nature that drove Adam and Eve from the tree of life. You don’t need categories like “toxic masculinity” to understand David’s lust and Uriah’s murder. But the question that kept coming back to me was: What is the church saying about this? Specifically, what was the church saying to men, about men, for the sake of men?

I don’t believe that historic Christian doctrines about marriage or sexuality cause toxic masculinity. I do, however, believe that sin causes it, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is the conclusion that I heard years ago and ignored: The American evangelical church has a blind spot when it comes to the sinful way our culture thinks of manhood.

The point was reinforced for me as I read about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys responsible for the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. In a piece for The Washington Post, Michael Rosenwald observes that Harris, the mind behind the massacre, took to the internet in the months leading up to the shooting to vent his out of control, hyper-macho rage. Harris cursed everyone in his life, especially the “cool” kids at school before whom he felt weak and powerless.

“I am [expletive] armed. I feel confident, strong, more Godlike” with guns, Harris wrote.

Rosenwald cites psychologist and author Peter Langman, who observes that several mass shooters have spoken similarly about the effect of violence on their self-confidence.

Take Elliot Rodger, who called himself the “kissless virgin.”

In 2014, Rodger killed six near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Before the shooting, he wrote: “I compared myself to other teenagers and became very angry that they were able to experience all of the things I’ve desired, while I was left out of it. I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers, I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity.”

Then he bought a Glock.

“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, [expletive]?”

Of course, it’s easy to make mass shooters a cipher into which we pour our presuppositions about culture and human nature. But the conversation about these men and their violent quest to feel a renewed manhood is one that confessional, evangelical Christians need to be having, and one we seem to be avoiding. The fact is that when Eliot Rodger felt like a deficient man because of his singleness or unpopularity, he was thinking and feeling how the secular culture of manhood told him to. What’s at stake here for the Christian church is not just keeping men from killing. It’s countering a narrative and recalibrating moral imaginations to not see self-worth in terms of strength, desirability, or people skills. But before evangelical churches can say that authoritatively to the outside culture, they have to decide to believe it on Sunday morning.

That means that we who proclaim to believe in a calling on men to lead at home and in church have to take that belief seriously enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Where might we find a toxic masculinity at work in evangelical culture? Could it be in the way we talk about “giftedness,” often a euphemism for particular kinds of intellectual and social talents? When we say that a man is “gifted” are we just meaning that he’s a theology geek and a voracious reader of blogs–thereby implying that what God values in a man is an academic personality?

There’s a need in evangelical culture to rethink what we mean when we talk about biblical manhood. Hear me: I am not saying we need to rethink our fidelity to biblical doctrines about eldership or husbands and wives. What I am saying is that we need to accept the possibility that even in thoroughly orthodox circles, American evangelicalism fails to explicitly combat toxic masculinity. This means seeing single men as gifts of ministry to the church, and not just “works in progress” on the way to matrimony. It means seeing blue-collar builders, factory workers, and security guards as equally capable of dividing the Scriptures as their Macbook-toting millennial brothers. And it means being unafraid to critique violent, misogynistic mindsets in our culture, even if in doing so we find ourselves agreeing with those outside our fellowship.

Manhood is much more than a girlfriend on your arm or a letter on a varsity jacket. But it’s also much more than how many Christian conferences one can attend, and how many bookshelves adorn your walls. Before confessional Christians can speak prophetically to toxic masculinity out there, we must first be honest about it in here.

Movie Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

There’s a really good chance that when you think of classic Disney animated pictures, you don’t think of The Jungle Book. Released in 1967 to positive reviews and solid box office numbers, Walt Disney’s final production before his death nevertheless hasn’t quite found a way to the cultural pantheon occupied by films like Cinderella, Pinocchio, or even Beauty and the Beast. We could probably come up with several explanations for this, but here’s the best I can do: Surrounded by its genre’s stories of magic, The Jungle Book is a story of survival. There’s humor, cheer, and fun songs, of course, but the soul of the tale is as dark as the pitiless wild Mowgli inhabits.

It’s that quality that made the movie an obvious candidate for a remake. That’s the best way to understand Jon Favreau’s marvelous offering. It’s neither sequel nor reimagining, but an update, a technologically dazzling and thematically richer version of the film everyone seems to have seen and so few seem to really remember.

The script, by Justin Marks, takes almost no meaningful deviations from that of the animated movie, with two exceptions. One of those I cannot describe without giving away a key part of the ending. The other change involves the wolf pack that adopted Mowgli, which plays a much larger role here. Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf, and though his adopted canine parents know better, they teach, protect, and love Mowgli as if he is one. But the mob boss-like tiger Shere Khan threatens a murderous rampage unless the boy—who will grow up, Khan says, to build fire and destroy the jungle—is surrendered to him. Mowgli flees the pack, and his adventure in a vast, untamed wilderness begins.

Marks’s script improves on several aspects of the animated one, but the most rewarding improvement is thematic. The animated Mowgli was petulant, defiant and largely devoid of any psychological intrigue. Here Mowgli wants to know where he belongs. The snake Kaa puts Mowgli in a trance by showing him the real story of his jungle orphanage, and Mowgli continually has to remind himself not to use his “tricks” –his human ability to reason and invent–for it is those abilities that are incomprehensible to the wild animals he lives with. Identity is a key theme in Disney’s filmography, and it would have been easy for Marks and Favreau to browbeat their movie into a cliché. Instead, they’ve given us a subtle and rich narrative of belonging. “You can’t fight like a wolf because you’re not a wolf,” a character tells Mowgli in a key moment. “Fight like a man.”

This is, I think, closer to the heart of Rudyard Kipling than what was accomplished in 1967. Consider his classic poem “If,” which promises the reader that the reward for courageous virtue (“If you can keep your head when all about you // Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”) is maturity (“What’s more // You’ll be a man, my son”). Torn between what seems right (living with the wolves) and what seems inevitable (life at the man village), Mowgli finds peace with Baloo the bear, who gives him freedom to be human around him. This tale isn’t about becoming less of an animal but becoming more of a man, signaled by Mowgli’s (and the jungle’s) realization that love and sacrifice are stronger than DNA. Mowgli’s victory is, finally, in becoming who he is. Kipling, a Christian, did not intend The Jungle Book to be religious allegory, but it’s impossible to ignore the imagery here.

All of this is made vivid in Favreau’s vision. The jungle itself is less clear. Favreau and his photographer, Bill Pope (who also shot the Matrix films), have created a twisted and dense forest, layered in thick fog and opaque textures. It’s a visually enthralling world that serves its mysterious story better than the bright shapes of cell-shade animation.

But as good as the jungle itself looks, it’s no rival for the film’s digital animals. I can honestly testify, dear reader, that at multiple times during The Jungle Book, I could not tell whether the animals whose lips were giving dialogue were live creatures or CGI images. IMDB informs me that an enormous group of people were involved in the visual effects of this film, and I believe it. The interaction between the young actor Neel Sethi and his digital companions is stunningly gorgeous, an achievement magnified by the very wise decision to make the animals look like authentic species rather than faux-cartoons. The best compliment I can think to pay this film’s visual triumph may be this: It looks exactly like how a new reader of Kipling’s story would imagine it.

As for voice-talent, we might as well just do a Hollywood roll-call. Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the ape), Scarlett Johanssen (Kaa the serpent), and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the she-wolf) are all delights. But the best turn is from Idris Elba, whose deviously sultry Shere Khan somehow manages to stand toe to toe with George Sanders’ timeless performance.

All the parts fall into place for Disney on this one. Favreau has reignited Kipling’s tale with soul and spectacle, and has justified, at least for a moment, Hollywood’s imagination stagnation. The Jungle Book’s technological achievement is serious, and will almost certainly trigger a deluge of golden-era remakes (my fear is that Disney could never pass up the chance to redo The Lion King with such tools). But let us lay that aside for now, and admire such a handsome and satisfying film.

Walt Disney Pictures presents a Jon Favreau film. Written by Justin Marks. Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. 110 minutes. PG.

Was C.S. Lewis an Evolutionist?

Was C.S. Lewis an evolutionist? I’ve heard this charge laid against him more than once, sometimes by admirers but more often by those who would prefer us to be reading and quoting someone else.

The best way to answer this question is to look not just at one-off comments, but at Lewis’s intellectual trajectory as a whole. That’s what Douglas Wilson did when he recently addressed the question of Lewis’s beliefs.

Here’s the relevant quote from Wilson:

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult…in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

Lewis’s intellectual trajectory here is important. Sometimes Lewis is dinged by modern, evangelical commentators for not approaching the Scripture in a more traditionally inerrantist way. There are some legitimate criticisms of Lewis there to be found, no doubt. But I think Wilson is exactly right that Lewis’s writing indicates movement towards a biblical worldview and anthropology, not away from it.

There’s more evidence. Much of Lewis’s argument in Miracles, for example, is very welcoming to the idea that God directly interferes in natural laws. It’s always seemed to me that one of the appeals of evolution is that it relieves its patron from the awkward doctrine of an omnipotent Creator actually running around in his creation doing things. This feels like an undignified and too personal view of God, as opposed to one in which God simply implements his natural principles of cause and effect in such a way that human emergence is guaranteed. I’m not sure that Lewis would have approached the topic of Miracles the way he did if he desired to preserve the philosophical foundations of theistic evolution.

There’s also a fascinating passage in The Weight of Glory in which Lewis critiques “universal evolutionism.” (evolutionary naturalism) It seems fairly clear from this passage that Lewis believed that a) the genetic history of the world is not an infinite cycle and 2) that history and cosmic teleology was not heading, as Darwinists claim, towards greater evolutionary emergence:

…universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the [chicken’s] emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. We love to notice that the express engine of to-day is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius. The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination. (The Weight of Glory, 104-105)

None of this demonstrates that Lewis was not a theistic evolutionist. However, it does suggest that Lewis came to believe that the evolutionary view of natural history was, at best, a royal mess, and at worst, pure nonsense. It would absolutely make sense if, by the end of his life, Lewis rejected, for all practical purposes, any sort of evolutionary explanation for human beings. Again, there’s no smoking gun for that, but it would certainly fit the pattern of his later intellectual trajectory.

What’s Your Conscience Worth?

Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?

That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?

There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.

G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.

On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.

The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.

So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”

The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.

Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.

Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.

What’s your conscience worth?

 

The Real Price of Porn

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer I respect and enjoy, disagrees with my old professor Denny Burk about the impact of porn on culture. Burk’s original blog post was a reflection on Time’s recent cover story about a generation of young men who believe their years indulging in pornography had greatly affected their capacity for sexual and romantic flourishing. Denny pivoted off that point to reflect, accurately I believe, that porn was a “civilizational calamity” that was fostering an insidious form of enmity between men and the real-life women they’ve spent so long objectifying and avoiding.

Friedersdorf isn’t sure about this. Without passing a moral judgment either way, Friedersdorf says the data just doesn’t quite support the idea that a pornified culture turns against its women.

As I wrote two years ago, Western culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which 14- and 15-year-old girls were married off to middle-aged bachelors with whom sexual congress was terrifying and obligatory, often because the resulting union benefited the father of the bride financially. American culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which wives were expected to have intercourse with their husbands whether they wanted to or not, so much so that an intoxicated husband forcing himself on his wife as she fought and screamed “No! Stop!” wasn’t legally defined as rape.

More recently, over the same period that pornography has grown much more common, the rape rate has plummeted. It was higher throughout the aughts than it is today. There is no more extreme or pernicious act of using and abusing women as sexual objects rather than treating them as humans. And to get rape rates as low as porn-saturated 2013 and 2014, you’ve got to go back to the 1970s.

Friedersdorf goes on to make similar points with statistics of domestic abuse (likewise falling as the internet has grown) and international women’s rights (“Lots of countries with ubiquitous pornography seem to be much more successful, and to treat women much better…than countries where porn is more restricted or unavailable”). In short, what Friedersdorf sees is at best a conflicted account of the effect of porn on culture. It may be true, he concedes, that today’s generation of pornified youth will grow up to use and abuse the vulnerable, but until we have data on that, porn’s effect on culture is ambiguous.

Friedersdorf’s reply here seems to embody some of the strengths and weaknesses of data-oriented cultural arguments. Obviously, at first glance his statistics seem to be defeater for the evangelical claim that porn harms women. After all, if rape and domestic abuse are actually down in the age of digital porn, doesn’t that settle it? Well, not quite. A more careful look at the exchange happening here reveals that Friedersdforf is working off some assumptions that most critics of porn—evangelical and otherwise—don’t share.

Friedersdorf seems under the impression that if porn were really such a threat to culture, the decline of patriarchal systems and attitudes that we’ve seen over the last few decades wouldn’t have happened. But is this a valid equivocation? I don’t believe Burk or any other serious critic of porn would actually say that wherever porn flourishes, the force of law is less willing to protect women from harm, or that women are de facto viewed as second class citizens.

Most conservative critics of porn culture that I’ve read are careful to avoid implying that cultures that don’t have newsstands, theaters or streaming video automatically treat their women better. That’s a rather vacuous claim anyway, since it could be applied to obscure moral reality in a lot of cases. For instance, most would agree that children are better off with modern child labor and abuse laws, but it would be a pernicious folly to infer that modern proflieration of child pornography has had no effect on culture or the well-being of children. In other words, there’s no contradiction in saying that women and children may be protected by law much better in the age of porn than before it, and yet are still victimized through it.

In any event, I wonder: is it really wise, or even effective, to use rape statistics as the ultimate metric of porn’s impact on culture? This seems to be a rather egregious case of low expectations. Violent crime as a whole has been descending throughout the last two decades, and the decline in reported rapes has actually not kept pace with the decline in overall violent crime. Again, this data would be more compelling if the argument being made by Burk and others was that the objectification of women in culture by necessity leads to more open violence. But that’s not the argument. We should absolutely welcome any and all decline in sexual violence, but we need not invite pornography to the celebration in order to do so.

I think Friedersdorf misses the crucial point. The reason that Time, and many other publications, are covering the pornification of American culture is not a sexual violence epidemic, but it’s an epidemic nonetheless. It’s an epidemic of sexual and spiritual dysfunction. Psychologists and social scientists are literally just beginning to uncover porn’s terrifying neural imprint. As Aaron Kheriarty has noted in an excellent essay for The Public Discourse, the mental and emotional stakes of sexual habits are high, and where those habits involve isolation, fantasy, and authoritarian control of the sexual ritual, the human brain quite literally begins “fusing” reality with unreality.

This psychological phenomenon has consequences. As Time and others have noted, those addicted to porn tend to struggle with even the basic elements of interpersonal relationships. But the consequences also go far beyond social skills. Pornography doesn’t just absorb libido, it replaces it with something completely different. This is why, for example, Kevin Williamson saw scores of men paying for access to an adult entertainment convention when cheaper and legal prostitution was nearby. What these men want, by definition, isn’t a sexual experience but a pornographic one. They aren’t getting bootleg copies; they’re going into another business altogether.

This gets at the heart of what I think professor Burk meant when he said “civilizational calamity.” Porn doesn’t supplement sex. It replaces it. And what many in our culture are beginning to understand is that whatever it replaces it with is an acid to healthy sexual psychology. Lest we pat ourselves on the back for ending the kind of patriarchy that Friedersdorf mentions, let’s remember that in the porn-saturated world of the internet, women are still subjugated to the language, attitudes, and behavior that exemplifies a culture where they are in real physical danger.

Using a different currency doesn’t mean you can’t still get robbed. Don’t underestimate the price of porn.

Hitchens at the Horns of the Altar

Today at Mere Orthodoxy I have a review of the new book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. It’s by Larry Taunton, a Christian and an academic who became close with Hitchens in the last few years of his life.

Part intellectual biography, part spiritual memoir, part “road trip,” Taunton’s book is a pleasure. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

September 11 may not have been have been Hitchens’s Damascus Road moment, but it did much to disarm his innate hostility to those outside his ideological family tree. By pivoting to the right on terror, Hitchens was forced to doubt the categorical identity politics that so often dominate American discourse. This doubt—this shaken faith in the inherited doctrines of the Left—created the space into which Christian friendship, and Taunton himself, entered….

…What Taunton accomplishes here is marvelous, equally for what it is not as much as it what it is. It is not the melodrama of an unbeliever humbled to submission by either his reading or his inner demons. Neither is Taunton’s work a shrine to the value of apologetics. Rather, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is that most difficult, and most valuable, of memoirs: A record of virtue and of vice, of faith and faithlessness.

You can read the whole review at Mere Orthodoxy.

“Scare-quoting” Religious Liberty

Mississippi passes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill.

Mississippi Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Into Law.

Mississippi Senate Passes Sweeping ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill.

All three of those headlines have two things in common. First, they all put scare quotes around the phrase ‘religious liberty,’ the ostensible purpose of which is to introduce doubt or skepticism that the law in question is really about religious freedom. Second, all of these headlines are from news dispatches, and not op-eds. In other words, what you’re looking at is reporting rather than editorializing.

Now, it could be that these publications feel they are sidestepping the debate over the legislation, and merely reporting the words used by one side and the accusations of the other. Those in favor of preventing the state from suing bakers and florists whose religion prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding say it’s all about religious freedom; those who want such coercion say “religious freedom” is code for discrimination. So why not just report what everyone thinks by using words in quotes?

The problem here, in my view, is a conflation between a point of order and a point of debate.

In parliamentary procedure, a member can raise a “point of order” at any time. Often a member seeking to do so will be recognized by the Speaker in the middle of a debate or other discussion. The point of order is by definition intrusive. A member raising it is telling the Speaker and the House that something needs to be fixed, not about what is being said but about the process itself.

The easiest way to get a scowl from a Speaker is to claim you have a point of order, but then, once recognized, to talk about a point of debate. For example: Imagine a governmental group you are part of is debating the merits of the income tax. A person next to you, not recognized heretofore by the Speaker, raises his hand and says “Point of Order!” The Speaker then turns to your neighbor and recognizes them to raise a point of order, an issue with the way the debate or the session is proceeding.

But then, after being recognized for a point of order, your neighbor says: “Yes, Mr. Speaker, I have a point of order. Mr. Jones is simply incorrect about the amount of revenue that can gained by the state through a progressive income tax. He’s not using the best numbers and the members of this House should be aware of that.” At this point, a Speaker who knows Parliamentary procedure would stop your neighbor and (gently, hopefully) rebuke him for raising a point of order when what he really had to say was a point of debate. It’s inappropriate–and more than a tad dishonest–to claim to have a point of order, and then raise a point of debate.

The scare-quoting of religious liberty is like this. For a newsroom to put religious liberty in scare-quotes in reporting is to raise a point of order when what really is being said is a point of debate. Regardless of whether you think the supporters of HB 1523 are honest people, the bill is written as a religious liberty bill; it calls itself a religious liberty bill; and it was signed by a governor who has said that a religious liberty bill is what he was signing. It is a religious liberty bill, as a matter of record. No argument as to the deceitfulness of its advocates can change that.

Now I do find interesting some of the arguments being raised to the contrary. It seems that many of the same people who have argued that same-sex marriage, by virtue of Obergefell, is now unfixable legal reality, are now saying that not even the passing of law by a legislature can do the same for HB 1523. In other words, the argument seems to only cut one way. It’s wrong, we are told, to say same-sex “marriage” in a post-Obergefell world, because, well, same-sex marriage became real and that’s that. For supporters of same-sex marriage, the force of law scrubs the quotation marks off of “marriage,” but not off of “religious liberty.”

That’s why I don’t think we should passively accept the scare-quoting of religious liberty. Whether or not you think that HB 1523 is about discrimination is a point of debate. But the law says religious liberty, the legislature that passed it says religious liberty, and the voters who elected the legislature say religious liberty. You might say they’re wrong, but that’s a point of debate, not a point of order. The public record is what it is, and the debates should be clearly demarcated from that. Putting quotes in the headlines obscures record from rhetoric, and that’s precisely the opposite of what we need from our journalists.