A broader story required…
“It’s not about porn at all,” said a University of Maryland (College Park) student. “It’s about free speech.” The campus screening of a triple-X film this past week raised tensions between some people of faith on one side and students and faculty on the other – but neither side resolved anything. That’s partly because a great many people of faith preach a “two chapter” gospel that cannot reframe obscenity. It requires a broader story.
The flash point for this past week’s fulminations was the screening of the triple-X “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge.” People of faith said the film was obscene. Their comments were duly noted and then ignored. Students objected that it wasn’t obscene; it was about freedom of speech. A state legislator disagreed and did what politicians do best – he threatened to cut state funding. A professor of constitutional law put him in his place by saying lawmakers couldn’t do that. Faculty got in on the act by solemnly swearing the screening was about academic freedom. At the end of the day, students settled for watching excerpts. Everyone then went back to his or her respective silos.
This is the kind of thing we ought to expect from a “two chapter” gospel. Faith communities preaching this gospel don’t really see the fall (chapter two) and redemption (chapter three) as chapters in a story but as separate and distinct silos. When a person embraces Christ, they escape one silo (i.e., darkness) and climb into another (i.e., the light). People outside the faith produce “secular” art, full of sex and death and bad language and gore and grotesqueness. Art produced by silo Christians is regarded as “Christian” art. The result is an array of sentimental romance novels, artwork, films, and worship music enjoying protection similar to an Iraqi No-Fly zone – no enemy fire allowed. Flannery O’Connor however called this an overemphasis on innocence.
Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist who grew up in what she called the ‘Christ-haunted’ Bible Belt of the South. In her writings, she chastised Christians who “forget that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.”1 Put simply: “two chapter” faith communities produce books and films and songs that lack the grit and gore of “chapter two.” Their stuff comes from one silo, not a story. It’s doesn’t seem to be a big deal until you learn that obscenity means “without story” (“ob” comes from the Latin meaning “in the way of” or “without” and “scena” means “scene” or “story”). When faith communities exaggerate their goodness, they produce obscenity.
This is why Joe Bob Briggs once defined contemporary Christian music as “bad songs written about God by white people.” The field is more diverse than that – ethnically, stylistically and theologically – but this dysfunction is endemic to American popular religion. Christians routinely crank out romance novels, artwork with soaring mountains and smiling people, films, and worship music that one group described as “happy, happy, happy.” Without telling the whole story, its nothing more than obscenity.
It’s also tragic, because “two chapter” Christians produce an opposite and equal reaction – sort of a Newton’s Law. O’Connor said overemphasizing innocence tends “by some natural law” to become its opposite. The writer of Ecclesiastes issued a similar warning: “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” When Christians, “saved” in the silo of redemption, or “chapter three,” become excessively righteous, artists in the wider world become excessively rank, “chapter two.” It’s Newton’s Law yielding “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge.”
The point is, the gospel is a story. For centuries, “four chapter” faith communities exhibited proper sentiments, not sentimentality, about stuff like sex. Holding the proper tension between all four chapters (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) means the issue is context, not content. The issue is not film ratings but a fuller story. The issue is not nudity but obscenity, Pope John Paul II wrote in his theology of the human body. Only sexuality in a story best defining reality reframes sex outside a story as obscenity.
It’s clear however that we live in a world where the Judeo-Christian story of reality is not taken seriously. Most movies and TV shows operate by a different definition of reality: sex is inconsequential fun between consenting adults. Did someone on screen get pregnant outside of wedlock? That’s funny! Are various characters sleeping around? What a stitch! This is a huge laugh bag. Obscene? You must be kidding. This is about free speech. We can yell at one another, but then it’s back to our respective silos.?
The good news is that there are (mostly younger) believers who take Pope John Paul II and Flannery O’Connor seriously. This includes Nick Purdy and Josh Jackson who founded Paste magazine (www.pastemagazine.com) as a place looking for “signs of life in music, film, and culture.” Yes, there are four-letter words in guest interviews and columns, but not obscenity. This includes Makoto Fujimura who founded the International Arts Movement (www.internationalartsmovement.org). Yes, there might be nudes and what-have-you, but not obscenity. This includes Barbara Nicolosi who founded Act One (www.actoneprogram.com), a program that mentors Christians of all denominations for careers in mainstream film and television. Yes, they might produce scripts with four-letter words and violence and what-have-you, but not obscenity.
Silo salvation will shoot you to heaven when it’s all said and done. But it unintentionally produces some of the most obscene stuff out there. Only a “four chapter” story can reframe reality. If you want to see this story played out, check out Flannery O’Connor. You might start with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and see whether it resonates more with reality – the good, bad, and ugly. It’ll keep you from being excessively righteous.
1 Flannery O’Connor, selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 147.