That's Obscene

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.

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12 Comments

  1. Mike you have done a good job of explaining why sentimentality without the grit of life is obscene. And I agree, however it sounds like you are saying there are only two kinds of art – obscene sentimental Christian expressions (bad art) and everything else, including pornography (good art). I haven’t seen the film in question, but it sounds as if you are saying that if I were to find anything objectionable with it then I must be a two chapter Christian. I can’t imagine this is what you mean. Again I haven’t seen the film mentioned in your article nor do I know why it received a triple X rating, but I do know that pornography is very destructive, especially to woman and children. I am quite familiar with the human trafficking situation in Asia and I object to anything that draws men into abusive practices, even if it’s called art. There may be room, using the four-chapter framework, to put both sentimentality and pornography in a negative light.

  2. Of course there is, Phyllis. The key, again, is first context – then content. Otherwise, Christians have difficulty explaining why the nudes in the Sistine are beautiful works of art while a few miles away in Rome, similar looking works of nudity are considered to be obscene. Pope John Paul II said it well. The problem with obscenity is not that it shows too much but that it shows too little of the human person. There are two kinds of art – beautiful and obscene, made by people of faith, no faith, or different faiths. Believing something to be objectionable requires first believing in an objective, told through a story line. My point is that “two chapter” believers don’t have the right objective and story line (which is also true of pornographers).

  3. Mike,
    So what would you tell the Christian students and professors to do, as an appropriate four-chapter gospel, response to the showing of state-sponsored and paid-for-with-state-funds, pornography film?

  4. Randy: Einstein said you can’t solve a problem in the frame that created it. You have to reframe the problem. The problem is not that it’s state-sponsored or paid-with-state-funds. The problem is that Christian students and professors don’t know how to reframe. The other problem, in this recent case, is that the horse is out of the barn. Protest is the only option available, and it has a few merits. It would be better however to mentor selected artists in the “four chapter” gospel so that Christians can trump the hands being played, in terms of aesthetic quality. Second, we can mentor selected Christians who learn how to tell a story that elicits this response from the wider world: “That’s obscene!” The follow-up would be: “How do you define obscene?” Now we’re talking about definitions of reality rather than simply freedom of speech. We didn’t get into this mess overnight, so there are no quick fixes.

  5. Much for thought here, Metz. I have not heard of obscenity as ‘without story’, which is an intriguing definition. Perhaps we’ve gotten bogged down into the hopelessly individualistic mire started by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” definition in the mid ’60’s. The problem there, of course, is that giving up on conversation about what pornography is, relegates one to continual challenge along that front, until the unspeakable limit is found. [and can we define “pornography” similarly as “without story”?]

    I don’t know that I understand the second recommendation in your comment above. Are you proposing that these certain “selected Christians” set out to tell stories that “the wider world” will find obscene? Meeting obscenity with obscenity? I don’t know that I follow that. Yes, I can see the value in reframing the discussion away from freedom of speech to a discussion about the nature of reality.

    I wonder, though, whether the tragic might be a better vehicle for doing that, however, than the obscene. [“tragic” in the classical sense, which can bring about a reorientation to ‘the good’ rather than the use of the term we’re beginning to tolerate, in which it becomes the equivalent of “oh, too bad. . . .” to describe a harsh event].

    Instead of engaging on the ‘freedom of speech’ issue in these kinds of cases, could we not engage on the ‘story’ [or lack thereof] issue? In a way, though, I guess that’s the point of pornography. The very lack of a properly human story allows the onscreen actor to be made a commodity, and to be fit into any story the viewer chooses to invent to surround the graphic ‘action’. That kind of activity is simply not possible in, for example, a story like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess is as a person not to be disposed of at the whim of the reader/observer.

  6. Well, Marble, you add to the feast! I only meant “selected” as those artists who yearn to be proteges and be mentored into a more holistic view of reality. No I don’t propose they meet obscenity with obscenity. I am proposing that they take up Walter Lippmann’s challenge that when the arts become nothing more than freedom of speech, it becomes hard to remember why freedom of speech is worth fighting for. I yearn for artists to reframe the arts inside a holistic story – your suggestion that we take up tragedy might be a good start.

  7. Mike, I agree that a long term approach must be adopted to win this war but it is important to have a short term startegy to win battles along the way. I think that we would love to hear more of your ideas on practical steps that can be taken to address these issues as they come up. Do you have any thoughts for this?

  8. Great entry, Mike. C.S. Lewis’ fiction makes an interesting comparison with O’Connors, I think. Where hers can be almost oppressively dark, Lewis handles even dark topics with a kind of calm. I wish we could have gotten them in a room together and heard them talk about how stories ought to present chapter two– through more subtle implications (Lewis, I think) or brutally frank depictions (O’Connor). There’s probably a place for both approaches depending on the story. If you’ve read “The Violent Bear it Away”, stack that novel’s Satan character– the man in the lavender car– against Screwtape; it’s quite a difference in tone. Any thoughts?

  9. When particular films such as the Last Temptation were released the mass protest against it tended to backfire. In the same way the campaign led by the opponents of the Passion of the Christ backfired against them. Sometimes publicity based protests backfire because of the controversial nature of what is being protested against. Freedom of speech or expression also implies the right to be offended. How each person deals with that in case they happen to be offended can either inflame the situation or calm the situation. Most people tend to react in anger when they are offended rather than reflecting upon it & making a more measured approach such as noting the offence but not publicising it on a broader scale which is more effective.

  10. Schaeffer – Yes, a good distinction… but no more to add than your comments. I suppose there are several good ways to skin a cat. The point is to be not be afraid to consider what a good skinnin’ looks like. Flannery O’Connor was darker, but then maybe that’s partly a product of writing from Georgia rather than Oxford. As for Scott’s comment/question: Careful about your use of the word “practical.” There is a uniquely American tendency to see reflection on a course of action to be less “practical” than taking a course of action. It is just as practical to say nothing this go ’round and begin to redevelop Christians as it is to say to the Maryland students: “Is there anything that you’d consider obscene -and not appropriate free speech?”

  11. Hey, one little extra: it is surely indicative of this problem you mention about the safe silos that don’t admit to complexity or evil that most so-called “Christian bookstores” don’t carry Flannery O’Connor, either her essays or fiction that you so nicely cite.

  12. Mike,Points well made and taken.  I have done youth talks like this (called ca. “The Gospel According to Metallica”) where I frame a metanarrative of songs together.  These songs take us through usually only two “silos” and leave us with only death.  It takes a lot of searching but decent Christian attempts at the resolution can be found.Here’s where my thoughts went after reading your piece: so triple X scenes are not “without story” as long as the metanarrative scopes all the silos?  I don’t think so.Scripture tells us of the rapes of Lot and Tamar but do not give us the details.  I do not believe tastefully done sex scenes ought to be considered art (“sexuality in a story best defining reality”). That might not be what you were arguing for but my reading led me there.

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