The other week, I was contacted by a minister. He was preaching a sermon series and wanted to revisit a lecture I had given when he had been an intern. The lecture had been on addiction focusing particularly on online pornography. He contacted me to refresh his memory and to discuss the nature and effect of online pornography.
That was the stated purpose.
However, by the end of the conversation I was struck by what I heard myself saying. It is hard to explain – but it was as if I was listening in as an observer. I was saying the words but the intensity with which I was speaking; the depth of feeling that was expressed; the statistics I heard myself quote; the effects I heard myself articulate – well – I didn’t know I felt that deeply about the issue.
I realised then how deeply concerned I am. Really concerned.
I think there was a concentration and collision of a number of things: a lot of pastoral work over the years responding to this addiction; being confronted with recent research on the effect on young people: not just research from overseas but searching and startling New Zealand research; and being challenged by a researcher who spoke prophetic words to m about deciding whether I would allow pornography to be the only voice forming some (especially young) people’s concept of sexuality or whether I would use my voice to stand against that.
I was realising again the evil that pornography is. And I don’t mean evil only as a noun; I mean Evil as a proper noun. Evil as a personality in the guise of both the ordinary, the enticing, the seductive, the attractive and Evil that is sinister, destructive, pervasive and very, very personal.
Pornography is Evil.
The minister asked if I thought lust was at the heart of someone accessing pornography. I said it goes much deeper than that. While Frederick Buechner’s definition of lust exposes its futility as a life force: “Lust is the craving for salt of a man [sic] who is dying of thirst”(1); the pursuit and use of pornography goes to the very identity of a person. It goes to a desire for intimacy but intimacy devoid of humanity, vulnerability and reciprocity. Which is not really intimacy as much as autocracy.
I heard myself quote the statistics from one pornographic website. They reported that in one year users engaged with 4,392,486,580 hours of material. That translates to over 500,000 years. That is one website in one year.
That does not change a generation. That changes a civilization.
Research reports the nature of pornographic material has become more aggressive,
more violent: 94 percent of the violence and aggression depicted is directed towards women. Of those incidents, 95 percent depicts the women’s response to the violence and aggression either as a neutral or pleasurable response(2). Recent New Zealand research conducted by Office of Film and Literature Classification bears this out too(3). Within that research, New Zealand youth ask for more controls and censorship.
The HBO free-to-air TV series Game of Thrones (GOT) has been the most frequent search phrase on one particular pornographic website. Actually, when GOT premiered a new season, that same website registered a decrease in traffic while GOT aired and an increase when the credits rolled. The producers of GOT took legal action against the website over copyright infringements(4). The last series of GOT has recently aired along with the usual marketing and fanfare. In a bookshop, I found a children’s pop-up book of GOT. I struggle to find the words to articulate the alarm about this sinister creep of Evil whereby pornography is somehow being hidden in plain sight.
I could go on – indeed I plan to. I have decided to develop a pastoral care workshop on this issue. I have been reticent up until now as the subject is so sensitive and fraught: I didn’t want to offend. I didn’t want to confront the issue and run the risk of making people feel uncomfortable.
Shame on me.
Recently I watched a programme in which a survivor of sexual abuse said, “You are as sick as the secret you keep”. That gave me vocabulary for something I tried to articulate when speaking with my minister friend. And I think that was when I decided I need to raise my voice.
As a Church, we have a problem.
In the conversation with the minister who called me, I heard myself say something I had not previously reflected on. It just spilled out:
“One of the most accurate, sinister and enduring images of sin in the Bible is found in Genesis 4. There God counsels Cain that ‘sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’ (Gen 4:7). An image of a growling beast crouched at the door of a person’s life. Of a community’s life. A beast seeking to devour. But we must master it.
“That is at the beginning of the Bible.
“Isn’t it interesting that at the end of the Bible we have another picture of someone at a door? Christ knocking on the door of the Laodicean Church (Rev 3:20). Asking and desiring to come in.
“I guess the challenge for the Church is: who are we going to open the door to?”
The thing is – the Enemy is not without; the Enemy is within. The door has been opened to the beast. And it is devouring!
Yet as mentioned – the Bible begins with the counsel of God (Gen 4:7) and finishes with the counsel of God (Rev 3:14-22). In standing at the door of the Laodicean Church, Christ states what he has to offer:
“Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” (Rev 3:18)
Herein lies the means of life and grace. The strong and gentle words of Jesus to perhaps the most maligned church in Scripture.
Yet to feel the power of the love and strength of Christ towards that church then, we need to suspend making quick and lazy judgements concerning our church now. A church with members who are being defeated by addiction from which they want to be freed. Unfortunately, Jesus’ words (ie. “lukewarm”, “spit you out of my mouth”) in Revelation 3 have too often been taken up by people intent on judging the Body of Christ. Such judgments are devoid of the spirit with which Jesus spoke, and neglectful of the remainder of his message. Sadly, such proof-texting bankrupts the message of hope Jesus conveys in this text.
Yes, Christ issues a grim warning to the Laodicean Church. No question. But, when we take Jesus’ overall message to Laodicea and overlay it on addiction to pornography within the church; I hear quite the message of healing and hope.
To those who love Jesus and are being devoured by their secret; he offers much (Rev 3:18). He offers riches for poverty of spirit. He offers dignity for those naked with shame. He offers soothing healing for vision which has been blinded. All in the name of love (Rev 3:19).
But best of all, he offers to sit and join them in table fellowship (Rev 3:20). Jesus always did love a good meal with his favourite kind of people: sinners who are not afraid of him. And even better, he offers victory which rests on the power of his resurrection (Rev 3:21-22):
“To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
And such a ministry happens within the church. Now that bears thinking about and celebrating. So let’s open the door, pull up a chair to Christ’s table of fellowship, and talk about the secret that is hurting us.
¹ Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 54.
– Rev Dr Geoff New is the Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He lectures in preaching the Scriptures, and pastoral care and Christian formation.