Keeping an unplucked eye on things

Reading Louis’s blog earlier, I managed to wander away (like Robert Frost, I find that way tends to lead on to way, but nowhere more so than on the web) from his page before eventually winding up on John Piper’s website.

Now, I’m not sure who John Piper is, other than to say he is a Christian author and minister. And, as always when confronted by Christian authors and ministers, I took a fairly close look at what he was saying, not just because it might be helpful, but also because Christianity is a more convenient smoke-screen than is usually acknowledged. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I watched the manipulation of religion in achieving political ends, all the while disguised as ‘but this is what the Bible says!” As a result, I tend to question what I read and hear, not because I disbelieve it, but because I want – need – to factor in the motivations for saying it in the first place, and I want to think through the implications of the conclusions drawn. This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I’m out to ‘get’ John Piper, nor that I am accusing him of anything. I am simply laying out my own rationale for the attitude I bring when I evaluate what any authority figure (not even necessarily religious) tells me.

Which brings us back to John Piper. This is the article I reached from Louis’s blog. Go ahead and read it – I’ll be waiting for you when you get back.

All done? Ok, good. Let’s talk about it.

First of all, I don’t own a television either. This is because several years ago it caught fire, and what with one thing and another I never got round to replacing it. But I have no horror of the television, nor do I believe the object itself to hold an intrinsic moral worth or weight. It’s just a thing. It’s how we use it that matters.

On the other hand, I like movies. I mean, I love movies. This is because I love stories, and movies offer us stories in one of their purest distillations. By this stage the number of movies I own on DVD is into triple figures. There are reasons for that, but I’m just laying out for you my position: I like films, and while I’m not wild about television, I appreciate that there are both good and bad aspects to it.

So, into John’s article we go. He says this:

“If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. Listen to her, not the movie. Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.”

Up to a point, I’m right on board with this. ‘Pretty Woman‘ is a really despicable film. And I continue to be baffled by the devotion it generates among fans. This is because of a very simple observation, one which far too few people seem to make. Consider this one-line synopsis of the film: “Richard Gere meets a prostitute, Julia Roberts, and hires her for sex; slowly he falls in love with her; eventually he takes away from her life of prostitution and they live happily ever after.” At this point the fans are going “Yes? What’s the problem? He rescues her and they get the kind of happy ending fairy stories are made of.” Well yes, but what about the first part of that synopsis? Richard Gere hires a prostitute for sex. He is not the solution. He is the problem. He perpetuates the system that made Julia Roberts the unhappy prostitute in the first place.

But…

An intelligent film about prostitutes is not going to snigger behind its hand and say “that is so cool!” like an overly-hormonal thirteen-year-old boy (Sin City, you oughtta be ashamed of yourself). Piper’s mistake is in reducing all film to that lower level, the level of ‘Pretty Woman’. There are other films out there, like Jean-Luc Godard’s extraordinary Vivre Sa Vie, that take a grown-up look at this world and what it means. As such, they apply a morality we understand to a situation that perhaps we don’t often come across. Piper’s point about the relevence of the gospels is fair enough, but he doesn’t reason to the end of that train of thought: if the gospels are sufficient unto themselves, why is there a need for an intermediary in the form of a minister? What, ultimately, is the point of John Piper preaching about the gospels if they are a) self-explanatory and b) finally relevent?

I am not putting Godard’s film on a par with a church leader. What I am saying, though, is that film has the power to bring us to social situations outside our normal experience and force us to think about them. And a two-hour film can do that in a more sustained (and, frankly, usually better-structured) way than a 20-minute sermon written the night before. If awareness is the issue, then film may work better than a pastor. And there is something manipulative, too, in the injunction to ‘go and find a prostitute’. Of course, you don’t want them to sell you their body. You merely want them to sell you their story. And that’s completely different. Isn’t it…?

(And once you’ve found your prostitute and talked to her, what are you meant to do then, exactly?)

Moving on… A little later we reach these extremely odd paragraphs:

“I have a high tolerance for violence, high tolerance for bad language, and zero tolerance for nudity. There is a reason for these differences. The violence is make-believe. They don’t really mean those bad words. But that lady is really naked, and I am really watching. And somewhere she has a brokenhearted father.

I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s. The few exceptions include doctors, morticians, and fathers changing diapers. “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). What the eyes see really matters. “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).”

Strong stuff. And very strangely thought out. Let’s take the easiest (from one perspective) or, alternatively, most baffling (from another) of this unholy triumvirate: “I have…high tolerance for bad language… They don’t really mean those bad words.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the commandment is “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.” In Vain. Surely that is the definition of ‘not really meaning it’? Surely ‘not really meaning it’ is a further condemnation, rather than an excuse?

Now, at this point I must move from questioning Piper’s reasoning and start defending my own. Some of you who read this blog know that I write science fiction. Some of you have even had the misfortune to have had these novels inflicted upon you as I worked my way through the drafting process and needed feedback. So you will know, if you are one of that select band of brothers, that from time to time my characters will lapse into bad language.

A word or two about this. First of all, there are limits to the language I will allow my characters to use. With one exception, there are no ‘four-letter words’ used: that one exception is there (in a 750,000-word story) to make a very important point, one that could not have been made in any other way. Secondly, in the midst of a war, when someone wishes to add emphasis to their agreement they don’t say “You’re durn tooting”; not when “Damn right” is available. People don’t talk like that and if I tried to force the issue I’d wind up not being able to meet my own gaze in the mirror when I’m shaving (those of you who wish to point out that, since I’m the author, the characters can say only what I give them to say, and that none of this is real, may leave the classroom now and report to the principal for reassignment. You have entirely misunderstood the nature of all fiction ever written. Characters are real. No, I’m not a schizophrenic member of the tinfoil-hat -wearing brigade, but people are people, including the ones in books, and trying to make them something different first of all won’t work, second of all makes for really bad reading (Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, I’m looking at you…), and thirdly is a betrayal of what human beings are – including their innately flawed nature). Finally, given that the characters doing the swearing are doing so before an Earth ruled by a corrupt Christianity, their language is a direct result of, and protest against, their political circumstances. It is not ‘in vain’. It is what bad Christianity has forced them to. When politics and Christianity tangle, the results – however noble the intentions may originally have been – are more often than not unfortunate (for every Wilburforce there’s a Paisley). It is possible to read my novels as a salutory tale for Christians about the merits of looking before one leaps. You may consider the language in my books ‘bad’, but I won’t allow you to call it ‘unjustified’. I have not left that option to you, and you will have to deal with the consequences of that for yourselves.

So, let’s move on and talk about sex and violence. And let’s talk about the distinction Piper draws between the two. His defence is that violence doesn’t really occur, while nudity does. So immediately the terms of engagement are changed. After all, neither violence nor sex ‘really occurs’; both are simulated. But that’s not the comparison he draws: he contrasts an abstract noun (violence) with an immediate one (nudity). If he chooses to do that, well, fine; but it changes the nature of the argument. Let’s see if we can reconstitute it then on a level playing field. One of most horrific scenes in the film ‘The Untouchables‘ has Robert De Niro’s Al Capone use a baseball bat to beat a subordinate to death. As he’s wandering around the table at which they are gathered we watch with increasing unease: we know he is displeased with the men before him. Something bad is going to happen with that bat. And it’s a real bat. The act that follows may be faked, but the implement through which it becomes possible is not. That is the direct parallel, not the construction Piper proposes. When Kiefer Sutherland, in the film ‘Phone Booth‘, explains that the sound of a gun being cocked is ‘cool’, he is making a more valid point about the morality of cinematic violence than Piper. The artefacts of violence – Bruce Willis looking cool with a gun in ‘Die Hard‘, for instance – are no less designed to ‘titillate’ that some young woman with her breasts on display.

So where does that take us? It takes us to our response to stimuli. Piper actually makes my point for me: these are his italics, not mine: “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).” It is not the naked body but the response to the naked body that is the issue here. And in that context, his misquotation of verse 29 is, at best, disingenuous. Jesus says only to pluck out your eye ‘if it causes you to sin‘.  If John Piper has no problem with violence but a problem with nudity, that suggests the problem is personal to Piper and that the distinction he draws is subjective, rather than objective. There is nothing immoral in nudity, per se; if there were we would each emerge from the womb in a ‘decent’ state and St Michael would have been in the garden of Eden as an emissary not of God but of Marks and Spencers. When Piper says “I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s”, he is reiterating for us a cultural imperative, not a Biblical one. At the time the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, for instance, Egyptian women wore garments that deliberately exposed their breasts. Was Moses sinning every time he clapped eyes on Pharaoh’s daughter?

But to return to the issue of violence: it doesn’t matter whether it is real or faked. It’s how we respond to it that matters. I personally find the head-bashing scene in ‘The Untouchables’ troubling. Once, years ago, I was shown the crime-scene photographs of a man who had been shot in the head in Belfast. The bullets had come from an automatic rifle and several had struck his temple, causing his head, his blood and his brains to be smeared for ten feet along a brick wall. The photographs were horrific, but they were no worse in appearance to scenes in some movies – not all of which are rated ’18’. The distinction Piper would no doubt draw is that the photos were of an event that really happened: I counter that this is irrelevent. It is how we respond to these stimuli that matters.

In this regard, the commentary on nudity is equally susceptible to questioning. Piper has said he doesn’t like nit-pickiness, so we’ll leave aside the query as to how many of these actresses are actually virgins (although there’s an interesting corollary to this, which ties in to the point I made above: how many of these characters are virgins? In other words, does it matter if we perceive the naked girl to be a virgin? For my money: no), but is every naked morsel of flesh going to tempt us? Surely this depends on context. Pope John Paul II said this: “The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendor and its beauty… Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness… Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person…The human body is not in itself shameful… Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person.” And besides, I, like every other member of the human race, don’t actually need to see a naked member of the opposite sex to have my thoughts wander down heated paths: I, like every other member of the human race, am fully capable of generating an X-rated movie behind closed eyes.

I am curious as to the nature of ‘comfort’ in this. In my house movie ratings were pretty strictly enforced, and as for going to the cinema to see a film rated higher than one’s age – fuhgeddaboudit. Having said that, there were distinctions in what was considered tolerable. And the thing that far and away made for the most awkward viewing experiences was the sudden infliction on the family of a sex scene. It wasn’t that watching it was immoral, exactly – to consider something immoral one must first consider it – it’s just that it was immediately, instantly uncomfortable. It wasn’t enjoyable to sit in that room with everyone avoiding each other’s eyes and have embarrassment, huge and pink, hanging like a cloud over the entire company. I wonder to what extent Piper is simply uncomfortable with nudity (which is a function of cultural conditioning rather than morality) even when he is not titillated by it.

Where am I going with this? I suggest that the morality of nudity in film depends upon two things: the intent of the filmmaker to titillate, and the desire of the viewer to be titillated. The issue is more complicated than Piper, with his focus solely on titillation as a force without agency, suggests. He ignores this interplay of intentions, and as a result, constructs a neat little binary opposition where no such neatness exists. At least when it comes to human affairs, Oscar Wilde got it right when he said “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Nudity for entertainment may have no immoral intent: it may simply be funny (I think of the potential for horror when Tony Curtis rises, like the world’s strangest interpretation of Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus‘, out of the bath in ‘Some Like It Hot‘, and the subsequent relief we all feel when we determine that he is still wearing every item of clothing we last saw him in – except his hat), or be simply a by-product of circumstances (Cillian Murphy is shown lying naked in a hospital bed at the beginning of ‘28 Days Later‘; there is an non-sexual communal shower scene, featuring men and women, in ‘Starship Troopers‘). We can choose how we sustain a response. Temptation is not a sin; the indulgence of that temptation is. D.L. Moody said that “You are not to blame for the birds that fly over your head. But you are to blame if you allow them to nest in your hair.” These are wise words, and they strike the right balance: we should give temptation the attention it is due – no more, and no less. Of course I’m not arguing that the average man (Christian or otherwise) can amble into a cinema showing ‘Basic Instinct’ and expect to remain unmoved: I agree with Piper that a Christian in that position should really question what he’s doing there. No, all I want to do is to examine the inconsistencies in Piper’s arguments to see where they lead us.

With that in mind, I want to look finally at this idea of ‘trivia’. This, apparently, is Piper’s principal reason for abandoning the television (the ‘Glass Teat’, as Stephen King once pungently called it). This is dangerous territory. Piper is equating triviality with irrelevancy, and that’s a mistake. They don’t mean the same thing. Trivia is unimportant, irrelevency is unimportant to me. Momentous events may be irrelevent, but they are not trivial. (3,500 deaths in 9/11 may not matter to an individual insulated from the event and its consequences, but that is not to say that they simply don’t matter.) So let us assume, then, that Piper means Irrelevancy.

I agree that there is an awful lot of dross on television. I also maintain that there is some excellent entertainment and some wonderful instruction to be had. I have reaped the benefits of my mother learning a recipe on a cooking show. This is, in fact, trivial; but it is not irrelevent. I repeat: a television is an object, not a moral force. For when you don’t want it, there’s an off switch. In the meantime, John 10:10 holds as true of television as anything else.

In conclusion then, I must confess that I quite like the security offered to us by absolutes.

It’s just that I don’t think John Piper has revealed any in his article.

And now some fully-clothed, well-spoken, culturally-impeccable, pacifist Zen:

A 35-year-old Class 31 in BR blue hauls a short train of 50-year-old wagons round Starlingford in a 'heritage railtour'

A 35-year-old Class 31 in BR blue hauls a short train of 50-year-old wagons round Starlingford in a 'heritage railtour'

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to Keeping an unplucked eye on things

  1. Pingback: Should Christians Watch Television? « Faye’s Book

  2. super58173 says:

    After reading this article, my neck collapsed and my head clunked straight into the keyboard.
    I then pondered over how much of an absolute pervert I am for the next 24 hours.

    …I have problems.

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