Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pornography and Idolatry.

When my wife and I are too mentally tired for the epic political machinations of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards, we watch the various TLC or Discovery channel "streaming" series on Netflix.  My wife refers to these series as "Trashy TV," largely because they exploit their audience's interest in people's freakish behavior.  One show we recently watched was called "My Strange Addiction."  Lost among the episodes where people have been eating Comet or drywall 10 times a day for the last 30 years (these were an actual cases!), was one truly bizarre episode involving a young man named "Davecat."  You can read Davecat's story here:

Davecat (a name, he unsurprisingly received while engaging in online gaming), is currently engaged in a "relationship" with a life-sized doll.  When the show (that I earlier mentioned) was being filmed, he was merely living with a life-sized doll.  Since then he has taken it to the next level.  He is now an activist for the right of people to marry life-sized dolls.  He has also purchased other life-sized dolls, and is presumably building a life-sized doll-harem.

Admittedly, even by the standards of our deeply sexually confused culture this is extremely weird.  That being said, I think what Davecat is doing is simply a more extreme version of the principle at work in pornography, the use of which is not out of the ordinary in our culture.  At its heart, I believe that this reveals something deeper about the human soul in our fallen state.  Ultimately, pornography and idolatry come from the same dark place.

First of all, as I point out to my world religions students, just as ancient people lived in a world full of idols, just as we live in a world full of pornography.  And both reveal something about human nature on a fundamental level.  Pornography is a form of sexual idolatry.  Just as idols are lifeless, distorted, images of God, so too pornographic images are lifeless and distorted images of human sexuality.  Davecat simply takes things to the next level and has purchased a lifeless woman for himself.  It is not unlike a lifeless statue of a god in ancient Greece or modern India.

Moreover, just as we know that there is a real, God-given human sexuality out there because the Internet is full of pornography (why create it, if it isn't a substitute for something real?), one of the reasons that we know that the true God exists is because the world has historically been full of idols.  When Atheists say that there is no God, when the world is full of distorted images for God, it is as illogical as a person finding the Internet full of pornography and then claiming that the human need for sexual intimacy is a pure illusion (or a merely sublimation for something else!) and that there is actually no real sex out there.

Secondly, the reason that Davecat and the rather large number of people in our society who look at pornography prefer the image to a real presence is fairly obvious.  As my teacher Steven Paulson has pointed out in the first section of this book:, dead images can be manipulated, whereas real presences cannot.  Hardwired into our fallen nature is a need to be our own gods.  This is a function of fallen nature's need for self-justification.  If God has condemned me through the law (which is ever present to me in his masks of the created order), then I must seek to control and manipulate him so as to stave off his threatening judgment.  For that reason, a lifeless and manipulable image, rather than his real presence is preferable.  If I make him an manipulable image, I can control him and place myself in a superior position.  Within this scenario, I am now god. 

The same thing goes for pornography.  An image or a lifeless doll is preferable to real people, with emotions, and needs.  Whereas images or dolls can be manipulated to fulfill the needs of the user, people cannot be- or perhaps, only with great trouble.  Davecat never has to have a fight with, comfort, or worry about the emotional needs of his dolls.  He never has to justify himself or his behavior to them.  He is not accountable to them in any way.  He can make them do whatever he wants because they are dead and lifeless things.  So too with all false gods.

One last point on this issue, regarding how this relates to Reformed and Lutheran differences regarding idolatry.  What I've written here shows that the actual issue of idolatry is only very superficially understood by the Reformed.  Working from the Humanistic revival of Platonism during the Renaissance, Zwingli (and Calvin after him) assumed idolatry was the temporal image distracted from the uncreated atemporality of God.  Within this view point (as David Bentley Hart puts it) God is an object that can presumably be lost among many objects.  Therefore, Zwingli destroyed all the statues of Jesus and the Saints and whitewashed the churches.

Conversely, Luther teaches in the large Catechism that images when viewed on their own are largely irrelevant.  The real issue is what the heart does with them.  Whatever the heart trust in that is not the living God, is an idol.  Therefore, images may remain in the churches as long as people are taught not to worship them or trust in them.  Indeed, Luther pointed out that even in the Tabernacle and Temple there were many images, and so it is impossible to understand the First Commandment the way that Karlstadt and later Zwingli wanted to understood it, namely, as a total prohibition of religious art work.  Following his typically Aristotelian concept of cognition, Luther observes that the very act of thinking about God or any of the doctrines of the Christian faith is to create intellectual image.

In this view then, the real issue is not temporality distracting from atemporality, but a manipulable image as an alternative to God's real presence.  Our intellectual images of God, just as the images within the Temple are not bad as long as they did not serve as alternatives to God's real presence, but rather pointed to it.  In other words, just as the images in the Temple point to the fact that God was present to share his holiness with Israel, so too our intellectual images of God (in the form of doctrine) and our church artwork, when used appropriately, point to the real presence of God in the Word and the sacraments.  We know that God's real presence is in these physical objects because God has promised to be present there.  In being present, God does not present himself as a manipulable object, rather, he is present as either condemning law, or redeeming gospel.  Those who act irreverently in relationship to this real presence suffer the same fate as those who offered "strange fire" in the OT.  In the end, God will not be manipulated.


  1. Based on the thoughts expressed in your last paragraph, and continuing the original point of the post, it seems to me then that art which celebrates the human body--such as nudes painted or sculpted by some of the great masters in history--can be good, right and salutary as they elevate human sexuality and celebrate--rather than distort--the beauty of Gods creation.

  2. I think that would be correct. Nudity in art is not something which I object to. Everything is about context.

  3. The problem is that human nature being what it is, admiration of the nude body in artwork can quickly turn to lust. There is a reason that God clothed Adam and Eve. In the pre-fallen world, before man's nature was corrupted by sin, then there would have been no issue.

  4. Do you realize that Games of Thrones is pornographic?