I went to see Don Jon last night. If you’ve seen the trailer, you may have the same reaction a couple of my children did: “You’re going to see that movie, Mom? Seriously?” Eye roll.
There were only four other people in the theater with me, and I suspect that two of them were expecting something other than what they finally got. The two young men down the row laughed and talked loudly through the early rapid-fire scenes of the kind of porn Jon was viewing. Later, as the film became more reflective they quieted down. I wondered if they were disappointed that this movie didn’t just offer boobs: it offered a moral critique of porn culture.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Brett McCracken has a new book out – Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty. I was not a fan of McCracken’s last book, Hipster Christianity. I thought it created a straw man just to poke at it: it seemed aimed at pleasing the curmudgeons of the church who hate on young Christians and their newfangled ways. Also, I took the Christian hipster quiz and scored quite high, which made the entire enterprise suspect in my eyes.
So when McCracken wrote a book about cultural engagement I thought, “Uh oh. More of the same. He’s just going to affirm for more conservative Christians how “worldly” the youngsters are, what with their “Breaking Bad” and their fancy beers.
I haven’t read the book yet, so this is is not a book review. I will say, having read a few short essays McCracken wrote for Mere Orthodoxy, his thinking seems far more nuanced this time. In fact, when I read Have Christians Lost Their Sense of Difference, I found myself agreeing with almost every word. We’ve swung so far away from legalism that the idea of self-denial for the sake of holiness is an almost incomprehensible idea to most of us. It’s not that we wouldn’t do it, necessarily. It’s not that we don’t love God and want to grow spiritually. It’s just that the notion that something we eat, drink, wear, watch, read, listen to might shape us spiritually in a negative way is outside the framework in which we now live. It’s all freedom these days. We’re free to do what we want, any old time.
And so, yeah, I have some concerns about Christians as culture-gluttons. I have concerns about my own tendency toward pop culture gluttony. I have concerns about how touchy most of us are when it comes to this subject, so that listening to each other becomes more and more difficult. No, I’m not the boss of you, and you’re not the boss of me. But maybe we could at least be willing to talk about the ways that we are being assimilated by the culture around us. Maybe they are not all good. Just maybe?
Owen Strachan wrote a review of “Gray Matters” for Christianity Today. I actually have more trouble with Strachan’s review than with what I’ve seen from McCracken so far. Strachan seems to fall back on the same old arguments for cultural separation, even as he denies that’s the case. He turns to 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything”), a really helpful verse in affirming that it’s not law that guides us in our cultural engagement. But determining what is “profitable” or beneficial for individuals is much more complicated. Regarding beer drinking and Game of Thrones, Strachan asks, “Do I need to?” Well, no, we can probably all agree that we don’t need those things. The list of things that are nonessentials in life is quite long. This morning alone I’ve had my favorite mood-altering hot beverage (nonessential) while listening to NPR (n-e), reading Facebook (n-e) and blogging (n-e). I’ve also spent time with my nonessential pet who finally, thank God, seems to be getting the hang of house training. If it seems glib to compare these things to beer and Game of Thrones, I’ll just point out that our Mormon friends feel differently about coffee; some of my conservative friends think NPR is liberal poison; plenty of folks have written on the perils of Facebooking; and blogging can rightly be viewed as an exercise in narcissism. As for my sweet dog, I’d have more money for those in need if I wasn’t feeding and medicating an animal – and, yes, I’ve heard that very argument against pet ownership.
So there’s always a way to be more culture-rejecting, more ascetic than the next guy. I think there’s even a place for that. Many of the great mystics and spiritual writers of our Christian history have come out of the monastic movement, where countless nonessentials are stripped away for the sake of devotion to God. Perhaps more of us need to cultivate some small measure of this cultural spareness.
My real beef with Strachan is that he tosses around words and phrases without defining what he means. He talks about certain art not being “worthy of engagement”. How do we decide what is worthy and what isn’t? His only suggestion is that they’re probably not worthy as the “depravity meter creeps upward”. What does that mean? Is it just about nudity, or violence or swearing?
And that brings me back to Don Jon, a movie about a porn addict. Yes, there were brief clips of porn scattered through the movie, and there was an abundant amount of talking about sex, as well as swearing. And yet, I went to see it knowing all of that in advance. I went because I’ve seen the damage porn can do, in the lives of people I love. The apostle Paul wrote about those who made “shipwreck of their faith”: I’ve watched people make shipwreck of their faith, their marriages, their parenting, their careers – all for porn. And it’s as big a problem inside the church as out. I wanted to see how this movie, the creation of a “secular” writer/director/star, would handle the subject of porn culture. And really, it was an excellent movie. Not only did it handle with great thoughtfulness the way that porn – and its sibling, advertising – turns people into objects, but it also examined the self indulgent fantasies around which most of us build our lives. We are selfish people by nature, and it takes a great deal of intention to open ourselves up to other people. That’s true whether our addiction is to porn, to rom-com narratives, or to our own unbending notions of personal freedom.
Did Don Jon “wrap that message in worldliness”, to borrow a phrase from Strachan’s piece? Defining “worldliness” would make that a simpler question to answer, but for the sake of argument: yes, sure, it did. The resolution did not align with Christian sexual ethics. While Jon grows, we might wish he’d grown even more, and we might also wish that the church didn’t come off looking so empty and ineffectual in providing spiritual aid. Perhaps Owen Strachan would decide that all of that – nudity, swearing, an ambiguous sexual ethic, a negative depiction of religion – is reason to avoid Don Jon. I would never try to argue him, or anyone else, into another conclusion. My equation turned out differently, and I’m glad I saw the movie.
I could keep writing, explaining why I chose to watch – and don’t regret watching - This is the End, The Kids are Alright and a number of other “questionable” movies. I’m comfortable with those decisions, but it doesn’t let me off the hook when it comes to the next choice to be made. I need to take seriously the call to be a people “set apart”. I need to take seriously my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We all need to be able to listen to each other without either judgement or defensiveness short cutting conversation.
It’s interesting that Owen Strachan refers to Miroslav Volf in his review of “Gray Matters. He writes, “To use Miroslav Volf’s language, I think there’s more of a ‘hard difference’ between the church and culture than we might suppose.” That’s Volf’s language, all right, but he didn’t argue for a “hard difference”, which (in more Volfian language) would be all exclusion, no embrace. Volf called for a “soft difference”. It’s this kind of difference McCracken seems to be pointing toward, in which our lives are different, but in ways that really make a difference. We are not peculiar for the sake of being peculiar, as I think our forebearers sometimes were. Instead, we are different because we are in Christ: the life we now live is a reflection of the grace we have received.
Here’s Volf on the ambiguous place that followers of Jesus have in this world:
‘Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would). They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders. Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again. They are by definition those who are not what they used to be, those who do not live like they used to live. Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old’.
This doesn’t provide an an airtight defense of my watching Don Jon, or The Walking Dead, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer – or, for that matter, an explanation of why I don’t watch Dexter or South Park; of why I was bothered more by Grown Ups and Taken than by The Kids Are Alright or This is the End. I’m just keeping the conversation going, hoping we’ll all give thought to what we do with this wonderful, gracious, expansive freedom we’ve been given. I hope that’s what Brett McCracken’s book will do, too. I’ll let you know after I have opportunity to read the whole thing.