Chapter 3 of Pastor Mark Driscoll’s anti-pornography pamphlet, Porn Again Christian, purports to give “A Theology of Pornographic Lust.” I’m going to treat this chapter a bit more holistically than the others in this book, rather than going nearly paragraph-by-paragraph essentially fisking, because I think this part is really the core of the argument and deserves a more fleshed-out reply. After all, if God really did say that pornography viewing is a sinful activity, at some point that’s got to be the final word on the subject. This is where Driscoll’s going to attempt to argue that that is what God said, albeit in a slightly round-about way using analogies, through the Bible.
I’m far from convinced that the Bible is a reliable document worth treating as true, much less divinely inspired. But even if we grant for a moment that there is a God, and the Bible is his message to humanity — if this message communicates that looking at pornography is sinful in the way that Mark Driscoll says it does, I think what Driscoll has really taught us is that God’s standards are unrealistic, even impossible, and actually demonstrate this God’s cruelty to humankind. A god who would judge people in this way is not a fair or loving god.
Driscoll quotes a number of Bible verses condemning lust for any woman other than one’s own wife. From this, he extrapolates to pornography, arguing that it is equivalent to lusting after the women depicted there. I think we have to ask ourselves two questions about this. First, is this rule against lust in certain contexts even possible to follow? Second, does it make sense to apply such a rule to pornography?
To many Christians, I suppose that a question like, “Is this rule possible to follow?” sounds like just another example of how we evil atheists just hate religion because we love sinning and don’t want to stop. But that’s not my argument, I’m talking about something deeper, so — Christians, I hope you stick with me on this one.
Lust is a feeling that humans have. Factually. We feel lust. (Okay, not everyone; I admit I’m generalizing about the human species as a whole here.) If we didn’t experience lust, we wouldn’t ever want to have sex, and nobody would have any babies, and humanity would go extinct. So you see why feeling lust is evolutionarily advantageous. (Note: if you do not think evolution is real, let’s have that conversation separately some other time.) This feeling is instinctual, so if you see a person you find physically attractive, it is pretty likely that the thought will occur to you that that person might be a good sexual partner — spontaneously! This means that we can’t just decide not to experience lust, or decide to experience lust only with respect to certain people. It’s a feeling that just pops into your head, not something you decide to do, so you can’t prevent it by command.
Driscoll’s argument is that looking at pornography is a sin because experiencing lust for anyone not your spouse is a sin. But people are helpless to commit this “sin” over and over because of the way our brains work. It is unjust to punish someone for something they are not in any way responsible for. It is a cruel god who creates people who work in this way, and then blames and condemns them for it.
There is another sense in which it is impossible not to feel lust for people other than your spouse. The Bible does say that you are supposed to feel lust for your spouse. That is a celebrated, promoted aspect of marriage. But let’s get real. Most Christians today don’t believe in arranged marriages; they think you are supposed to find someone you love and care about, someone you work well with, someone you feel attracted to both emotionally and physically. You’re supposed to find that one person with whom, as Driscoll writes in this chapter, you want to “[make] the Song of Songs sing again to God’s glory and your joy.” Tell me: how do you find a person to whom you feel so physically attracted, if you are not permitted to feel that attraction before you have actually married them? Am I supposed to believe that good, observant Christians feel no lust at all for years, and then get married to a person who seems nice enough, and then — bam — totally have the hots for them? This is ridiculous.
I think it’s clear that we really shouldn’t expect people never to feel lust except at the appropriately sanctioned moments, and that a god who enforces such rules is being downright unjust. That defeats the core of the argument Driscoll’s making.
But let’s be generous, and revise his argument to something slightly more defensible. Let’s say that people ought not seek out extra lust to feel. Having a momentary lustful impulse pop into our minds is impossible to prevent, but that doesn’t mean we should revel in unsanctioned lust.
I agree with that sentiment. Reveling in just about anything is almost certainly unhealthy, and if a particular enjoyable feeling consumes you and prevents you from functioning in life, you should absolutely rein it in. So, let’s move to our second question — if we take this more generous interpretation of prohibitions against lust, does it make sense to apply this rule to pornography? I would argue that it does not, because I don’t think this dysfunctional behavior describes how most people look at porn. And even if I’m wrong and just being naive, I still think the dysfunction is not inherently part of looking at porn, and that Driscoll would do better to encourage a healthy approach rather than prohibit it altogether.
The connection between lust and pornography is typically, and in this pamphlet in particular, drawn using verses such as Matthew 5:28 which describes looking at women “with lustful intent” as equivalent to adultery. Looking at women = pornography, and adultery = sin, so if looking at women = adultery, then porn = sin. Q.E.D., right? But the crucial part here is that one is looking at women “with lustful intent,” which is to say, desiring to fornicate or commit adultery with that woman in particular. (I dealt with the silly sexist attitude of this pamphlet earlier. Please ignore the male gaze here — that’s the Bible’s and Mark Driscoll’s, not mine.)
Certainly there are some people think about particular porn stars in this way. But I highly doubt that most people generally feel this way about the porn they look at, and even if they do, they certainly don’t have to feel that way in order to experience arousal. They could think, “That person is very attractive, and I hope that some day I marry someone that attractive.” Or, “That looks like something fun to do, and I can’t wait to try that with my spouse.” (Either current or potential future spouse.) Or they might just feel empathy with the people they are looking at, and get pleasure vicariously through observation of their pleasure, rather than desiring those people personally. Or who knows what else; one can imagine a wide variety of possible thought processes which could easily be Bible-approved.
The bottom line is, enjoying pornography does not mean actually wanting to have sex in real life with the people in that pornography. As long as that is not the case, looking at porn cannot be equivalent to committing adultery in one’s heart. (In fact, I’d argue that responsible use of pornography can be helpful when a couple has mismatched libidos, to make it easier for one partner to refrain from committing adultery in real life. But hang on, we’ll definitely get to that in a later chapter.)
Driscoll also has the usual risible hyperbole in here, and the citing of Bible verses as though they say things they don’t actually say, but I’m going to let that go this time. At the end of the day, I think it is nonsensical to believe in a god who would condemn us for instincts that are impossible for us to completely control (but are ostensibly under his omnipotent control). Even if we grant a more liberal interpretation of the Bible’s statements about God’s rules, Driscoll has certainly not provided a compelling basis for treating pornography as analogous to other Biblical sins.
Next time: Chapter 4, “A Practical Theology of Pornographic Lust.”