Eucharistic Reflections on 2013

1476109_10202253730839014_1193701229_nI spent the end of 2013 doing what my Johnson pals and I call living in the past with my Johnson yearbooks. All 5 years (freshman and sophomore on top; junior, senior, super senior on bottom)! Bringing in the new year by recalling past years called to mind some things in 2013 that are good things. 1512500_10202222937469199_885622157_n

2013 did contain some really big life events for which I’m grateful and for which I want to offer my thanksgiving to God:

  1. Courtney and I were chrismated into the Orthodox Catholic Church on Feb. 3rd on The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple at St. Anne Orthodox Church.chrismation
  2. Graduated with a B.S. in Bible and Preaching/Church Leadership from Johnson University on May 3rd.936162_10200711365720850_751389834_n
  3. Courtney and I got our first pet and puppy together, Charlie, our Chihuahua. We also got our first cat, Heisenberg.
  4. We moved to Oak Ridge to be closer to our parish, St. Anne Orthodox Church, to get to know our wonderful priest and parish family better.
  5. We got full time jobs with USAA at a call center that allow us to keep the bills paid and have insurance/benefits. It gives us a warm bed, food, and a car.
  6. We bought our first new car, a ’13 Honda Civic LX coupe, together, well, we got it on lease.
  7. We both learned more and grew more together in our second year of marriage.
  8. My little sister joined me as a fellow college graduate! 1510528_10202181025861435_1494886242_n

This is just a short list. Our failure as human beings is to offer unto God thanksgiving for our many blessings bestowed to us by Him. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. I do everyday. I ask for forgiveness from God on this and from you. Let us always keep a grateful heart for whatever we encounter. Glory to God for all things big or small. May His mercy be with us in this new year!

“When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God isChrist.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.” -Father Alexander Schmemann “For the Life of the World” (p. 38)

Cruciform Hermeneutics: True Theology Begins with the Cross

crucifixion1To begin, I want to say that in many ways, this blog is a continuation of my thoughts from my blog “Cosmic Sky Dad“. I’m nearing the end of Father John Behr’s (Dean of St. Vlad’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” (A great review here), and I have gained drastic insights into systematic theology from this book. It has been highly informative and formative in my thinking and theology in just the couple of weeks I’ve been reading it. I want to summarize in my own words what the book deals with. This is not a thorough treatment at all for the subject matter, so I highly recommend one pick up their own copy!

In the preface, Father John writes that he is presenting a “Christian theology that is systematic yet remains true to the way in which theology was first learned” (page 15). He begins to critique modern theology by saying that it seeks to be a model based entirely on the historical events or “what really happened”. He accuses modern theology and scholarship of starting with the theological debates found early in Christian history, but “separate these theological formulas form the way in which they were in fact learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated” (page 15). Father makes a point that if we read define theological formulas detached from the original way they were learned we’re in danger of reading Scripture in a vastly modern way.

The notion of the Trinity is read as a history of the interaction between man and God and culminates in God being incarnate in order to bring about redemption. He says that this

approach to theology has become, in modern times, all but ubiquitous. But the fact that we only understand retrospectively should caution us to consider more carefully how such theological statements are made and what kind of assertions they are. For example…the term ‘incarnation’ [read in such a manner described above] is used to refer to the becoming human of the second person of the Trinity by being born from the Virgin Mary. But it is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection…Thus, to speak of the ‘Incarnation,’ to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death…; it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as a part of an objective history, an account of things ‘as they really happened,’ in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography” (page 16).

It is here that the heart of the book is presented. The point Father John is beginning to make is that the historical method of reading Scripture like this, on its on, places Jesus strictly in the past. Who He was, what He did, and what He said are all matters of history, but for the early Christians the crucified Lord was eternal and ever present, the One of whom the Scriptures speak. And it is precisely here that the book’s foundation is built. Father John states that the Apostles knew Christ in light of His passion, death, and resurrection. They turned to Scriptures, as directed by Christ, to see that it is He of whom they speak. Even in I Cor. 15:3-5, the Apostle Paul states that “Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures”, which he means the Old Testament.

Father John writes

Despite having been with Christ for a number of years, having heard his words and seen his marvelous actions, the disciples did not yet really understand him. Only after his Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection, do they begin to understand who Christ is and what he has done, and they did this by turning back to scriptures” (page 22).

He goes on to say on page 25, “…Scriptures, the Old Testament, provided the means by which the disciples began to understand how God was at work in the Passion of Christ (for the early church the Passion includes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection and were celebrated as one event). It is in the Passion of Christ, that hermeneutics and theology must begin. I like to think of this as cruciform hermeneutics because it is in the Passion that theology begins. It is in Christ giving himself up for the life of the world that theology proper begins (page 31). This is where God is revealed to us and this is where our theology must begin. Father John makes a great point that the first principle of hermeneutics is Christ Himself! The Cross is where we start!

The Cruciform God of the Cross

I recently finished Michael Gorman’s “Inhabiting the Cruciform God” and also highly recommend it as well! However, I have noticed a lot of meshing between these two books I’m reading. Gorman proposes that the following verses from Phil. 2:6-11 (translated in his own words) is the Master Story of St. Paul and the beginning of theology proper, with which I’m inclined to agree, but also I’ll venture to say that Father John would too:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Dr. Gorman makes a point that these verses paint the accurate, wholesome view of theology proper, of divine power. It reveals to us how foolish we think of divinity. For humanity, divinity does not empty itself, but demonstrates itself over us through power. However, the saints, Father John, and Dr. Gorman make a point that the cruciform God is revealed through strength in weakness. Thus St. Paul’s master story turns theology proper upside down, or perhaps, right side up. It is here that we can begin to understand God and who He is and what He has done. Father John says that “the centrality of the Passion of Christ [is] the locus of the revelation of the transformative power of God…” (page 33). God is revealed in the voluntary death of Christ on the Cross; this is the scriptural reflection of the Apostles and has been the theological vision of many theologians. It should be ours as well.

Father John writes in regards to Phil. 2:6-11,

Christ’s taking upon himself the role of a servant, voluntarily going to the Passion, does not diminish our perception of what we might otherwise have considered his divinity, but actually manifests his true divinity. The transcendent power of God is manifest in this world in flesh, in darkness and in death, as a servant. But this manifestation of divine power, in weakness, is simultaneously a transformation: Christ, in the form of a servant, shows us the image of God; darkness and death become light and life; and the flesh assumed by the Word, becomes flesh of the Word–and becomes Word…The Passion remains as the locus for contemplating the transforming power of God, the ‘God revealed through the Cross'” (page 35).

Father John closes the first chapter by stating that, again, “in the night in which he was given up” to “in the night in which he gave himself up” is the beginners point for theology. It is

a theology which does not simply speak about God in the abstract, nor satisfy itself with a historical report about events in the past, but which contemplates the transforming power of God revealed through the Cross, the eternal, timeless power that upholds all things, inviting and challenging us also to become transformed in its Word, putting on the identity of Christ” (page 43).

Theology is Confessional

What does this all mean for us? It means that we possess a confessional theology, which we witness to through the transforming power of God manifest in Christ on the Cross: “Light in darkness, Life in death, Word in flesh” (page 141). An historical reading or recording of these events don’t do them the justice they deserve. That is why I’ve come to believe a cruciform hermeneutic, a reading of Scriptures in light of the Passion (crucifixion, death, and resurrection) are needed to develop proper theology and theological formulas. We must search the Scriptures in light of Christ and go from there, from the Cross. Father John writes,

What history would record as Jesus being put to death, theology confesses to be the very victory over death by one who gave himself up for the life of the world. The basis for this confession is not a claim to ‘historical evidence’ provided by the empty tomb or resurrectional appearances: the empty tomb needs to be interpreted…Theology begin, rather, with the opening of the scriptures by the risen Lord, so that his disciples see how they all speak of him and the necessity of his Passion, and so be prepared to share in the meal to which he invites them, when he is recognized and disappear from sight, creating in them a desire for the Coming One. It is based on Peter’s acknowledgement that he had betrayed Christ, that he was complicit in his death, but is nevertheless, and as a forgiven sinner, called to be an apostle, proclaiming the forgiveness of Christ, his mercy, and his love–a new creation.

Such theology is a confession, acknowledging the work of God in Christ. But it is only possible if it is accompanied by a confession about oneself. As with the denier Peter, the persecutor Paul, and the Prophet Isaiah before them, the reaction to the encounter with the Lord is the confession of one’s own sinfulness–that we are, each, complicit in the death of Christ and his persecution and that he is our victim in each of our acts of violence and victimization. As we look to the Scriptures, with the crucified and exalted Christ as our starting point, we can, only now, recognize that the world has lain in sin and death from the beginning, waiting to be saved and brought to true life by Christ. The truth of God revealed in Christ brings with it the revelation of the truth about human beings, both what they are called to be and that they have fallen from this high calling. The aim of theology always remains ‘the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of the human being'” (page 142).

This means for us that not only do we have a confessional theology found to begin in cruciform hermeneutics, but that we have a confessional theology that leads to a confessional theology, meaning we must see the depths of our own depravity as revealed in our theological confessions and formulas, which, again, begin with Christ. It means we find our stories within the story of Christ and his faithfulness to God. Father John states that an encounter with the Christ proclaimed “in accordance with the Scriptures” leads to a transformation of our lives. For me this means a cruciform theosis, direction union and participation in Christ and His faithfulness through co-crucifixion. It is the beginning of our past lining up with salvation history. Father John writes,

If, as is sometimes said, the ‘self’ of each person is their own past told form the perspective of the present, and that past acting in the present, then the encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to narrate one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as our own ‘salvation history'”(page 143).

For me, this highlights even more what I have spoken of in regards to what the Gospel is, which is the faithfulness of Christ to God. Our past is united to Christ and told from the vantage point of the Cross. Christ is the Faithful Israelite who fulfilled the demands of the law vertically and horizontally. By co-crucifixion with Christ, we share in His sufferings, but also in His faithfulness. It is by this co-crucifixion that we become deified and theosis is worked in us. It is here that such proper theology found in cruciform hermeneutics leads us: nailed on the Cross with Christ sharing in His faithfulness and sufferings. His story becomes our story, one of faithfulness, love, forgiveness of our sins, and mercy. We are to share this story and pour out such joy it has to the world by proclaiming the God revealed on the Cross.

Our stories lived up prior to the encounter of Christ were meant to prepare us for encountering the crucified and exalted Lord. Father John writes, with which I close,

Everything is compressed within his economy: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we still walk by faith, not by sight. But it is a faith that all things are in the hand of Christ, and that ‘in everything God works for good with those who love him'” (page 143).

Our theology must begin with the Cross, with Christ. It is here that true theology begins by opening up the Scriptures who testify to Him. It is here that we experience God, the God of power in weakness. Thus it is in our weakness that God is revealed to us and saves us. Our theology must start with the Cross so that it can lead us to the Cross ourselves, so that through our weakness the transformational, holy, reverent, love of Christ is displayed by uniting us with Him in His sufferings and faithfulness bringing us to union with Christ through cruciform theosis, which brings us to peace with God who is a good God and loves mankind.

The Faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel: Ruminations on the Gospel and Soteriology

faithful“If someone were to ask me how to become a Christian, I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.”

A friend of mine on Facebook made this remark to me yesterday in response to some discussion on what is known as “The Sinner’s Prayer” (a prayer you pray asking Jesus into your heart). I had remarked, along side some other believers, that that prayer is dangerous and for lack of better terms, crappy. The gentleman had inquired as to why we would say that and that is wherein he wrote the sentence above, which prompted some quick thoughts in response. I wanted to elaborate on what I had said to him in response to what he asked.

Before I share that, however, I must dive into what we call the Gospel. As many following along here or on the Facebook page may know, I have been diving into N.T. Wright’s work as well as Michael Gorman’s. So the question of “what is the Gospel?” has been coming up and is fresh in my mind, which was good since I saw my friend’s remark about what to tell someone if they asked about how to become a Christian. In order to address that, we must focus shortly on what the Gospel is.

Without being too theological and verbose, for me the Gospel is the answer to the promises that God made to Abraham. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in the Messiah, who we know is Jesus Christ. God’s plan for the world through Israel (to borrow Wright’s language) was to sort out what had gone horribly wrong with humanity, to make right that which was wrong. The Gospel is Christ, and more specifically the faithfulness of Christ (more on that in a moment). The story of Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment and coming of a new age. It is the end of an exile. An exile filled with sin and death. The Gospel is God’s breaking into the world via Christ to set it right, to bring about the beginning of the new creation. As N.T. Wright says, it is a rescuing from sin and death and corruption and an invitation to look upon Jesus and to participate in His death, burial, and resurrection in a very real, deeply sacramental way.

The Faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel

I recently shared a post on the blog with a video of N.T. Wright speaking about the Gospel. In it, he is asked what he would share if someone asked him to share the Gospel with them in a few short minutes. He makes a great point I want to mention here that the Gospel can’t be reduced to such, and I certainly am not attempting to paint a full picture here, but merely give some thoughts on how I would do it if I had just a few moments to speak with someone about it.

N.T. Wright said that “at the center of it [being asked what the Gospel is in a few moments] must be Jesus Christ. Not a theory, not an idea, but actually something about this Person.” He gives a beautiful illustration that the front door of the House of the Christian Faith is Jesus Christ Himself; without Christ it all means nothing. He remarks that it has to do with who He was, the meaning of His death, His Resurrection, etc. It is through Jesus that God has opened the door to the new world. Wright encourages us to say a quick prayer, keep it about Jesus and something about what God has done through Christ. It is now that we can turn to the faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel.

If I were to share the Gospel with someone in passing, in a few short minutes, on their deathbed, or when asked in general, I would begin with the faithfulness of Christ. What do I mean by that? Let’s examine what St. Paul says in Galatians 2:16:

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

This is where I’d begin. I would explain as quickly as possible, and as simply, that through Christ God is reconciling the world (II Cor. 5:19). God’s ideal vision for the Israelites was that they’d be a vehicle through which He could redeem the world. Having given them the Law, they were to be His people and He their God. He entered into a covenant with them and has remained faithful to His covenant. Again, His plan all along was to bring about the True Israelite who would fulfill the covenant and the Law, which in turn opens the door for Jew and Gentile to belong to God’s family. The Israelites being as sinful as anyone else failed to fulfill their covenant role and the Law.

The Messiah enters.

It is through the Messiah’s faithfulness to fulfill the Law and the Covenant that we are justified. The Orthodox Study Bible has this to say about Gal. 2:16, “The faith of Christ IS the Gospel…It is the faith of Christ-His beliefs, His trust, His obedience-that justifies us, not our faith as such.” The Messiah breaks into humanity to rescue it from sin, corruption, and death by defeating those on the Cross and in His Resurrection, which liberates us from the power of sin and death. Christ, as Gorman says, fulfilled the vertical and horizontal demands of the Law in our place, so that the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled and the door to the new creation is opened.

It is not our faith, which comes and goes, that justifies us. It is the faithfulness of the Messiah that is the Gospel. It is through His faithfulness that we are declared right and found in favor with God. It is through His faithfulness that we can participate in His death, burial, and resurrection.

How Are You Saved? 

Back to “The Sinner’s Prayer” aspect of the story here. Herein lies my issues with that prayer: For me it is flawed because it treats salvation like a one time event and it is not. I also do not differentiate between being saved [or getting saved] and baptism. For me baptism is being saved and it is through the grace of the waters that God save you or better yet it is God’s grace in the water. Salvation is a continual life event but to begin it one cannot just simply utter a prayer.

To be saved is to be obedient to Christ and what He taught and what the Church has taught. It is to recognize that God has done something in the world through the Messiah and that you want to partake of Christ’s faithfulness by being baptized into His death and raised with Him in resurrection via baptism. It is accepting Him as messiah and participating in His sufferings [and suffering love] which redeem us. It is cruciform theosis! We are in Christ and it’s His faith that justifies us and liberates us and vindicates us. We then are free to carry on with good works. We die daily to ourselves and work out our salvation daily.

This is what it means to be saved. We are saved by the grace of God in baptism, we are being saved by the grace of God in dying daily to ourselves, being crucified with Christ, suffering with Him, while the Spirit restores us to union with God, and we will be saved, Lord willing, in the Final Judgment. Salvation is not a one-time event. We are transformed by the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection. The faithfulness of Christ is what opens the door to salvation up for us. This is nothing we can do our own! It is a gift given to us by Christ, which we reject or embrace.

Become One with Christ

In summary, my friend was right when he said, “I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.” At least he is headed in the right direction. It is about Christ. I would say, to use stronger language, that is about being crucified with Christ. Justification is for St. Paul by faith, but that faith has to be understood as co-crucifixion with Christ. It is direct participation not just imitation in the death, burial, and resurrection with Christ. The old man dies; the new man is born! Theosis is the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives to conform us to Christ and to unite us with God. If I were to be asked about the Gospel, I’d say it is about Christ, His faithfulness, our participation in that faithfulness, and cruciform theosis to become one with Christ in a very real way. This is not a thorough treatment, full exegesis of any texts, or an holistic definition. There is much more that could be said, but I was prompted by Wright’s thoughts and the conversation with my friends, so I wanted to reflect on this. It is sometimes a question that may surprise us, but we should contemplate what we’d do if we were asked “what is the Gospel?” or told “tell me about God”.

I would share with them that it is about bringing our story into the story of Christ, which is one of faithfulness, love, courage, redemption, reconciliation, restoration, and more than anything, one of hope and beauty for us sinners.

Ruining The Gospel: Lessons On Preaching And Movie-Making

great-ships-the-titanicSome great advice about preaching and teaching! Orthodoxy has brought me to experiencing the Gospel and not just hearing it! Read and share 🙂

Ruining The Gospel: Lessons On Preaching And Movie-Making

a post by A.J. Swoboda, PhD

I ashamedly confess to ruining a number of films for my friends over the years. A few instances come to mind. On one occasion, I accidentally unveiled to my congregation the ending of M. Night Shamalyan’s The Sixth Sense just following its release. Folks were ticked. I’ll refrain from repeating my sin here. Someone did the same to me at another point: explaining to me what happens in the Titanic just a day before going to the theatre myself. I went and saw it, but it was ruined.

What’s actually taking place when someone “ruins” a movie? What is being “ruined”? What do we mean by that?

For a movie to be “ruined” is not always the same as the outcome being unveiled in advance. I suspect that when Titanic was ruined for me, something much deeper was being stolen from me than the outcome of the movie. I’m a diligent amateur historian. I’m diligent enough to know the outcome of the whole historical Titanic story: the thing sank. Thus, when I ventured into a theatre and paid fifteen bucks to view a movie with an outcome I was already privy to, what was it I looking for? I knew what would happen in the end.

Hollywood isn’t successful because the world is searching for a good story. Good stories abound in book form around us all the time. In my opinion, the best stories humans have come up with are always the cheapest—found in stacks in the used book section at Goodwill—Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Bible. If people were after good stories, Goodwill would explode with success. Hollywood is successful because we, the audience, endlessly lust for an experience of a good story. We pay top dollar for it. When given the choice between paying $5 for a used, battered copy in book form and paying $100 for the director’s cut version, we’ll always opt for the latter version of Lord of the Rings. The most exceptional achievements in movie making are the one’s that provide the most compelling experience of a story. I didn’t go see Titanic because I was ignorant of the outcome.

It’s Ruined!

Here’s my theory: a movie is “ruined” when someone unveils a film’s outcome without allowing space for that person to experience the film’s outcome on their own terms. A ruined film is outcome minus experience. And once ruined, a film can’t be un-ruined.

We ruin the gospel all the time. We describe the good story by not helping people experience the good story. Preaching the gospel isn’t simply telling people about the gospel. Preaching the gospel must, in some radical sense, entail helping others experience the gospel newly today.

By appealing to this dynamic call of a preacher’s vocation, Alan Lewis, just before his untimely death, wrote that we aren’t invited to simply tell the good news but share it as news. Preachers, as co-explorer, don’t simply present the facts of Scripture but the experience of the Scriptures. And the gospel. His insightful and balanced point must be re-heard today:

“It is consequently the test of good storytellers, writers, and actors whether they are able to preserve, for the sake of the audience, the full drama, suspense, or mystery, and hence the original meaning, or their material, even though they themselves know what is coming and have passed far beyond the unrepeatable experience of first-time hearing.”

CONTINUE READING HERE! 

A TANGLED WEB: DON JON HIGHLIGHTS REAL-LIFE EFFECTS OF INTERNET PORN

ImageThis is an excellent article and review of the new film Don Jon, which highlights the effects of porn upon our society. I sense recently that there may be a slight turning of society’s view of porn and how its effects. I firmly believe that porn is not only dangerous both to a healthy mind and heart for those who partake, but also to relationships. I think what Don Jon is seeking to do, by what I have gathered, is to question the “goodness” of the porn industry. It is using the avenue of film to prompt thought and conversation about the dangers of porn where there may not be any other way to promote such dialogue. The fact that it is coming from a Hollywood big timer like Joseph Gorden-Levitt makes it LOUD! I hope that this film will bring about much thought and conversation about this subject. I hope we as a society can begin to have a changing of mind about this matter. This particular review is a great conversation starter! Enjoy!

A Tangled Web: Don Jon Highlights Real-Life Effects of Internet Porn

By Mary Rose Somarriba

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new film raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? In  Verily’s upcoming Nov/Dec Issue, Mary Rose Somarriba gives an answer.

“How do you watch that s***?” exclaims Scarlett Johansson in what is possibly the best minute of acting in her career. She’s playing Barbara Sugarman, the flame of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his recent film Don Jon.

Barbara is livid with rage and baffled; she found a string of porn sites in her boyfriend Jon’s browser history. They had a good relationship, she thought. Why did he need to look at other women?

“Everyone looks at porn,” Jon retorts. As he sees it, porn is as American as apple pie. While he may keep it private—the only real person he tells is his priest in the secrecy of confession—porn is a big part of his life, something he needs on a daily basis.

For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?

Don Jon is a bold contribution to a recent trend in entertainment, giving audiences a real—and grim—snapshot of 21st-century relationships. Call it post–Sex and the City realism. There’s the recent film Lovelace, contrasting the exciting story, as we were told it, of Deepthroat star Linda Lovelace, and the completely un-sexy version as it really was. There’s Girls on HBO, known for showing ugly, lifelike sex scenes. There’s Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, managing to make ultra-risqué performances devoid of any sex appeal. It’s as if sex is no longer sexy in pop culture. What was once a warm and alluring mystery is now a cold, anatomical display. If intimacy is dead, porn may have killed it.

Still, many think porn has mostly good effects. Porn helps people express their sexuality, some say. It helps men live the fantasies they can’t with their partners. It’s an escape. It can even add spice to tired relationships, Oprah and Dr. Ruth suggest.

But in reality, porn can make it harder to appreciate real sex. As Pamela Paul documented in her 2006 book Pornified, dozens of men whom she interviewed anonymously revealed, “I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman. . . . Real sex has now lost some of its magic. And that’s sad.”

HOW PORN AFFECTS WOMEN

That sadness comes through the many laughs of Don Jon. It was sad, for instance, to see the way the men treated women. How Jon and his clubbing buddies constantly sized them up—comparing each to the fantasy women in porn. An all-around attractive girl was a 10, also known as a “dime” (Scarlett Johansson qualified). But most girls fell short of the ideal, so the boys resorted to zeroing in on different body parts. One woman’s breasts were a 4, for instance—hardly worth their time.

Here the film offers a glimpse of reality. In a 2004 Elle/MSNBC.com poll of 15,246 Americans, one in ten men admitted that porn had made him more critical of his partner’s body.

Not surprisingly, many women feel deficient next to porn-star competition. According to Paul’s commissioned nationwide poll conducted by Harris Interactive, six out of ten women “believe pornography affects how men expect them to look and behave.”

Of course porn isn’t the only avenue through which unrealistic expectations of beauty can make women feel inadequate. Major motion pictures, television shows, even commercial advertisements have long employed sex appeal as an effective draw. But the mainstream acceptance of porn has no doubt influenced other media; content once considered too explicit is now regular fare on network television. And, while television networks may deal only in Porn Lite, it’s no less disruptive to our perception of women.

Don Jon captures this well in a family-dinner-table scene. With the large-screen TV playing in the background, a bikini-clad model suddenly steals the conversation. Jon and his father (a cringe-inducing and convincing performance by Tony Danza) are mesmerized by the suggestive ad, while Jon’s mother and sister (Glenne Headly and Brie Larson) avert their eyes and wait for it to be over. Within seconds, the tableside dynamic is shattered—something that could have been avoided with just a click of the TiVo-fast-forward button. But of course the boys are oblivious, both to how the ad affected them and to how it affected their female counterparts.

Later in the film, the television once again serves as the women’s antagonist in a climactic scene. Brie Larson’s character, who thus far hasn’t uttered a single line in the film, opens her mouth to share her feminine intuition about Jon and Barbara’s relationship. But no one can hear her over the television.

This is where Gordon-Levitt gets it. His nearly seamless script reveals remarkable acumen for a man of his generation. He’s done his homework on the porn issue, and he tackles it extremely well. He loosens up the audience with laughs, all the while sprinkling the film with digestible insights.MV5BMTQxNTc3NDM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ5NTQ3OQ@@._V1._CR28,28.649993896484375,1271,1991.0000305175781._SX640_SY987_

HOW PORN AFFECTS MEN

Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Don Jon’s portrait of a porn user suggests at the very least that we might not be aware of its overall effects.

The Don, for example, never stops to consider the seeming strangeness of his behavior. Why does a man who has no trouble getting attractive women to sleep with him on a regular basis need to sneak out of bed after each encounter to follow it up with porn?

The answer is that porn-using men aren’t exactly feeling fulfilled in bed. In the Elle/MSNBC.com poll, 35 percent of men said real sex with a woman had become less arousing, and 20 percent admitted real sex just couldn’t compare to cybersex anymore. Porn, on the other hand, is exciting more men than ever.

As Gordon-Levitt’s character put it, “I lose myself. . . . Nothing else does it the same way.” Girls in porn will do things real girls won’t. And the shock-value element can be addictive.

Many young men today become porn junkies, making a daily habit of visiting porn sites, hiding it from their partners, and having trouble stopping. Those who try to stop as an exercise in self-control, as Jon does later in the film, often cite feelings of withdrawal and increased difficulty maintaining their resolution if they so much as have Internet access.

Jon’s quirky, middle-aged night-school classmate, played by Julianne Moore, aptly (and rather jarringly) captures the experience of the porn addict after listening to him describe his addiction: “So you like porn better than sex.”

When the imitation of a thing becomes more desirable than the thing itself, what does that mean? To put it lightly, it means that these men have been sold a bill of goods. To put it gravely, it means these men are facing the irrationality that is addiction. Sure, the experience porn offers may feel exciting while it lasts, but it’s often followed by feelings of guilt or disappointment. There’s something unsatisfying about being alone seconds after you just had a woman looking utterly enthralled by you. And there’s something universally depressing about seeing that hours of time have passed on a rewardless activity.

As one man interviewed for Pornified put it, “A man starts to feel like a computer himself when he realizes that he’s dependent on computer images to turn him on.”

Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, described in his best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself how pornography consumption can rewire men’s brains, restricting their free choice. As he put it, “Those who use [pornography] have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it. . . . The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.”

Doidge describes this pattern as a sort of urgent thrill-seeking. “Porn is more exciting than satisfying,” he explains, because of the “pleasure systems in our brains. . . . Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated.”

For many men, Internet porn is a gateway to strip clubs, escort services, and prostitutes—real, live women who are paid to feign enjoyment and perform acts similar to those in porn. Norma Ramos, head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, finds this a disturbing trend. “Porn is corrupting male sexuality by moving it in the direction to buy prostituted sex,” she told me in an interview. “Johns are not born, they’re made.”

One man revealed in Pornified that he too developed interests he previously didn’t have, like the day he stumbled on child porn. “It was scary for me because I was turned on and also because it obviously depicted kids who had been abused and tricked.” Another man said, “I would see some young girl in porn and then read a horror story in the newspaper about sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, but I just mentally discarded the connection. . . . I couldn’t let myself feel anything toward these women other than the means to satisfy my desires.”

All of this can further a false sense of what is pleasurable for women. As one sex therapist in Paul’s book explains, “In pornography all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight in two minutes. If men think this is how real women respond, they’re going to be horrible lovers.”

WHAT PORN DOES TO US

In 2009, I attended a conference at Princeton University, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The findings, later compiled in the bookThe Social Costs of Pornography (2010), include papers from nearly a dozen experts. But the words that have stuck with me most are Roger Scruton’s concluding remarks: “Psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. . . . This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.”

And there’s the rub. If porn affects individual men and women, then it affects relationships. It prevents the possibility of an us. Porn sells the idea that you can, literally, put a person on pause, fast-forward through the messiness of human feelings and foibles to the “good parts,” and, when you are through, discard him or her for another. The tragedy, Scruton recognizes, is that while glutting a person’s sexual appetites, porn risks thwarting another human desire: to give love.

This is what is captured in the poignant line from Moore’s character in Don Jon: “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

This line comes just moments before the most awkward sex scene in the movie. While the rest of the film’s slapstick sex references filled the theater with uproarious laughter and crack-ups, at this moment you could’ve heard a pin drop. It was the kind of encounter that was as special as it was private—the kind that makes you feel as if you shouldn’t be watching, as if it was just for the two of them, as if they are just for each other. Despite the film’s many porn-infused snippets, this one offers something much more powerful: intimacy.

WHEN YOU’RE AT THE BOTTOM, THE ONLY WAY TO GO IS UP

Does the prevalence of porn use among today’s young men mean we’re all doomed to pornified love lives where intimacy is dead? No. If there’s a lesson to the fable of Don Jon, it’s that it’s possible to get beyond this.

Porn is not the only way in which we can poison our relationships—a point that Gordon-Levitt expertly weaves into Don Jon. One could easily add possessiveness and jealousy to the list, or impatience with others’ flaws, or the all-too-common temptation to try to manipulate and change the other to our liking. The popularity of pornography has been fostered, perhaps, in part by a larger cultural tendency toward individualism, a perception that relationships are primarily tools used by an individual on his or her solo journey of self-understanding and satisfaction.

Don Jon responds to the question of pornography not through statistics (although, as we have seen, they’re there) but, ultimately, through a simple assertion, powerfully made through the stories of the characters: Like it or not, authentic relationships are not one-sided. “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

Mary Rose Somarriba, culture editor of Verily Magazine, is completing a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between sex trafficking and pornography.

Mary Rose is the Culture Editor for Verily Magazine with over 7 years of experience in magazine publishing. She has written articles and organized events on women’s issues for several publications and organizations. Among her favorite things in life are Latin dancing, karaoke, and a Woodford Reserve manhattan on the rocks.

The Need for One Thing (MiniBlog #5)

ImageI believe God intervened in my life today in a small, but encouraging way:

Today at work I was not really feeling all that excited about having to take 4 more hours of calls. Around 10 till 5, I honestly thought about going home because I was just emotionally drained from a number of things and pretty much just discouraged from a lot of things going on. I told myself, “I’ll take one more call and then go home.”

I took a call and did the whole routine of moving the guy’s policy to another state and that is when he mentioned he was headed to seminary. I told him I just graduated with a B.S. in Bible and Preaching/Church Leadership, and that I hope to go to seminary myself. He mentioned the name of the school, and I noted he was 41 and single, so I asked if he was Catholic and preparing for priesthood, which he was.

We had a very enjoyable conversation about icons and religious matters, but then I got curious and asked him about how he discerned his call and such being that he was 41 and going to seminary sort of late. He said it was a big can of worms, but that he was actually returning to seminary. He had left after two years when he was in his late 20s. He said he was not ready back then and needed to grow up some more.

He really encouraged me. I have been in that boat. It isn’t so much I want to be a priest right now, but discerning if I will be one period. I know I too am not ready at this point of being 26. It was encouraging to see someone being content with being 41 and going back to seminary.

What was even more of a weird act of Providence was that he was working in the mental health field and wanted to go into therapy, which is what I am contemplating now as well. We both believed it was not an accident that we got to speak on the phone today. I am thoroughly convinced it was a God-send for me to interact with him.

All around I did feel encouraged by him. He shared many encouraging things with me and gave me some great advice while sharing Scriptures with me. He told me he’d pray for me and asked for my prayers. I will definitely be praying for him and his future ministry as a Catholic priest.

I am grateful for his encouraging words and small witness of light in my life when I really needed. Now, I need to learn as Martha that there is need for just one thing in my life: Jesus Christ.

Grateful for this man’s encouragement and wisdom.

Sojourners and Exiles or (Two Kingdoms: Christians in Society)

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As many following the blog may know, I have been contemplating our place in society lately. What is our place as Christians within our 21st century American context? What view of politics should we adopt? If any? What is the relationship between Christians and the government, the Church and government? Many propose answers to this questions that are trite, weak, black and white, and that fail to deal with the seriousness of both the question and of our context.

In my wrestling with this issue, I have posted my own little thoughts here and there, but mainly I have shared what others have brought to the table as they too wrestle with these issues. Today I want to share the piece “Sojourners and Exiles or (Two Kingdoms: Christians in Society)” written by my good friend Josh Ratliff. He had the article published, and I wanted to publish it here.

Josh makes a good point of how we as Christians are suppose to exist as exiles in a strange land, and anyone living in America knows first hand that this is a strange land. I believe Josh offers some key insights as to how we are to conduct ourselves. He points out that our faith communities are to exist as havens of peace as I like to think of it. He suggests that our place is to exist within our culture as a community of alternative values, kingdom values. I believe Josh is on to something. Despite whether one fully agrees with his assessment, what he has to say is of great value for any Christian who is being sincere and honest in their wrestling with this issue. Enjoy the blog:

Sojourners and Exiles or (Two Kingdoms: Christians in Society)

Is it the task of a Christian to shape the ethics of their society?  Should the community of the faithful work tirelessly toward aligning the culture’s moral vision with their own?  If you have observed any of the consumer activism on the part evangelicals in recent months and years, you would have to say that a large majority of us would answer in the affirmative.  What comes to mind are the many boycotts enacted against certain companies who may have supported a “gay agenda” or simply hired a gay spokesperson.  The fact is that, as North American Christians, these are questions we have to ask ourselves as we move very quickly into what many have described as a post-Christian culture.

I love it when God uses a seminary exegesis class as a transformative experience.  God’s Word is unrelenting in its assault on our prejudices, misconceptions and downright stubbornness, and it recently got me again in my exegesis of 1 Peter.  It was here that God began to teach me about living as a sojourner and exile in a strange land.

1 Peter and Sojourning Exiles

To establish the identity of his readers, Peter addressed them as “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1), and their conduct was to line up accordingly (1:17).  But from what we can gather about his reader’s historical context, it is not likely that civil persecution had come to his original audience yet, and we certainly have no evidence that they had been scattered.  So why is Peter describing his readers as exiles?  It all goes back to establishing identity.  Clearly, Peter is basing it in the story of Israel.  This narrative is the story of God’s people, and it describes well our contemporary context.

Like Peter’s original audience, we’re not scattered or facing heavy civil persecution in North America, but there was still a reason why Peter wants them, and us, to make Israel’s story of exile our story.  One reason for this seems to be the surprise that his readers experienced when they began to face rejection from their society.  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12).  The reason for their rejection by society, seems to be their refusal to join in the same “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” as the “Gentiles” (4:3).  When these early Christians refused to do these things, they were renouncing their former cultural identity.  All of these vices were interwoven within the society’s unity and identity, centered in their cultic, emperor worship.

So, Peter’s readers found themselves, for the first time, on the margins of society.  For this reason, Peter is intentional in grounding their identity in the story of Scripture.  In 4:12-19, Peter re-images their resultant suffering as “shar[ing] Christ’s suffering” (v. 13).  As they are insulted for his name, they are blessed “because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon [them]” (v. 14).  This language, in particular, is heavily coated with messianic undertones (cf. Isaiah 11:2).  Mark Dubis argues in his book, Messianic Woes in First Peter, that Peter envisions this community as one that suffers innocently along with the Messiah, but also necessarily as a community who experiences the foretaste of God’s judgment that must act as a precursor to the final judgment (cf. 1 Peter 4:17-18).  Now, their rejection by society was seen as a part of a larger narrative that re-imaged their reality.

Humble Exiles or Aggressive Activists?

I think many living in the United States can see quite easily how we fit into Peter’s narrative.  It can hardly be said that there is a monolithic society that shares any one set of values at all.  So should our mission be to seek to align our society’s ethics with our own?  The message of 1 Peter advises us to take a humble approach even among those we find morally reprehensible and even if their non-desirable behavior is aimed directly at us.  He admonishes slaves to respect the masters who are unjust (2:18) and wives to respect their unbelieving husbands (3:1-2) citing the conduct of Christ who refused to return a slanderous accusation when he had them hurled at him by his persecutors (2:23).  When questioned on our faith, Peter expects us to provide an answer to our society with “gentleness and respect” (3:15).  In the community that he envisions, we are not seeking to drive cultural conversations about our own specific ethics but to exist alongside the society we are located in as an alternative society reflecting a distinct set of values.  Our attractiveness will have less to do with endless cultural warfare and more to do with our pure conduct winning the hearts of those with whom we reside.

So what are we communicating when we demand that businesses line up with our sexual ethics by seeking to hurt them financially until they do?  We’re essentially living in a way that is opposite of Peter’s admonition.  We’re no longer seeing ourselves as exiles who exist as an alternative society.  Rather, we are now very much intertwined with society and, in a sense, feel that the protection of our values is dependent upon our ability to convince the rest of society to comply with them.  This will actually have a much more devastating effect on our ethics than we might realize.  For if we see our government, culture, or anything other than the Church as the protector of morality, what happens when these entities refuse to protect it?  Do we follow suit?  One need only look at “no-fault” divorce laws to see that the Church often follows the way of the culture when we suffer from the confusion that our ethics must be society’s ethics.  Today, one could find a precious few denominations and local churches that are serious about enforcing Christ’s marriage ethic of one man with one womanfor life.

Secondly, let’s say we were successful in forcing society to line up with our ethics through boycotts, legislation, etc.  What will we have accomplished?  In these cases, we are guilty of moralizing apart from any meaningful presentation of the gospel.  Coercing people into lining up with our morality has no transformative power in a person’s heart and life.  We’re simply left with dead men’s bones inside of a nicely painted tomb.  Sure, with enough power and money, we can make society line up exactly with our moral vision—on the outside.  But with regard to our true mission in making disciples, we’ve done nothing.

So how do I reconcile this with my own Wesleyan Holiness tradition that has a rich history of social activism standing against slavery and fighting for the equal rights of women?  I would note that standing up for oppressed people is categorically different from forced ethical compliance. With the former, the only way to help the oppressed person is to stop the oppressor’s behavior.  But with behavior that only affects individuals by their own choice, we can only see true change in them by the power of the gospel, not coercion.  In both cases, the behavior is unacceptable to God’s standards of ethics, but the church’s response to them must be different.

My hope and prayer is that we can re-image ourselves in society as sojourners and exiles.  Let’s change our culture, not by fighting ethical battles through legislation, but through our contagious ethic of love that we display among ourselves and for our neighbor.  Transformation in our surrounding culture will come when they encounter the presence of a living Christ, not our boycotts.

CLARIFICATION FROM THE AUTHOR:

I wanted to clear up a few things that might be confusing about some of the terminology in the article, especially the phrase “alternative society.” First, I didn’t choose the title “Two Kingdoms,” but the editor did, so I could see how that might throw someone off if they think I am equating two kingdom theology with the alternative society I believe 1Peter argues for. Second, by alternative society, I do not mean a fringe group of Jesus Camp Christians with their own movies, record labels, etc. In fact that’s more a part of the Evangelical culture of trying to push their ethical viewpoint on the rest of society. In other words, the Christians more likely to lobby congress to legislate Christian sexual ethics also happen to be the ones that will only watch really bad Christian B movies. Living as an exile means you can freely engage the culture surrounding you, yet you maintain your specific and separate identity. You can work for the good of your king, but, like Daniel, you’re still identifiable as a follower of the one true God. The primary point of the article is that, to maintain this identity, we don’t have to force our ethics on the rest of society. We do exist as an alternative society in that we don’t mirror or allow our surrounding culture to change us. We carry the ethical banner of love of neighbor more than love of self. Hope that helps clear some confusion.

 

 

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