Christian Fiction as Pornography

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Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, looking fed up.

People who have known me long enough know I have an almost pathological hatred for a little film called Faith Like Potatoes.  I wrote a review of it here.  I tend to single this one film out, but it is merely the worst of a whole slew of “Christian” films* that follow a disturbing trend of sentimental emotionalism which present the movement of the Spirit as some kind of supernatural high.  While I stand by my review of Faith Like Potatoes 100%, I have come to realize there is an adjective missing from that review which I’d like to discuss in this post.

faith-like-potatoes15The word is “pornographic”.  A lovely word, isn’t it?  It sounds as disgusting as it usually is – sort of like “flagrant” and “ulcer”.  Yes, Faith Like Potatoes, along with its closest cousins, are porno films of the worst kind.  First, some etymology.

The word is Greek, from pornos meaning prostitute (or more accurately, whore) and from graphein meaning to write.  In the 19th century this morphed into the English word pornography, literally meaning to write about whores.  Since then the word has gained a more sinister connotation meaning salacious and sexually explicit “entertainment” made solely for the purposes of titillation (there’s another one of those so bad it’s good words). The always helpful Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense.  (#2354)

2012-JUL-Drugs-Bilbo-and-Gandalf-Smoking-300x199The key phrase to remember here is “the illusion of a fantasy world”.  In other words, porn is bad (among other things) because it takes sex and sells it down the river for the sake of instant gratification.  One might use the analogy of the difference between a cigarette and a pipe.  A cigarette is trashy and vulgar (at least from an aesthetic stand point) because it is quick, cheap, and easy, whereas a pipe takes time, effort, and practice and thus becomes, in a way, sacramental.

So what, pray tell, has this to do with sentimental Christian fiction (movies and otherwise)?  In a 1957 essay for America, the master of Christian fiction Flannery O’Connor wrote:

Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.  (America)

Flannery O’Connor was notorious for her hatred of anything hinting of sentimentality, especially with regard to religion.  She excoriated liberal Protestantism for its soft emotionalism in worship and in theology, and she was constantly on the hunt for it in her fiction.  But her revulsion at Christian sentimentality, like mine, is far more deeply rooted than merely artistic preference.  She connect sentimentality to pornography because she saw that the kind of wishy washy piety that dominated the Christianity of her time (and has only gotten worse since) was an attempt to seek instant spiritual gratification rather than enduring the purging fire of authentic Christian spirituality.

We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

the-brotherhood-of-leder-joseph-the-hesychast

Orthodox Hesychastic monks.

This is what the counter-reformers would have labelled “cheap grace”, the reduction of grace to “unmerited favor” or a mere movement of the emotions.  How often do we here of people bouncing from church to church, from communion to communion, looking for something that “inspires” them, which usually amounts to some concoction of a “cool” and “with-it” preacher, loud Contemporvant music, and lots and lots of tears?  No thought is made of suffering in silence, of ritual, or of subjugating the emotions to the intellect.  No!  They want the Spirit now, dammit!  But the Spirit blows where it wills.  Apostolic spirituality has always maintained a skeptical if not adverse relationship with such histrionics.  Eastern Christians, especially, try to avoid sentimentality and urge the Hesychasts to eschew anything that comes from them during prayer (including emotional responses, religious ecstasy, and imagery) in order to be receptive to God’s uncreated energies.

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St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, archbishop and martyr of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church

Saint Lawrence

St. Lawrence of Rome, deacon and martyr.

Movies like Faith Like Potatoes are full of inspiring messages and motivational speeches, stories in which no one gets hurt, the family stays together, and everything turns out all right.  I am reminded of a book by Sarah Young called Jesus Calling, a devotional making the rounds on the Evangelical circuit these days**, which is as saccharine and silly as it is creepy.  On almost every page we’re reminded that there’s no problem Jesus can’t fix and if you just put your trust in Him all your troubles will go away.  What they fail to realize is that statistically speaking you’re more likely to be beheaded or stricken with some debilitating disease for following Jesus.  St. Lawrence was fried on a grill, St. Josaphat got an axe tot he head, even Flannery O’Connor endured a long battle with lupus, and of course there was Jesus himself who was crucified.

The point is that the Christian life is no walk in the park.  Our Lord tells us he has not come to bring peace, but the sword.  What so many fail to realize is that the sword is for them, that in order to be Christ’s disciple they must embrace their own martyrdom.  To suggest that Theosis is possible without intense suffering, be it physical or spiritual, is to make a mockery of the Gospel, just as pornography makes a mockery of sex.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.  (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)

dcabcaa39fb2a28f2d0fa421a611def5I am writing this post to explain that when I criticize a film, especially one with the label “Christian” slapped onto it, for being too sentimental, I don’t mean merely that it is too tender and wholesome for my taste, but that I reject sentimentality philosophically as porn for the soul.  I do hope this clears some things up.  I’m not just being a crank.  The richness of Apostolic Tradition has so much to offer, is such a deep well from which to draw, that it is disappointing when a work of fiction takes the easy way out.

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whosoever would save his life will lose it; and whosoever loses his life for me sake, he will save it.”  (St. Matthew 9:23-24, RSV-CE)

*i.e. Facing the GiantsFireproof, 1979’s JesusThe Nativity Story, etc.  It is a sad state of affairs when the directors who most completely understand Christianity are two secular Jewish brothers.  Notable exceptions in recent years to the rule that Christian movies suck are The Passion of the Christ and The Rite.
**O’Connor did not restrict her disdain for sentimental spiritually to liberal Protestants. She was quite critical of the typical holy card piety she saw all around her.  She hated the way St. Thérèse of Lisieux was portrayed in most of her respective iconography – always surrounded by lush flowers and wearing a sickeningly wholesome smile.  I must say I share her distaste for what she called the “parochial aesthetic”.  Today, the worst of this are those brightly painted eyesores which pass for Nativity scenes every Christmas.
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16 Responses to Christian Fiction as Pornography

  1. MyLan says:

    Jesus Calling, yuck!

  2. Francis Philip says:

    I don’t think that this argument has a basis without at least a claim of knowledge of a truly intimate relationship with God (and I don’t sense it here).

    • I wonder what you would consider to be a truly intimate relationship with God. And my argument is that Christianity is not a religion of the sentimental or of the emotions, and as such Christian fiction should be evidence of this.

      • Francis Philip says:

        On the basis of your argument, Cole, you would also claim that Jesus Christ does not have human nature (which includes emotions and sentimentality). Please back up and study about the 2nd Person of the Trinity, that he has both divine and human natures – both completely intact. Do you know where to find this information? Have you studied theology?

        • I assure you I am not a monophysite. I affirm the Orthodox teaching of Chalcedon. Of course Our Lord had emotions, as we see in his Agony in Gethsemane. Emotions are not evil, that would be bordering on Gnosticism, but they are to be subjugated to the intellect. In the Fall, Adam and Eve chose to follow the whim of their passions rather than what they knew to be right and good. As a result, all their posterity suffer from a clouding of the judgment. They see through a glass darkly. Humans who are victims of Original Sin need Grace in order to overcome their passions. As we see, the Theotokos who had no sin, personal or Original, responded directly and immediately to God’s call, despite whatever fears and misgivings she may have had. Our Lord went to his death in Jerusalem despite his human fears because he knew it was the will of his Father in heaven.

          As to whether sentiment is innate to human nature I have my doubts. It seems to me sentimentalism is a distortion of proper human affection. You would be hard pressed to find a Father or Doctor of the Church who made a habit of indulging in such frivolity. One example that comes to mind is the way St. Francis is portrayed so often as a flowery little hippie who frolics with the animals in his free time, when the reality is that though he did have a love for God’s non-human creations, he was also intensely ascetical, mortifying his flesh with fasting and suffering from the pain of the Stigmata.

        • Francis Philip says:

          Grace to heal/perfect our passions, not annihilate our passions, true? I mean, our emotions are not a product of Original Sin; our emotions are part of God’s plan for us. Do you agree?

        • I apologize. Being a Latin with strong Byzantine leanings I frequently flip back and forth between using Latin theological terminology and Byzantine language. By “passions” I mean something separate from emotions (which are innate to human nature). Passions in Byzantine theology are attachments to sin and misplaced desire resulting from the Fall. Any desire we place ahead God is a passion in this sense. You could say it is comparable to concupiscence in Latin theology.

        • Francis Philip says:

          Ah. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Francis Philip says:

    Also, in part, we must understand that when Jesus Christ was telling His Apostles and disciples that they must pick up their cross in order to follow HIm, He was looking to the immediate future which involved persecution. Some Apostles did actually die by the cross (e.g., St. Peter and St. Andrew…). Spiritually, we too must be willing to endure persecutions. But this does not mean that we can not experience Christian joy in our lives if we follow Jesus Christ. Also, it does not mean that we can not draw close to God in intimacy – does not true love require intimacy (of a personal and private nature)? And if Jesus Christ has full human nature (which embodies those emotions given to us by the Creator) would it not be a glorification of God to use our emotions in a way which honors Him Who created us to use our emotions?

    • Francis Philip says:

      And St. Paul was beheaded…

    • Francis Philip says:

      And God gives us grace and virtue to temper our emotions so that we are not ruled by our emotions or passions. Study what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches on the subject in his Summa Theologica. Msgr Glenn writes a good summary of Thomas’s teachings in “A Tour of the Summa.” It is a good, inexpensive book.

    • Our Lord’s commandment to the Apostles should be extrapolated to include the whole Church. Even if a Christian does not die a martyr, they still must put to death their passions and become a new creation in Jesus Christ.

      I think you are confusing the fruit Joy with temporal happiness. Though the two often go together, this is frequently not the case. Joy results from everything being rightly ordered. A Christian finds Joy when he is in complete accord with the will of God. Thus Jesus Christ, even as he hangs on the cross, is full of Joy because he is doing the will of his Father. Many Saints, St. John de la Cruz and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta come to mind, experience what is called a “dark night of the soul”, when God removes from them spiritual consolations that they might become closer to him. Even in this spiritual desert, the Christian can be joyful. This is why during both penitential seasons on the Liturgical calendar, there is one Sunday on which the Priest wears rose vestments (Gaudete during Advent and Laetare during Lent), symbolizing the abundance of Christian Joy in doing penance and submitting oneself to the will of God.

      And again, emotions are not bad, but when they become a substitute for asceticism and mysticism, only error follows (case in point is the sad state of the Liturgy in most Catholic parishes these days).

      • Francis Philip says:

        I see that you have been educated; very good. No, I understand the difference between temporal happiness and joy. Yes, we can extrapolate, but we should avoid assigning everyone the same “cross.” Would you agree?

  4. Owl Johnson says:

    A very interesting post, Mr. Harter. In fact, this makes me feel better about the novel I’m writing now, a Catholic allegory about Christ’s love for the unlovely. There is a Christ figure in it and while he is a caring individual, he’s also not afraid to call out hypocrites, gets angry at them and his wife for not standing up and also is terrified as he’s waiting to be betrayed. The Jesus I remember from the Bible had moments where he did things that would shock today’s modern day Christian. When the money changers set up shop in the Temple, did Jesus say politely “Hey you maybe you should do business else where”? No. He chased them out.

    Although I do have a question for you about joy. In my book, I’m planning on having moments where they have do suffer but there’s also plenty of happy moments. How much should there be suffering and how much should there be joy? Because all suffering is going to turn off people as much as all joy if that makes any sense.

    Thank you so much for the post and I think that it’s time for a Renaissance in Christian Fiction.

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