I do not dispute Dreher’s claim that Christians need to wake up and recover more intentional patterns of discipleship. But it has ever been so. In the garden of Gethsemane when their Master was with them, the disciples drifted off to sleep. St. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians, “So then let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch and be sober.”
There’s a corporate dimension to watchfulness, and Dreher is right to emphasize the need for Christians to renew their communities. He’s also right to characterize the threat as the double-headed dragon of Mammon and Eros. The churches are being overwhelmed by consumerism and sexual liberation. But, again, it has always been the case that Christianity has had to struggle against the principalities and powers that rule the world. The Enemy changes guises, to be sure, but he’s always on the prowl.
True. Utopia has never existed. But I think it’s far too easy to downplay the threats particular to our own time and place.
For example, the Church has never had to deal with a technology that can instantly deliver hardcore pornographic videos directly into the hands of everyone who has a smartphone, including children. From the American Psychological Association:
Whether or not you think it’s moral, the fact is, people like porn. Various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent among women, according to Gert Martin Hald, PhD, and colleagues in The APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology (Vol. 2).
“Porn is practically ubiquitous,” says Ana Bridges, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas. And the Internet has made it easier than ever to get an erotic fix. The late sex researcher Alvin Cooper, PhD, called this the “triple-A engine” effect: The accessibility, affordability and anonymity provided by the Web have put adult content right at our fingertips.
Here’s a much-read piece from Time magazine last year, which explores the effect ubiquitous pornography and its use is having on brain development. In commenting on the story, Denny Burk makes an important point relative to Reno’s claim:
Pornography has been a ubiquitous fixture in [young people’s] lives for the better part of a decade. Two dates are important to remember in this discussion. In 2007, broadband internet reaches over 50% of American households. In 2013, smartphone ownership exceeds 50% of the population. That means that at some point around 2007, more Americans than not had access not simply to still images but to free video images of people engaged in sex acts. By 2013, more Americans than not had access to video porn at any time and at any place through their smartphone.
The average age that a young man first encounters pornography is 11-13 years old. That means that countless young men have spent the better part of the last decade with access to moving porn. For many of them, everything they have learned about sex has come from pornography. Their sexual preferences have been shaped by this content.
And what about this content? It is not an accident that Playboy magazine stopped publishing pictures of nude women last year. There is no market for that anymore. And it’s not just because of the new internet delivery method. It’s because these young men aren’t interested in simple images of naked women. Their tastes are much darker and perverse.
I am not being hyperbolic when I call porn use a civilizational calamity. The sexual revolution promised us more sex and more pleasure. It has actually delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure. It has not given us men who know what virtue and honor are. It doesn’t teach men to pursue their joy in self-sacrificially loving and being sexually faithful to one woman for life. It teaches young men to use women for sex and then to discard them when they become unwilling or uninteresting. This means that it has given us a generation of young men completely unprepared for marriage and for fatherhood.
It’s not merely that so many young men are unprepared for marriage. They are unprepared for dinner and a movie. We have sown to the wind. We are reaping the whirlwind—especially our daughters, who are less likely than ever to find a man who hasn’t been corrupted by this.
Pornography has always been with us. But it has not always been with us like this.
And it is washing over us in the context of a culture that was already highly eroticized, and in which strong families, and the moral code necessary to forming and preserving them, were falling apart. Several years ago, visiting a conservative Evangelical college, I listened with shock as one of the professors with whom I was dining said that he doubted that most of his students would be able to form stable families. The rest of the professors around the table nodded.
“Why on earth not?” I asked.
“Because they have never seen one,” he said.
From The Benedict Option:
Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been under way since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of allChristians—recognized.
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.
Rieff, by the way, was not a Christian of any sort, but a secular Jew, sociologist, and incisive social critic. More from that chapter in my book:
To be sure, there never was a golden age in which Christians all lived up to their sexual ideals. The church has been dealing with sexual immorality in its own ranks since the beginning—and let’s be honest, some of the measures it has taken to combat it have been cruel and unjust.
The point, however, is that to the premodern Christian imagination, sex was filled with cosmic meaning in a way it no longer is. Paul admonished the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” because the body was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” and warned them that “you are not your own.” He was telling them that their bodies are sacred vessels that belonged to God, who, in Christ, “all things hold together.” Sexual autonomy, seemingly the most prized possession of the modern person, is not only morally wrong but a metaphysical falsehood.
Yesterday I was having lunch with a Catholic priest, and talking about this. He said, “Nobody who hears confessions doubts how serious a problem porn is.” Over the course of our conversation, he talked about how difficult it is to reach people today with the faith because everybody assumes that the material world is there for us to instrumentalize as we like.
In the past, however much people failed to live up to the Christian sexual ideal, the ideal itself remained. It was a measure by which we could judge ourselves. It was there in some coherent form from the beginning of Christianity, as we can see in the letters of St. Paul. But that ideal is rapidly disappearing as our culture de-Christianizes.
What’s more, it is impossible to separate the way Americans today regard sex and sexuality from the way we regard what Reno calls “Mammon.” We can see what the consumerist mentality has done to historical, orthodox forms of Christianity. Again, a passage from The Benedict Option:
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.4 Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.” …
“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
This is a bigger deal than my friend Rusty Reno thinks. And we Christians are not prepared for it. Yesterday in my conversation with the Catholic priest, we talked about how even Catholics and other Christians who do hold to true Christian morality struggle to talk about it in anything but moralistic terms. The faith gets reduced to a collection of moral maxims and rules. In fact, a college professor told me on one of my recent travels that the students he works with think of Christianity as little more than a moral code.
One more time, from The Benedict Option:
To reduce Christian teaching about sex and sexuality to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and a failure of imagination. Conservative pastors whose sermons jackhammer away at sexual immorality as if it were the only serious sin, or were somehow disconnected from a host of other sins of passion, distort the Gospel and undermine its credibility. This lamentable reductionism constitutes a failure to draw on the inexhaustible well of resources within the Christian theological and artistic tradition. In the end, it comes down to a matter of Christians having lost our own grand story about eros, cosmos, and theosis, the Greek word for “union with God,” the ultimate end of the Christian pilgrimage.
“All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries,” says sociologist Christian Smith. “Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the Gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.”
If Christianity is a true story, then the story the world tells about sexual freedom is a grand deception. It’s fake. As novelist Walker Percy advised, we have to attack the fake in the name of the real. Christians are going to have to become better tellers of our own story. Young people are not going to be argued into Christian chastity or browbeaten by moralistic maxims. Beauty and goodness, embodied in great art and fiction, and in the lives of ordinary Christians, married and single, is the only thing that stands a chance.
My point, contra Reno, is simply this: these times are uniquely challenging for living out and passing on Christian truth. Yes, I am alarmist, because there is much to be alarmed about. We have very quickly become a culture in which a generation is being raised to believe that there is no such thing as males and females. A friend texted me at the beginning of this school year and told me his 16-year-old daughter came home from school that day saying that believing in the gender binary is the same thing as racism.
More from Rusty Reno’s essay:
Dreher frequently returns to images of Rome’s fall. But his history is not quite right. The Germanic armies that toppled the enfeebled imperial government of the Western Roman Empire were not barbarians. They were Romanized military men, often trained in the Imperial Legions that defended the Danube frontier. When they came to power, they established themselves as aristocrats who claimed Rome (and Christianity) as their inheritance.
This is true, historically speaking. I use the term “barbarians” in my book as a metaphor, not with a historian’s accuracy. The “barbarian invasion” is a metaphor for the forces that brought an end to the old order, and without fully realizing what they were doing, began a new one. It is also the case that I don’t say that Christians today should leave civilizations and enter monasteries, as the early Benedictines did. Rather, we should understand early medieval monasticism as a metaphor for the way faithful Christians today are going to have to understand our relationship to post-Christian society, and the more ordered, disciplined, and communal way we are going to have live if we hope to hold on to our faith across the generations to come.
A velvet barbarism of permission has emerged from within a post-Christian West. It has let loose unbridled greed, sensuality, and will-to-power, all of which threaten to overwhelm the Christianity that remains. For too long we have imagined these powers manageable, even benign. Dreher is right that we need to wake up, watch, and be sober. Much needs to be done to restore the salt and light of Christian communities. But as we gather ourselves for the challenges of our time, we need to resist the intoxicating rhetoric of crisis and catastrophe that emerges from the postwar era’s increasingly paralyzing anxieties.
Read the entire Reno essay here, in Modern Age. If you read the piece, you’ll see that we are in greater agreement than I’ve indicated in this post, which I wrote simply to respond to the places where we disagree. From where I sit, the problem with Christians isn’t that we are paralyzed by anxiety, but that we are paralyzed by a lack of awareness of the reality of our condition, and an unwillingness to learn, because to know is to be responsible.