Jul 17, 2012

Posted by in Culture | 5 Comments

Miscellany 38: Sexuality, Language, and Reality (and GK Chesterton)

In secular, modern culture we are getting closer and closer to “anything goes” for sexuality (we’re not quite there yet, but almost). Showtime has launched a new reality television show on polyamorous relationships called “Polyamory: Married & Dating.”

The description for the show is as follows: “This provocative reality series explores non-monogamous, committed relationships that involve more than two people. Characters grapple with the emotional and sexual drama of sharing their hearts, as well as their beds.”

Think about the language. What do ‘committed’ and ‘provocative’ mean here?

Language matters. In his book Heretics, GK Chesterton noted that ‘heretic’ had become twisted into a word of praise. The whole book is very much worth reading (as is his classic Orthodoxy); this particular passage is worth considering in detail now for its tremendous relevance to our present situation:

“Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law—all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause. The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.”

In the show’s blurb, and in general usage as I’ve observed it, ‘committed’ clearly does not mean ‘exclusive’; it probably doesn’t mean ‘permanent’; it seems to function as a vaguely positive marker meaning ‘these people are not just having one-night stands’ (not that there’s any indication of why that would be a bad thing.). Unfortunately, the fuzzy feel-good tone of ‘committed’ has allowed it to substitute for other, more robust words, like faithful, and chaste.

OK, what does it mean to be ‘provocative’? This has been used for quite some time now as a word of praise — without actually considering what is being provoked. ‘Provocative’ now apparently means ‘forward-thinking’ or ‘free.’  But wait – what am I being provoked to do? If I deliberately provoke my friend to anger — that is a sin. f I deliberately allow or encourage lust to be provoked in me — that is a sin.

This language will be easily labeled as ‘old-fashioned’ — meaning that we have allowed our culture to blindly accept the idea that progress is always and everywhere a good thing, no matter the direction; that change is always both inevitable and desirable.

This language will also likely be labeled as ‘religious,’ meaning ‘it’s all very well and good for you people who actually believe this stuff, but don’t try to foist your private beliefs on other consenting adults.’ I understand this view very well, as I used to hold it.

And so that is part of the challenge of the Christian today — for the Christian apologist, for pastors, teachers, and every faithful member of the Body of Christ — to make the case that when we talk about Christianity, we are talking about reality.  And to live out the fullness of the faith.

The “Polyamory” show might be a bit too sexually ‘unorthodox’ and ‘provocative’ for most Christians, sure. At least I suspect that most Christians might have some qualms about watching it…  at least at first. But plenty of Christians are enthusiastic about the Twilight series of books and movies, despite it being borderline soft-core porn; I know, I’ve talked to them and been told that I’m (essentially) too straight-laced and old-fashioned. And just recently, plenty of Christians seem to be fine with the pornographic Fifty Shades of Grey books. (No, calling it ‘mommy porn’ does not make pornography less degrading and vile.)

Sr. Helena Burns has an excellent review of the male-stripper movie Magic Mike that gets to the heart of these issues: well worth reading in its entirety. (A great line: “Women can objectify men now, too! Wow—what progress!”)

But, you might say: what’s the big deal? This is all just entertainment. Stop getting so worked up about it.

Consider this. I wanted to read the description of the “Polyamory” show from the source, not just through an opinion piece, so I googled, with quotes, “Polyamory: Married & Dating.” The first three hits that came up were for dating sites.

The first two of those sites were specifically for married people seeking to have an affair.

Just entertainment? I think not. Lord, have mercy.

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  1. Please see the post on my blog “The Alphabet of Sexual License.” I do agree with you that as entertainment breaks down taboos so does society, with quite poisonous effect. I do not agree regarding the Twilight movies, though I would not recommend anyone under 21 watches the fourth one. If anything, they have a good message about waiting until marriage and self-sacrifice.

  2. Wow, that article/review was fantastic! Although I part ways with her on issues of the Eucharist and a line about ‘growing spiritually in order to get to heaven’, and a couple of other things, I found this fascinating and profound. I need to go back and read some of the links when I have more time.

    Thanks for the introduction. Looks like I am going to have to read over there more often. (I think my brain melted at “media nun”! How awesome is that?)

    I am a Christian, though not Catholic. But when it comes to so many issues, they sure do “get it” in a way that doesn’t happen on the Protestant side. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I’m glad it is.

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks, Knights & Mo. One of the problems I see with the Twilight books/movies is that the ‘chastity’ is not mutual (it’s entirely based on Edward holding back), it’s not grounded in theology, and it’s unrealistic: real live men and women going as far as they do, well, let’s just say that Edward has that kind of self-control because he’s dead! Hah.

    Mo, one of the things I like about the Catholic perspective is that it takes the body seriously. Not just denying it or trying to repress sinful desires, but really thinking through what it means to follow Christ as incarnational beings. I think some of that is starting to make its way into Evangelical thought, to good effect – I haven’t read it yet, but there’s a book called Earthen Vessels by Matthew Anderson that tackles some of those issues and looks very interesting.

    • Thank you for the book recommendation. I will look into it.

      As to ‘Twilight’, I read the first book and saw the latest movie. Besides the book being horribly written and the movie horribly acted (which is not a minor thing to me, and I’m sure to you!) my take was that Bella is a girl with absolutely no life or sense of self outside of her boyfriend. Not only that, but the only reason Edward waits is so as not to hurt her. Worse, Bella is the one who’s always pushing him!

      The first book is all teen girl fantasy, and while they do abstain, the mental fantasy is constant. She is obsessed with this boy to the point where nothing else matters – not her family, not her friends, not herself, not her very life.

      I have heard so many good things about this series, but I’m telling you, I didn’t see it. People need to ask themselves, if that was my daughter, would I want her involved with a guy to such an extent that literally wants to die if she can’t be with him? And literally dies to be with him?

      I am not a parent, but I find that more disturbing than something sexually explicit.

  4. Clay Crouch says:


    It appears that sex has been on the mind of more than one christian blogger. Over at The Gospel Coalition’s site Jared Wilson caused quite a dust up this week over the use of language in describing the marriage bed. I’m sure you can navigate your way to his July 13th post and his follow up post on July 18th. I would love to read your take on this.

    All the best!