Biblical Pornography

Notes from
Sunday, January 14, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

The lesson we read today before I spoke is one wisely avoided in the 3-year cycle of lessons appointed for the church.  Even I have ducked it for the past 12 years, and may retire before I attempt to preach it again.  The NRSV translation (below) is hard enough, but since the early 1980’s, I have offered my own developing translation (at the bottom, below).

Skim the words on the screen, or hear the echoes of their sound, celebrating how your body is a temple of the Spirit, not for fornication with prostitutes!  The marks on paper or screen, and the sounds of syllables, regardless of translation, are what they call ‘signifiers’ in the study of ‘hermeneutics’.  What, pray God, is the ‘signified’ in this text?

If there was something pornographic in the room on Sunday, did the Bible bring it?  God knows  (no, really, she knows, but hasn’t told me) what goes on between your ears, and among us, in response to these ‘signifiers’.  There was some energy and tension in the room.  Did Paul bring it, or the translators of the Authorized Version of the English Bible – or did we?

Paul writes letters to Corinth, only about 20 years after Jesus’ death. He has been there, then moved on, but writes gossip (God-talk) back and forth, in conflicts among them and with him. Paul has no great authority yet in these early religious communes, which were no longer typical synagogues, nor yet churches, all under Roman rule in Greek culture.

What religious community would need to be told to stop fornicating and paying prostitutes?
Who and what was Paul talking to? Paul’s not talking about legislating for all Corinthian residents, just the members of the religious commune. Did it have many active pimps or hookers?  Perhaps, but more likely he’s mad at a people turning freedom into license. 

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed.
In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

Can you imagine a culture, and a church, that claimed that kind of license?  Where anybody can do anything they want?  You’d have the survival of the fittest, self-harm, violence, domination in some kind of social Darwinism based on how much money you had or could borrow.  Oh, yeah.  You can imagine that.  We live in that culture and church!

Paul’s argument makes no sense to us as liberal individualists, consumers in late capitalism. Rather than repeat grammar rules about singular or collective ‘bodies’, and philological word study of the Greek original signifiers that we read as ‘prostitute’ or ‘fornication’, I just offered my own translation, and reminders of how context has shaped earlier readings.

Some of you remember the 1982 National Film Board documentary, “Not a Love Story”. Banned in Ontario when it came out, it’s now easy to download online – don’t miss it! The advent of videotape technology was bringing ‘dirty movies’ out of the shabby theatres on King Street, into video rental stores. People like Margaret Atwood wanted it stopped.

Atwood herself soon published her 1985 novel, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, a dystopian future theocracy borrowing Christian language for misogyny and tyranny. I enjoyed demonizing her villains, in the early years of our UCC fights over homosexuality. As a ‘sensitive new age guy’ I preached this text deriding anyone whose prurient mind thought it banned prostitution.

In those days, I fixed on the Greek words porne, pornos, porneia, and porneuo, which underlay the various English attempts to make sense through ‘prostitute’, ‘fornication’, ‘immorality’, and so on. Why not draw on the one semantic field of ‘pornography’ words, instead of individual money-for-sex transactions criminalized but never stopped?

Technology advanced, and anybody with internet has access unimagined by our naïve 1980’s plan to halt the dehumanizing, objectivizing, misogynist tides.  More of you were nodding as I asked if you ever worried about your kids, grand-kids, students in schools, let alone your neighbours and peers, exercising their new freedom as license:

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed.
In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

Margaret Atwood is still making money, and the new TV remake of Handmaid’s Tale earns more awards than the earlier movie. Why this time? Is the risk we face really totalitarian Christian tyranny of strict narrow legalism? I think it is atomized individualistic consumerism, treating other humans as demographic objects to be rated and measured. I’m not Paul.

We relaxed a bit in the room as I reminisced about Adam Nicolson’s book “God’s Secretaries”, about how the great serial monogamist Henry VIII paid a bunch of celibate men at Oxford and Cambridge to translate an Authorized Version of the bible too often called ‘St James’. These guys gave us a version of this text which is hard to unlearn, embedded in our culture

Rather than parsing the language of commercial sexual gratification, the rights of sex workers and the obligations of their customers, I stuck with re-occupying the space between your ears, and the energy among us in the room, with quotes by smarter people about the term ‘pornography’.  I think this gets us closer to Paul’s ‘signified’ in this letter to Corinth:

"Pornography is about dominance.
Erotica is about mutuality."
Gloria Steinem

 “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.”
Pope John Paul II

"Pornography is rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony
by having somebody tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars."
Robertson Davies

‘What pornography is really about,
ultimately, isn’t sex but death.’
Susan Sontag

Finally, I think that this part of the letter to Corinth is a response to licentiousness, claiming too much for ‘freedom in Christ’.  There was another set of Paul’s opponents in Corinth who pushed narrow strict legalism, to whom Atwood’s challenge applies, but in response to this culture of license, the collectivists of the far right or left offer some wisdom:

In Russia under Stalin, nothing was permitted – and everything mattered.
In America now, everything is permitted – and nothing matters.
Alexander Solzenitzyn

Where’s the pornography in the bible?  There are very few uses of the Greek words porne, pornos, porneia, and porneuo.  The men who translate them do contortions to use different words in each context, to reflect our own culture and language.  I’d say that what Paul opposes with these words is not in the book or on the page, but between our ears.

What if church were a counter-cultural commune treating people as fully human creatures?   What if we were loved and known, and knew ourselves loved and known, not as consumers or producers, on a scale of sexual attractiveness never tall, thin, blonde, or rich enough?  That’s a church where I would feel safe – if a bit crowded!

I Corinthians 6:12-20
(NRSV) p 1 of 2

“All things are lawful for me” but not all things are beneficial.

“All things are lawful for me” but I will not be dominated by anything

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.

And God will destroy both one and the other.”

The body is meant not for fornication, but for the Lord
And the Lord for the body.

And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?

Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them
members of a prostitute? Never!

Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?

For is it said,
‘The two shall be one flesh.’
But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’
Shun fornication!

Every sin that a person commits is outside the body But the fornicator sins
against the body itself.

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you
Which you have from God, And that you are not your own?

For you were bought with a price; Therefore glorify God in your body.

God still speaks – Thanks be to God!

I Corinthians 6:12-20
(Bill’s Version)

“I can do anything I want”, you say - but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say - but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed. In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

The Commune is not made for Porn, but for Kyrios. And Kyrie for the Commune.

And Theos raised Kyrios and will also raise us by Theo-power.

Don’t you get how your Communes are part of Kyrios?

Do you want me to take parts of Kyrios and make them parts of Porn?

Don’t you get it? how anybody participating in Porn is part of Porn?

They say, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anybody part of Kyrios shares one Pneuma, with Kyrios. Reject Porn!

Acts of sin individuals do Occur outside the Commune But acts as part of Porn
infect the Commune itself.

Or do you not know that your Commune is a shrine with Pneuma in it?
You get it from Theos, You don’t own it to wreck it!

You are bought and paid for; So show Theos off in your Commune.

God still speaks – Thanks be to God!