Raising standards for what we make and consume

Written by Josh Tiessen

Most Christians agree that media created for the sole purpose of sexual arousal is off-limits. It incites the sin of lust and degrades God’s sacred gift of sexuality as a mutual, relational act within marriage. It also violates human dignity by sexually objectifying human beings made in the image of God. 

Yet exposure to pornographic content is increasing. During Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, porn usage surged by 11.6 per cent worldwide, according to Pornhub statistics. Covenant Eyes reported that 51 per cent of boys and 32 per cent of girls first view pornography before they turn thirteen.

In the realm of the arts, the level of hyper-sexualization may, in fact, be an even more insidious plague than pornography because of its mainstream acceptability. From Netflix shows like Bridgerton to racy music videos like Cardi B’s WAP, it’s the water we swim in. Even art critic Michael Pearce, who is not religious at all, has noted that we are living in a “pornocracy” since its tentacles know no bounds.

Although more could be written on the nuances between porn and artistic nudity, in our present day they are often indistinguishable.

The sad reality for many is that sexualized art, in its various media forms, serves as an onramp drawing consumers deeper into the pornocracy vortex.

I observe other Christians my age—Millennials and Gen Zs—skirting this awkward conversation, either due to personal shame or for fear they’ll be seen as “judgy.” While my parents instilled in me high standards of forgoing media that contains graphic nudity and sexual content, it has not been an easy road. It can feel like I’m following puritanical codes from a bygone era. 

Am I missing out? I question the necessity of maintaining such lofty standards when I see so many believers throwing caution to the wind, consuming the same media as everyone else without pause for analysis.

John Mark Comer captures the generational dynamic in his excellent book, Live No Lies. Recounting how far the pendulum has swung from his conservative parents’ day where the motto “Garbage in, garbage out” guided entertainment choices, he overheard “people chatting after a church gathering about Game of Thrones, casually laughing about obscene sexual deviance and the epitome of gratuitous violence.”

Some attempt to justify their choices by pointing out that the Bible itself is not a PG-rated book; there are numerous stories involving nudity and sex. However, the authors don’t go into the kind of graphic detail portrayed in shows such as Game of Thrones. While Song of Songs is highly sensual, the author poetically celebrates romantic foreplay and love-making between a husband and wife, but without being graphic. Contrast this with popular novels and movies known for their explicit detail, such as 50 Shades of Grey, which perverts sex through abusive male dominance and bondage kink.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve “were both naked, and they felt no shame” in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:25). After their fall into sin, their eyes were opened to their physical (and spiritual) vulnerability. In Genesis 3, God provides clothing made of animal skins to cover their bodies. Throughout the rest of Scripture, public nudity is seen as a sign of humiliation, beginning with Noah. When he lay passed-out drunk, his sons Shem and Japheth restored his honour by covering his naked body without looking (Genesis 9:21-23).

Without question, exposure to the naked body is a universal experience—from changing a baby’s diaper to assisting a physically-disabled or elderly family member in the bathroom. The distinction with artistic nudity is that gazing upon the undressed figure is done for aesthetic pleasure, something we would find unacceptable in other contexts, such as those I just mentioned.

It is only within the covenantal strong bonds of marriage that the full aesthetic pleasure of gazing upon the nude body, climaxing with the gift of sex, can be experienced in all its God-ordained glory.

Lest we think it is just our era that is hyper-sexualized, the first-century Christians were surrounded by a culture where athletes competed nakedly, public amphitheaters featured on-stage sex scenes, and the Romans frequented the services of temple prostitutes to appease the gods (for example, the Temple of Aphrodite in the city of Corinth).

In that culture, it must have come as a shock when the rabbi Jesus strongly warned that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). The Apostle Paul exhorted Christians to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and clothe their bodies with modest dress (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Corinthians 12:23).

If God intends us to be clothed in public because of the effects of the fall and to pursue sexual purity in all aspects of our lives, is it right for us to intentionally create or view photographs, paintings, and shows with nudity and sexually explicit content? 

Some maintain this media does not tempt them to sin and is therefore permissible. But, as the Apostle Paul stated, is it beneficial? (1 Corinthians 10:23-31). I am cautious for several reasons. First, Jeremiah 17:9 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things,” meaning that we could be blind to our underlying lustful motivations, thinking we are above such vulnerabilities. 

Second, as a professional fine artist, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing nude paintings in art history books, magazines, and galleries (even hung next to my own works). While classical nude sculptures are not as erotic, contemporary artists often blur the lines between fine art and pornography. The world’s wealthiest living artist, Jeff Koons’ nude photographic series “Made in Heaven” features himself being aroused by his porn-star wife. 

While I brush all of this off, later I experience the power of such images indelibly etched on my mind. I’m tempted to recall them when feeling lonely or anxious, employing them by my fantasies for a quick release. 

A third reason is that we do not want to cause our fellow brothers or sisters in Christ to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13). You might not be tempted yourself, but people you know may struggle in this area and be easily triggered. 

Artists and art connoisseurs often decry art that is manipulative, whether sentimental Hallmark movies or religious and political propaganda.

We must also be wary of the cheap trick of sexualized art. Guised as superior aesthetic taste, in many cases, if we are honest, it merely satisfies the lusts of the flesh. 

The pornification of our age is killing art. We see this on Instagram and TikTok, where algorithms increasingly pump sexualized content, influencing creators to “spice things up” for virality. Christians ought to live differently, maintaining the highest regard for the body because it is the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 6:19). 

As we seek to honour God with our own bodies, we must likewise honour the bodies of others in the art we make and partake of. A healthy media diet, which prioritizes that which is true, pure, and good (Philippians 4:8) is a sacrifice unto the Lord, but it also enables us to flourish through sanctifying our imaginations.

Josh Tiessen is a fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. Read more from the “Finer strokes” column.