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No. 3: Toward a Biblical Definition of Obscenity

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 3
May, 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons

My copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1976: not so new, really) defines obscene as (1) "disgusting to the senses; repulsive" and (2) "abhorrent to morality or virtue; specif: designed to incite lust or depravity." Definitions such as this serve a useful purpose only when there is agreement on what the terms of the definition itself mean. But in American culture today, there is no agreement about what is "disgusting" or "repulsive" or even about what is "moral" or "virtuous." What is disgusting to one is artistically daring to another. What is more, it is widely believed, if we can trust the conclusions of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, that it is impossible to arrive at any universal moral norms. Much of our moral discourse, MacIntyre argues in After Virtue, implicitly assumes a philosophy of "emotivism," the belief that "all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character" (p. 12). In such a situation, it is unlikely that we can come to agreement on the meaning of "obscene."

Moreover, even if we could assume a common morality, people have different reactions to books or works of art. Some Christians like opera, others dislike it intensely. Common morality does not guarantee uniformity of taste. Nor should it. Yet, while admitting the inherently subjective character of our reactions to music, visual and plastic arts, and literature, it would seem advisable to seek, if possible, a more objective definition of what constitutes obscenity. Especially if obscenity restrictions are to be embodied in law, it will not do to define obscenity in terms of the viewer or reader’s reaction. Subjective standards provide fertile ground for arbitrariness in the application of law.

The Christian encounters additional difficulties when attempting to define obscenity. First, certain parts of Scripture might be deemed "repulsive" by some of our contemporaries. After all, the Bible is full of stories about sinners. But by no means all of the "repulsive" actions and events are condemned. God commanded Israel to put certain Canaanite cities under the ban; Jael was praised for pounding a tent peg through Sisera’s temple; it is Samuel’s zeal for the Lord that leads him to hack Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal. The prophets tell us that those who are judged will be devoured by birds of prey and dogs. The burning sulfur that consumes Sodom and Gomorrah came from heaven. As a friend of mine might say, there’s a lot of gritty stuff in the Bible.

Focusing more specifically on the area of obscenity as we usually think about it (writings tending to incite lust), we must say again that the Bible contains some material that might — just might — be construed by some as obscene. The Song of Solomon is an extended celebration of, among other things, sexual love. Ezekiel uses graphic imagery in several chapters of his prophecy, and the same language is used by some other prophets.

Some Christians have thought it best to avoid these features of Scripture. When, after all, was the last time you heard an expositional sermon on Ezekiel 16 or 23? When was the last time they were even read in your church? Similarly, some Christians tend to be uncomfortable with any sexual imagery or themes in literature. But these attitudes ought to be challenged. Should Christian writers, musicians, painters, and sculptors ignore human sexuality? Should they treat it as an embarrassment to Christian faith that they have bodies? We cannot fall into the extreme of virtually denying the sexual nature of man: man was made male and female, and our particular sexual identity is an integral part of who we are. (Despite bad press, Christians, at least until the early modern period, were remarkably frank about sexual matters. On the Puritans and Augustine, see the racy but entertaining and insightful article by Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books, December 21, 1989)

There is no biblical reason for Christian artists to ignore sex. Rather, they must seek to write and paint about sex in a God-honoring way. Christian writers and artists must create a new, biblically-informed vocabulary and, if possible, an "iconography" of sexual love in order to counteract the pervasively pornographic vocabulary and iconography of our culture. We can’t fight something with nothing. We cannot fight pornographic portrayals of sex with denial of the sexual. We must fight ungodly portrayals of sex in books, movies, and other media with godly portrayals of sex.

What kind of guidance does the Bible give in this area? There are no direct commands concerning the content or style of writing. It would be helpful to think carefully through the implications of the seventh commandment, and its case laws, for the artist or writer. This is not as easy as it might seem. Without wishing to appear jesuitical, it seems important to distinguish between portraying or describing a sinful act on the one hand, and actually committing the same act on the other hand. Moses, after all, describes the activities of the Sodomites; the rape of Tamar by Amnon is also described. Thus, there is clearly no necessary sin involved in describing a sinful sexual act.

As profitable as this line of inquiry is, I want to take a different tack. For many, the question is not so much whether to portray sex (whether licit or illicit), but how. In this regard, I believe we can gain some insight by examining briefly the Bible’s own example. Obviously, the Bible, being a literary work, gives us more direct guidance for literature than for visual arts. But some of my conclusions might be applicable in some way to other arts.

The Bible’s language in dealing with sex is not, perhaps, what our Scripture-illiterate culture tends to expect. Unlike many Christian books, the Bible’s language is restrained but matter-of-fact when dealing with sexual matters. There is no hint of Victorian sentimental prudery in the Levitical descriptions of sexual defilement (Leviticus 12; 18; 20). The authors of the Bible describe sexual crimes, such as rape and adultery without flinching (e.g., Genesis 38; 2 Samuel 11:1-13; 13:1-19). The Bible makes no secret of the importance of sexual passion in human life and history (witness the effects of David’s adultery). But neither does the Bible dwell on the anatomical details of sexual intercourse. Sexual acts are described forthrightly for what they are, but the details that are so prominent in contemporary portrayals of sex are passed over in silence. Leviticus 18 says that it is an abomination for a man to lie with another man as with a woman. Generally, that is about as detailed as the biblical language gets. This might give Christian artists a (rather vague) guideline for artistic portrayals of sex.

More specific guidance can perhaps be found in the fact that in the Bible, poetry is the literary medium for the expression of licit sexuality. It is the clothing without which discussion of sex becomes embarrassingly impersonal and clinical. The Song of Songs provides the best model in its use of architectural, banquet, and pastoral imagery to describe the woman’s body and the act of love. The woman describes her husband as "a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyard of Engedi" and "like an apple tree among the trees of the forest" in whose shade the wife takes "great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste" (Song of Solomon 1:14; 2:3). The act of love is here described as a feast in which the each lover enjoys the pleasures of the other’s body.

The Bridegroom in turn uses a combination of pastoral and architectural imagery to describe his Bride:

How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have some up from their washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young . . . .
Your neck is like the tower of David
Built with rows of stones,
On which are hung a thousand shields,
All the round shields of the mighty men.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
Which feed among the lilies (Song of Solomon 4:1-2, 4-5).

As chapter 4 continues, the Bridegroom turns to garden imagery: "A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a rock garden locked, a spring sealed up." In 7:1-2, he describes the curves of his Bride’s hips as "jewels, the work of the hands of an artist," and her navel as "a round goblet which never lacks mixed wine." Examples could of course be extended, but the general point has been made: In the Song of Solomon, the lovers’ admiration of each other’s bodies, and the act of love itself, are described by poetry.

In other biblical passages, however, the direction of the metaphor is changed; rather than employing architectural and pastoral imagery to describe sexual activity, as in the Song of Songs, some of the biblical writers use illicit sexual acts as metaphors for idolatry and faithlessness. In these passage, graphic sexual imagery, sometimes combined with rather nauseating, almost scatological language, is used. In denouncing the idolatries of Jerusalem, Ezekiel wrote an extended allegory of a young girl child (Jerusalem), whom the Lord pitied, clothed, adorned with jewels. He displayed her beauty to the surrounding nations. In response, however, Jerusalem "trusted in [her] beauty and played the harlot" and "poured out [her] harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing" (Ezekiel 16:15).

Ezekiel’s language becomes more intense:

You built for yourself a high place at the top of every street, and made your beauty abominable; and you spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry (16:25).

Jerusalem "played the harlot" with Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, and Chaldea; the Lord, in response, threatens to "gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure . . . and expose your nakedness to them that they may see your nakedness" (16:36-37).

In a parallel passage, Ezekiel described the harlotries of the sisters, Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem). Samaria was the first to become a prostitute, but Jerusalem followed the same path, and in fact was worse than her sister:

She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and officials, the ones near, magnificently dressed, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. . . . And she saw men portrayed on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed with vermillion, girded with belts on their loins, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like officers, like the Babylonians in Chaldea, the land of their birth. And when she saw them she lusted after them. . . . And she uncovered her harlotries and uncovered her nakedness; then I became disgusted with her, as I had become disgusted with her sister. Yet she multiplied her harlotries, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the harlot in the land of Egypt. And she lusted after her paramours, whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys and whose issue is like the issue of horses. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom because of the breasts of your youth (23:11-21).

It is important to recall that the sins for which Jerusalem is being judged were not primarily sexual, but have to do with breach of the covenant. Both Ezekiel 18 and 23 are full of explicit and implicit references to the holiness code of Leviticus. But what is immediately in view is idolatry.

It is significant that the graphic sexual imagery used by Ezekiel is never used in Scripture to describe loving, marital sex. Rather, it is the language of prophetic denunciation. The effect of the language is to heighten the horror and shame of Israel’s idolatry. The language is graphic, but not pornographic; it is not intended to produce lust, but shame and repentance. Ezekiel’s point is: this is how your idolatry appears in the eyes of God; this is how ugly you are in your sinfulness.

By comparing the lyrical poetic language of the Song of Solomon with the violent and nauseating sexual imagery of Ezekiel 16 and 23, we can approach a biblical understanding of the appropriate medium for expressing human sexuality, and the beginnings of a definition of obscenity. Poetry, and with it poetic, lyrical, allusive music and visual imagery is the appropriate medium to express true and Godly sexual love. Graphic sexual imagery, if it is used at all, should be used to produce shame and horror; it should be used as a metaphor for covenant adultery.

From this perspective, obscenity might be defined as the non-metaphorical use of explicit and graphic sexual language. This definition leaves, of course, a great deal to interpretation. Where, after all, does "metaphor" end and "non-metaphor" begin? Despite the difficulties, this definition does provide some guidance, and seems preferable to definition in terms of intent.

Obscene sexual material is, on this definition, more or less completely self-referential. Its meaning is more or less completely exhausted in its description of sex acts. Obscene material would be judged obscene on the basis of analysis of the material itself, rather than upon its (always ambiguous) effects on the readers or viewers. Obscene material, on this definition, would tend to appeal to prurient interests, but this would not be its defining characteristic. This definition, in short, is somewhat less subjective than the prevailing definitions, but it at the same time is able to respond to the same concerns.

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