A Cultural Moment, The Failure of Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy”

From the NY Times story:

In a wood-paneled dining room, with Picasso and de Kooning prints on the walls, Mr. Jones nervously presented a radical suggestion: the magazine, a leader of the revolution that helped take sex in America from furtive to ubiquitous, should stop publishing images of naked women.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

Then a few key quotes from The Federalist. This article in particular is worth reading.

Mollie: I find it fascinating that Flanders says “the battle has been won.” On the one hand, he shows a certain self-awareness about the nature and outcome of the war that was being waged by Playboy against sexual morality. On the other, can you imagine a more Pyrrhic victory? Hugh Hefner—and by the way, that New York Times story was mostly noteworthy for letting me know that Hugh Hefner is still alive, God bless him—dreamed of a world where gentlemen enjoy all these luxuries—cigars, fine spirits, voluptuous and willing women who exist to cater to their whims. But his own magazine so cheapened sex that any profits the Playboy corporation makes are derivative from the time when sex still had some kind of value.

Yet Hefner’s vision of sexual libertinism also created a campus culture that took us from furtive exploits in the 1950s to “Animal House”-style romps in the 1970s and 1980s to, now, some weird dystopic sexual lockdown where you can’t even attempt a kiss without getting expelled from campus on rape charges.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of Playboy, the opposite reaction is abjuring nudity and returning to the days of imagination and mild restraint. We may think that the libertine has no bounds, but when the libertine is boundless, embracing bounds is subversive. Whether or not it will work for Playboy remains to be seen, but this is a positive step.  A counterculture built on restrained imagination is one better poised to deliver productive results than one built on the sands of unrestrained libertinism. And if a libertine pioneer is riding on the shoulders of a newlywed, then we may have reached a welcome tipping point.

By the end of his life—for at least the last few decades, really—Hefner’s lady friends were bought off with drugs, nice digs, and a chance at fame, later telling stories about how much they detested what they had to do in exchange for those things. They weren’t in a position to discuss Picasso, Nietzsche, or jazz any more than Hefner could.

He may have thought that his vision of sexual libertinism would please himself but only the most adolescent of men would believe that he achieved that. It’s a great morality tale about what happens when you throw off received knowledge about something as important and foundational as sex. Sex is much more complicated than Hefner’s commercial product suggested and pretending otherwise was a good way to end up extremely lonely, if not diseased.

On some level, the image of manhood and sexuality that Hefner was selling was always contradictory. You don’t get to be a cultured and refined modern man without exercising judgment and self restraint, but the sexual revolution that Hefner helped kickstart encouraged men and women to abandon the very inhibitions that helped make sex so alluring in the first place.

Hefner suggested that the complete male was a man who appreciated the finer things in life. In this view, women were just one of the many consumer goods that a gentlemen would appreciate. But such a view is profoundly demeaning to women and, it turns out, even worse for men. Hefner threw away the intimacy and drama of monogamy for what was supposed to be the excitement and fulfillment of easy sex.

The lack of any naked ladies in the pages of Playboy is a perfect description of where sexual libertinism actually leads.

(Update: See this relevant article at First Things too)

For some context on Hefner’s “battle,” watch his justification to William F. Buckley on The Firing Line.

Quotable: Walker Percy

“What does a man do when he finds himself living after an age has ended and he can no longer understand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known, for even the name of the new age is not known, and so everything is upside down, people feeling bad when they should feel good, good when they should feel bad?

“What a man does is start afresh as if he were newly come into a new world, which in fact it is; start with what he knows for sure, look at the birds and beasts, and like a visitor from Mars newly landed on earth notice what is different about man.”

Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor”

Overcoming Seduction Hysteria

The video below is Yann Dall’Aglio, “Love–You’re Doing it Wrong.” It’s really worth a watch. It touches on the problem that is created as modern man has lost his sense of significance from being situated within traditional roles. A man or woman could feel valued, loved, and belonging as a son, or a wife, or a citizen. But in our day, when traditional roles have been cast aside, we are all part of a continual race to be valued or loved, what he calls “Seduction Hysteria.” We acquire “seduction capital” like clothing, possessions, or internet presence to garner admiration. He says,

“We all pretend to have an idol; we pretend to be an idol for someone else, but actually we are all imposters, a bit like a man on the street who appears totally cool and indifferent, while he has actually anticipated and calculated that all eyes are on him. I think that becoming aware of this general imposture would ease our love relationships. It is because I want to be loved from head to toe, justified in my every choice, that the seduction hysteria exists. Therefore I want to appear perfect so that someone will love me.

What I find particularly fascinating is the 30 seconds that he devotes to his solution, self-mockery. He says, “For a couple who is no longer sustained, supported by the constraints of tradition, I believe that self-mockery is one of the best means for the relationship to endure.”

(As the kids might say) WHAT. A. LETDOWN.

Hasn’t it occurred to him that self-mockery is itself just another means of acquiring love through humor. Self-mockery is seduction capital. (Perhaps this is obvious only to a religious person, having seen countless examples of humility being used as seduction capital?)

It seems to me that a better answer, a better escape from this seduction hysteria is gospel oriented covenantal relationships in which people’s identities are formed around the notion of being “beloved of God” and find their purpose in his mission.

Moral Choosing Finely Aware, Reflections on Wendell Berry

“Caleb didn’t need a graduate degree to be a farmer and Nathan didn’t say anything. He went on eating. He had his work to do and he needed to get back to it. Tears filled his eyes and overflowed and ran down. I don’t think he noticed he was crying. That was as near to licked as I ever saw him. Even his death didn’t come as near to beating him as that did.”
Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter has no argument, but it does have a vision. Like all narratives it takes the reader up into its account of purposiveness and the rise and fall of the characters judged by this account. Caleb has missed the good life, narrates Berry, because he has missed “home” and the work, place, and people that “home” offers. He has chosen graduate school, professional life, and abandoned the farm and his family. Don’t call it abandonment perhaps; that’s too strict and legal. But abandonment is exactly what Caleb feels it to be.

I can’t help wondering what the point of this all is for Berry? The cynic will say Berry’s voice is a gentle headwind against a rushing train accelerated by technology and progress. Berry’s book hardly impacts Snapchat’s valuation. But Berry does not seemed to be troubled by this rebuttal—or at least he fails to address it. Hannah Coulter reads like a lament for something lost that deserves to be lamented.

There is a faulty assumption about moral decisions that makes me and the cynic wonder what the point is. This assumption is that what is most significant in the moral decision is the result, the decision. In sports one might hear “a win is a win” or “a loss is a loss.” The choice, the choice, the choice. Caleb has chosen graduate school. And yet, Berry seems to think otherwise. Berry seems very aware that farming is changing, that the old life of place and community mutually depending on each other is vanishing, and indeed, has vanished.

But Berry aims at the agent, not merely the choice. If the difficult decision for graduate school must be made, he wants the reader to notice what Nathan does not, the tears. He wants the reader to know that they flowed and they ran down. He wants the reader to know that these tears express a grief dearer than life to Caleb’s father. Knowing these things makes the agent more finely aware (Martha Nussbaum’s phrase) of the moral field which frames the choice. Knowing this grief is knowing the meaning of this choice.

And to know this grief may make all the difference. Sure, the train of progress is moving indefatigably forward. Sure, our choices may be limited, or difficult, or involve evil on both sides. But maybe, just maybe, the knowledge of what is already gone, of tears that signal its departure, may awaken us to a choice that regains place and community. Maybe the wheel of fortune can be turned, if not stopped, toward flourishing.

Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types

The contemporary/traditional divide among evangelical churches is not new; yet, it is disconcerting to note that little progress has been made in the advancement of real dialogue about the nature of church practices among evangelicals. A central issue is, as Rosaria Butterfield has quipped, the Bible is used to end the conversation, not to enrich it. Setting aside the nature of biblical authority for the moment, this practice–of ending conversations by appealing to Scripture–may manifest both a lack of seriousness regarding church practices and a lack of intellectual integrity. My fear is that neither side of this divide is seriously listening, but is rather repeating clichéd rhetoric aimed at fortifying their positions. The aim of this post is simply to serve the conversation by noting the merits and shortcomings of the arguments.

Typology

Granted, not every church fits neatly into one or the other side of this debate. Some are very balanced in general orientation toward text or context. However, some general observations can be made of the types of churches in the American context that I am referring to as “contemporary” or “traditional.”

Contemporary Traditional
Generally moves from cultural context to textGeneral sensitivity to popular context, that is, the people among whom the church exists, especially to cultural distinctives Generally moves from text to cultural contextGeneral sensitivity to theological context, that is, the ideas among which the church exists, and their threats to the church or the gospel
Strong practical principles Strong theological principles
Preaching that methodologically begins with application (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered topically from a sensitivity to context) Preaching that methodologically begins with scripture (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered with a scripture reference)
Highly polished programatic or aesthetic elements (setting, traffic flow, conveniences, sound, signage, food, etc.–if this were a restaurant, one would want to come back) Purposeful lack of concern for aesthetic elements
Elements of pop musical concert in public singing (typical “band” instruments, lighting, stage set up, video feed, etc.) More traditional musical elements in public singing (can range quite a bit, but even with typical “band” instruments, other elements are intentionally passed over)
Strong presence of a screen or screens Intentional minimization of screens (e.g. only used for the words to songs)
Strong focus on “the leader” Luddite aesthetic for the purpose of drawing awareness to the gathered
Strong organizational health–special focus on leadership training and awareness of gifting Lack in good practical reasoning about a variety of issues from organizational health, community integration, leadership development, to building management
Loose or no denominational tie Strong denominational tie, or at least strong creedal or historical ties
Tend to see the “worship service” as a human event Tend to see the “worship service” as a divine event

A Sampling of Arguments

Contemporary

The single biggest argument against the traditional model is that it lacks evangelistic concern, that it makes very little difference in contemporary society. This argument is extremely difficult for a traditional church to deal with because it largely hits its mark. The five largest evangelical churches (not considering Lakewood Church, Houston, TX) are all “contemporary” (1. North Point, Alpharetta, GA, 2. Willow Creek, South Barrington, IL, 3.NewSpring, Anderson, SC, 4. Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL, 5. Saddleback, Lake Forest, CA). The most common response to this criticism is a deflecting mechanism of the following sort: “we’re unwilling to compromise our [theological] principles to attract people.” Vague condemnations of this sort merely distract from the fact that traditional churches have been ineffective by any measure (not just comparatively) in spreading the gospel in the American context.

An argument that is less common, is that contemporary churches share the theological commitments of traditional ones, but merely do things better practically. In other words, they are in other respects the same as traditional churches, but practically superior (hence, more conversions and attendance). Traditionalists can respond to this by arguing that so called “practical superiority” always involves “theological inferiority” (and in serious ways). Another way of putting this is that attention is zero-sum in the sense that to attend to practical concerns is to leave necessary theological considerations unconsidered.

Traditional

The single most common traditionalist charge against contemporary churches is that that they are willing to sacrifice theological faithfulness for numerical success. But this sort of charge tends to be pretty severely uncharitable, especially insofar as it gives the impression that there is intent to sacrifice theological faithfulness for success–a devil’s bargain (never mind if the traditionalists are right about what they charge). This charge seems to be the most serious area where the conversation is a non-starter, just where it would be most helpful to continue dialogue. The fault is on both sides. It would be helpful for the sake of discussion to assume that everyone is trying to be faithful to God’s commission and charge to the church, and talk about the particular risks of particular approaches. For instance, might it not be helpful to discuss constructively with both sides the hidden implications of preaching without the actual presence of the pastor.

Another common charge against the contemporary type is that these churches do not recognize that the “worship service” is not a mere human event, but also a divine event, that God meets us in worship and is also an actor. The difficulty with this charge is twofold. First, it has been difficult to find consensus about the definition and significance of the church’s gathering for “worship.” The liturgical tradition has a very well formed idea of this, but many evangelicals remain unconvinced (or are unaware of that tradition). This is an area where the discussion needs to be continued rather than cut off. Second, the implications of worship being “a divine event” are not clear. For traditionalists, the argument is generally left unstated between the premises “worship is a divine event” and “worship should be like ours is.” Granted, the regulative principle complicates this discussion. But among traditional churches that do not hold the the RP, the implications of God meeting the church in worship often are largely unspecified. For example, in a recent podcast titled “Bully Pulpit: Gobbledygook” Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt discuss some quotes on preaching from Mark Driscoll and Andy Stanley. Todd Pruitt makes the point that to suggest that the preacher eliminate theological language from a sermon is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture because God promises to produce faith in the hearts of the hearers (God event), therefore, “my methodology becomes less important than God’s program of the word being preached and made plain.” (Todd Pruitt, Mortification of Spin podcast, September 24, 2013). Again, it is not clear what God’s activity might mean for the preacher’s activity, but in this case it is supposed to mean he should use “theological language.”

Another common charge is that the church is not for unbelievers. I’ve never heard a response for this charge from the contemporary folks. I suppose it is worth noting that there is New Testament precedence for acknowledging that unbelievers may be present. Paul seems sensitive to outsiders in 1 Corinthians 14:23 where he says, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” And yet, the traditionalist complaint seems to be deeper in the sense that they assert that the purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, while they charge contemporary churches with being primarily unbeliever oriented. I think at least theoretically the complaint misses its mark because both would say the primary purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, but the disagreement normally lies in what level of accessibility to unbelievers is appropriate and the degree to which this accessibility sacrifices the promotion of maturity in believers.

Some Concerns that are Not Commonly Raised

A related, but relatively undeveloped concern to the last one mentioned is the fact that accessibility is not merely a function of theological language. Some traditional churches (surely not all) are inaccessible intellectually as well as well as theologically. This raises the question, to what extent is the church responsible for the intellectual care of church members? Perhaps there will be a temptation to say, none. But this misses a crucial connection between intellectual virtue and general Christian virtue. This connection can be illustrated with two examples. First, Christian revelation is word revelation. It requires interpretation. Interpretation is only possible with intellectual virtue, otherwise heresy is common. Second, the moral field of the church is constantly changing, leaving new moral issues to be ironed out almost constantly. For this reason, intellectual virtue is necessary for acting wisely in the world. Boiling all Christian teaching down to “a third grade level” has obvious doctrinal and moral consequences.

Second, within the American milieu particularly, capitalism and consumerism are major factors. Traditional churches, since they move from text to cultural context, tend not to place a high priority on the cluster of activities involved with advertising the church. Furthermore, intentional disregard for aesthetic elements also reflects this philosophical commitment. Traditional churches will argue that evangelism is not advertising, and advertising should not be viewed as the paradigmatic approach toward evangelism. This is an area where the contemporary church needs to be especially wary, since to “advertise” reinforces consumerist assumptions that run contrary to the Christian faith in a significant way. God is not the ultimate product, the solution to all our needs. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe against whom we have sinned. To present God in the former way runs the risk of talking about a different God entirely, a sort of fawning obsequious figurehead who just wants everyone on his side.

Third, again, since traditional churches tend to move from text to context, they have the tendency not to utilize technology. The war over technology is heated, some arguing that every technology carries with it unintended consequences, others arguing that there is no point in pretending that technology can be avoided. Probably both positions are true. Technology certainly brings with it unintended consequences, and therefore, leaders must ask what these are and how to mitigate them. But certainly cars and cell phones are here to say. Some may argue that this is not a moral argument for cars or cell phones, and this is true, but the church must deal effectively with the real ever changing moral field, of which technology is a part.

Conclusion

In the end, it may seem that the divide relies on a basic tendency to adopt theological or practical ways of both interpreting situations and addressing them. And yet, the church is both a human and a divine construct. God works through human means. So perhaps the two most important questions are: 1) Does (and to what extent) the fact that God acts in the church affect my methodological commitments? 2) What is the theological freight of my particular practical decision?

Quotable: James K.A. Smith, the social imaginary of the iPhone

“The iPhone brings with it an invitation to inhabit the world differently–not just because it gives me access to global internet resources in a pocket-sized device, but precisely in how it invites me to interact with the device itself. The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are leaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat (sic) the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal–to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.”

James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 143.