The Awful Pleasures of Spiritual Pornography

A scholar of religion — attacked by conservative Christian authors — tries to understand their pique.

The Awful Pleasures of Spiritual Pornography

Out of the Ashes by Anthony Esolen. Regnery Publishing. 256 pages.The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. Sentinel. 272 pages.

NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO, the Stanford religion scholar Lee Yearley stood on the cliffs of Mount T’oham in Korea, gazing at a large granite statue of the Sokkuram Buddha. At first Yearley, a Christian, was overwhelmed by a sense of peace. But that feeling soon gave way to what he calls spiritual regret — the recognition that some forms of human flourishing are profoundly valuable but can never be ours.

“The spiritual vision presented there,” he recounts, “was as powerful and as tempting as I have ever seen. […] I wanted the religious goods expressed in the Sokkurum [sic] Buddha to exist, and even to be incarnated by many people, and yet did not want the people I cared about most to possess them.”

Yearley taught his students — myself included — that cultivating the virtue of spiritual regret is essential in a time of religious pluralism. It forces us to confront the humbling implications of that pluralism, while protecting against idolatrous blindness to religious goods that we cannot possess ourselves. And so it is that I, a nonbeliever, can count Christian thinkers among my wisest guides: Augustine, Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and G. K. Chesterton. Like Yearley, I recognize the power and depth of their faith and their vision. I want it to exist in the world, yet I don’t want it for me or my family.

I tried to remember that when I found myself featured in a critical blog post — “The Nazism of Narnia” — written by Rod Dreher, an influential and well-respected conservative Christian author. The post was about a polemical article of mine in which I argued that not all ideas deserve “tolerance,” giving as examples creationism, vaccine denial, and ethnic nationalism. In certain contexts — in a supermarket, say, or on a bus — one may be justified in shouting down an idea, and even resisting it by breaking the law (civil disobedience). I also argued, not for the first time, that universities are spaces where ideas should never be shouted down. “An overlooked evil of censorship,” I said, “is that it denies weak arguments the opportunity to publicly humiliate themselves in a fair fight.” I cited the revered Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’s position that women should be subordinate in the household as a prime example of a weak argument.

Dreher got incensed. “Let the record show,” he wrote, “that a Stanford-and-Chicago-trained philosophy and religion professor believes that we should not allow the arguments of C. S. Lewis — C. S. Lewis! — to be heard, because people might come to believe them.”

There I was, a jack-booted thug bent on the destruction of Christendom. “As they consolidate their power,” warned Dreher, “secular fundamentalists like Levinovitz will continue to try to shout down, forbid, condemn, and suppress orthodox Christians and any other religious believers who contest the established religion.”

Being compared to Nazis is a wonderful goad to research, and I immediately read Dreher’s recent best seller The Benedict Option and a similar book by Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes. Both see secularism as an existential threat that has already begun to decimate the West. While Esolen thinks there’s a chance of “rebuilding American culture,” Dreher is less optimistic, instead recommending the formation of tightly knit communities where, as Benedictine monks once did, true spiritual seekers may keep the candle of Christian culture burning through the new Dark Ages, interacting with mainstream culture but protected from it by the strength of their faith.

I struggled to feel spiritual regret, and on occasion succeeded. Dreher’s descriptions of monastic practices are moving, and I am happy there are people like him who believe “everything is a gift from God and is meant to be treated as sacred.” Esolen writes eloquently of the beautiful and — to me — alien promise of Christian faith: “Everything that we have loved in the flesh will be restored to us, cleansed, perfect, never to be lost.” I was grateful for these echoes of a Christian wisdom that has always challenged my own agnostic convictions: a wisdom that I regret not being able to experience fully.

But as I kept reading the regret never lasted, because the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it. They are a kind of spiritual pornography that works against spiritual regret, designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare: a Manichean vision of a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else.

The basic engine of what I read — and its intended effect on readers — is little different from that of 19th-century anti-Catholic literature, the Left Behind series, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, and Jack Chick’s wild-eyed cartoon tracts. Spiritual pornography, in all of its incarnations, stars easy heroes and villains. The heroes are idealizations of the target audience, which encourages narcissism, and the villains are caricatures of The Other, which encourages bigotry. And although a little spiritual pornography probably does no lasting harm, frequent, concentrated doses can seriously damage individual souls, and, worse, society at large.

One obvious type of damage is the substitution of hyperbolic exaggeration for reality. Here, for instance, is Dreher on “transgenderism” among typical high school students:

Anecdotally confirming what seems to be a trend, a woman in suburban Baltimore said to me, “All those people who say you are alarmist about the Benedict Option must not be raising children.” She went on to say that at her daughter’s high school, a shocking number of teenagers were going to their parents telling them that they think they are transgender and asking to be put on hormones.

What do the parents do?

“You’d be surprised how many of them do it,” the woman said. “They are so afraid of losing their kids. And this is how our culture tells them to react. Parents like this become the fiercest advocates for transgenderism.”

Three months after our conversation, that woman’s daughter came home from high school with the news that she is really a boy, and demanding that her family treat her as such.

On sex education, Esolen is even more incredible, going into a lurid (and unsourced) description, complete with a hypothetical audience from The Time When Things Were Better:

Try to imagine explaining to the old farmers […] the need to teach small children how to insert, safely of course, antiseptically of course, their fingers or tongues or other protuberances into the orifice of another kid of ambiguous sex, including the anus.

Elsewhere, on child-rearing these days:

We raise daughters who emulate well-paid whores, but who do not actually make the money that the whores make, and yet we persist in believing that only in our time has a girl had half a chance to live a decent life.

As a trope in spiritual pornography, these passages make perfect sense. They’re a contemporary take on a timeless fantasy of collapse into moral chaos, usually captured by voyeuristic accounts of disordered sexuality and the corruption of innocent women and children. The characters change, but the plot remains the same. “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan,” observed Richard Hofstadter in his classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” using as his exemplar a hugely popular 19th-century fabrication by one Maria Monk, who accused priests of systematically raping nuns, then baptizing and murdering whatever children resulted.

The 21st-century equivalent is not anti-Catholic but anti-secular, a category capacious enough for atheists, reform Jews, New Age mystics, nihilist Nietzscheans, even liberal Christians — the last of these described by Dreher, derisively, as “moralistic therapeutic deists,” and Esolen, appallingly, as Persecutors and Quislings — anti-anyone, really, whose religiosity is deemed less austere than that of the pornographer.

Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.

It also helps to imagine a golden past, while conveniently ignoring developments such as the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. Dreher includes a section entitled “Democracy, Romanticism, Capitalism: The Calamitous Nineteenth Century,” which finds room for not even one sentence acknowledging slavery. Esolen’s approach to waving away the United States’s great moral stain is to repurpose the word into a philosophical condition — which is your own hedonistic fault, by the way. “Every single pagan philosopher of the ancient world said that if you wanted to be free, you had to learn the hard ways of virtue and that the worst form of slavery was slavery to your own appetites,” he writes. “That is what the founders of the United States also believed. That is what Christian preachers used to preach. That is what we have repudiated or forgotten…”

These distortions are necessary not only to fulfill narrative requirements, but also because the hero of spiritual pornography, like the hero of most fairy tales, is an underdog. The satisfaction of moral superiority is sadomasochistic, requiring a villain holding a whip. “We are a powerless, despised minority,” complains Dreher, repeatedly, flagellating his audience with shared victimhood at the hands of liberal elites — in a book that was twice reviewed in The New York Times and earned him a New Yorker profile.

The result makes for fake history but effective rhetoric, which the cultural critic Sacvan Bercovitch traced to back to the 17th century: “From the start the Puritan Jeremiahs had drawn their inspiration from insecurity; by the 1670s crisis had become their source of strength. They fastened upon it, gloried in it, even invented it if necessary.” Dreher and Esolen are not keen observers of modernity — they are the latest in a longstanding tradition of bemoaning moral collapse and monopolizing suffering.

Their solutions are equally traditional. As always, to move from Disorder back to Order we must call out the rule-breakers and role-violators. In The Benedict Option, these include congregations that refuse to excommunicate divorcees and gay Christians that refuse their calling to a life of chastity. In Out of the Ashes, Esolen points his finger at those who want women in Congress:

It is far less likely now — nearly impossible — that two congressmen will engage in an all-out intellectual debate that results in real respect for one another and compromise or, better, a tertium quid that rises beyond the partial visions of either. Creative enmity is gone because, in the presence of woman, men become more intransigent, not less.

That people who should know better take these books seriously testifies to the power of formal differences to disguise intellectual kinship. The same phenomenon happens in the world of snake-oil salesmen and nutrition gurus. Some of these charlatans are crude. They have no credentials and spin yarns about government conspiracies to keep us from natural cancer cures. They appear in infomercials for pamphlets called “What They Don’t Want You To Know!” But other quacks are prominent doctors and credentialed scientists. Their books are well written, filled with official-looking jargon and citations. Yet their central premise — the promise, the lie — is identical: Elites have deceived us. Modernity is devastating our health — but if you follow our simple rules, there’s a clear route to salvation. Just reject the polluted culture around you and feed yourself on purity.

In truth, the difference between Out of the Ashes, The Benedict Option, and Jack Chick’s cartoon depictions of homosexuals doing Satan’s work is like the difference between erotica and pornography: superficially significant, but essentially negligible. As George Steiner puts it, “in literary erotica as well as in the great mass of ‘dirty books’ the same stimuli, the same contortions and fantasies, occur over and over with unutterable monotony.” Here, too, are the liberals, the sodomites, the secularists, and their opponents, the Pious Christians who remember what once was and still could be. Here, too, are the pure and the impure. It’s true that the circles of who’s in and who’s out get drawn somewhat differently. One version is generously seasoned with borrowed insights from an otherwise despised academy, the other is not. Nevertheless, spiritual erotica, despite its literary pretensions, is no more illuminating than what Steiner calls the “dream-trash of straight, mass-produced pornography.”

It is also no less dangerous. The distinctive rhetoric of purity and impurity that characterizes spiritual pornography (and erotica) appears most strikingly in the authors’ use of disease and poison metaphors, which will be immediately familiar to students of propaganda.

Dreher: “Everything may look fine on the surface, but deep down a cancer could be silently metastasizing.”

Esolen: “[C]ancer feeding off the host.”

Dreher: “[T]he toxins of modern secularism.”

Esolen: “All Westerners are infected with the malady.”

Dreher: “[T]he poison of secular culture.”

Esolen: “Do not sprinkle your thoughts with poison.”

This brand of rhetoric is designed to overwhelm rationality. It turns those who are “not like us” into contagious monsters, providing, in moments of doubt or existential angst, an ugly rush of meaning at the expense of others. I know because, like everyone, I partake in spiritual pornography. After all, the genre isn’t limited to Christianity. There are anti-religious screeds that would have you believe the entire history of religion is conquest, hatred, and opposition to science. There are movies like Carrie and Jesus Camp, in which believers feature exclusively as repressed dolts or violent fanatics. There’s late-night comedy, where Samantha Bee and John Oliver ruthlessly skewer religious conservatives, reducing them to props that live only to oppress. And how do I respond to all this, my own hollow fantasy of moral warfare? The same way anyone does when they’re on the side of the angels: Yes! Yes!

This is the deepest danger of other people’s spiritual pornography — it makes its mirror image more believable. At one point, Dreher argues that porn “trains its users to see others as depersonalized objects for sexual pleasure,” and I believe the same is true of spiritual pornography, though the pleasure is mental, not carnal, and therefore the training is far more hazardous. Reading The Benedict Option and Out of the Ashes, I started to forget about my debt to good Christian thinkers. To countless authors, professors, mentors, and friends — how could they be wise if the core of Christian faith is a petulant jeremiad? If they believe what Dreher and Esolen believe, aren’t they on the side of the demons?

The great G. K. Chesterton has a terrific response to this perverse question. Of course the holy pornographers don’t represent Christianity. They are madmen who confuse apocalyptic exaggerations with reality and mirrors with holy books. Chesterton has sage advice for dealing with such people. Offer an alternative that inspires Yearley’s virtue of spiritual regret, containing far more of a gospel vision than Esolen and Dreher would be willing — or able — to admit.

“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference!” he writes. “You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”


Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of religious studies at James Madison University, and most recently the author of The Limits of Religious Tolerance (Amherst College Press, 2016).

LARB Contributor

Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University, where he teaches on classical Chinese thought and the intersection of religion and science. His latest book is Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.


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