Television: Art vs the Obscene and the Catholic Answer, Part I

watching-tv

I have found that one of the things we Catholics do not like to think about is what we watch on television or read in novels. In fact, when I have discussed this with friends and shared my own struggles, I usually encounter a great deal of push back. We don’t like to be reminded that our choices in the Christian life expand even to our choices in entertainment. I want to consider these choices and the dangers of much of what is on television or in novels these days, and why Catholics must guard themselves in a culture that would lead us astray with glee. In this post I want to focus on gratuitous and graphic sex in television shows, especially on Premium channels on cable. In the second part of the series I will focus on the glorification of violence and how we can discern if what we are watching glorifies violence and leads us to engage in voyeurism.

A few years ago the show Scandal came out on ABC. I enjoy political intrigue and started to watch it. I really should have known better as the premise of the show rests in an adulterous affair with the President of the United States, but no, I was slow to acknowledge the sick feeling I felt after watching the show. It took me a season to realize why my conscience was telling me to stop watching it. It is graphically violent, focuses on adultery as romantic, and most of all, had absolutely no objective good in it. Not a single character possessed the good. There was no hero or heroine. Every single character was objectively evil on some level. It’s quite shocking really, since much of Western culture is still driven by the idea of good overcoming evil. That being said, no one should watch a show with no redeeming value and that glorifies sin. Adultery is objectively evil and destroys the people involved. I should not watch a show that glorifies and tries to paint over this reality. I finally decided to stop watching it and I didn’t miss it.

Why does the good matter, even on television? It matters because we are a people of redemption. We understand the pit that sin leads to and the ever present destruction of mankind, but we know that evil has been overcome by Jesus Christ. Evil does not win and evil is never good, no matter what our culture tries to tell us. Many television shows draw people in and they don’t realize they are watching a show that only depicts evil and no good. Evil can easily be wrapped up in a glamorous package. Why shouldn’t I watch adultery, “gay marriage”, the protection of evil and morally reprehensible behavior? I don’t do those things. Well, the problem is that these shows can dull our sense of what is morally correct. This has been apparent with the Catholic dissent on the nature of authentic marriage. We see enough “gay marriages” on television and somehow that becomes acceptable. Divorce is a foregone conclusion in our culture. Hollywood is our Magisterium, rather than Rome. We start to second guess ourselves and our faith. We begin to embrace the all consuming nihilism of our age that tells us this is it. All that awaits us is oblivion, nothingness. Make the most of it, even if it means using people and then discarding them as garbage when we are done. This philosophy is diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospel. What we ingest has a direct impact on our soul. Through our viewing we tell Hollywood that the garbage they are producing is acceptable. We help with the ratings.

Yesterday, I watched a thread on Facebook related to Game of Thrones that caused me some concern. The amount of justification for watching a show with graphic sex and violence is a problem in the Catholic world. I noticed this when thousands of practicing Catholics claimed that 50 Shades of Grey was acceptable reading, when in fact it is pornography, violent pornography. First, graphic sex scenes are not “art” no matter how we much we want to justify our choices. Pornography is not art, it is the obscene. Art is to bring human beings to the good and the true. The same goes for over-the-top sex scenes that are essentially pornographic. We just tell ourselves that it is not pornography because it is on HBO and Starz not a porn channel or Cinemax. That’s just us engaging in mental gymnastics so that we can hold onto a particular vice.

I will give you an example from my own life that is quite recent. Someone had told me that I should check out the show Outlander on Starz because I like British dramas. Mind you I have not read the novels. I watched the first episode which has multiple graphic marital sex scenes in it. Marital sex is a beautiful and holy thing, but we don’t need to watch graphic scenes that incite us to lust in order to understand this point. The show gets worse from there, not to mention that regardless of time period adultery is adultery. I should have shut it off. My conscience told me to shut it off. The struggle with lust told me to turn it off, but I didn’t. Instead I had to hang my head in shame and drag myself back to the Confessional. In full disclosure, this is not a sin that I have struggled with a lot. I have shared the two most recent experiences and they are spread out by years, but I am married and I have a lot of male friends. I know that this is a serious struggle for some people, which is why I am writing. When I did get to Confession, my Confessor said that in actuality there is not much good on television and that he sticks to soccer in order to avoid the lust that our society invites us to in a great deal of shows. He’s Scottish, so the soccer reference is understandable. My Confessor did not encourage me to watch these shows, in fact, he did the opposite. He told me to steer clear of them.

I am not suggesting Puritanism. There is a great deal of art in which the body is shown in its full beautiful nude display throughout human history, but there is a difference between showing the beauty and sacredness of human beings and graphic sex scenes that move us to lust. Sex is holy. Sex is fun and meant to be enjoyed. It is not meant to be profaned. Even sexual sin can be demonstrated without a move into the pornographic.

One of my favorite novels, and its movie adaptions, is Evelyn Waugh’s, Brideshead Revisted. No one could accuse Waugh of Purtianism. The novel is rife with hedonism to include adultery, lust, homosexual acts, and alcoholism. The difference is that Waugh is not pointing to those things as good. He is showing how in our brokenness and darkness, God is always working for our salvation. In both movie adaptions, the one with Jeremy Irons and the shorter one with Matthew Goode, this hedonism is on display in all of its forms, but without appealing to the graphic. One scene in the Matthew Goode version shows that adultery can even be committed with most of the characters’ clothes on.

Many people trying to defend their Catholicism and their graphic television choices try to appeal to art or history. I even saw someone try to claim Scripture’s sexual sins and graphic violence as justification. This is merely a cognitive dissonance for something that we know to be wrong. Scripture demonstrates the depravity of mankind in light of God’s salvation. There’s a major difference between Scripture and Game of Thrones where sexuality is used for illicit reasons and that is all. Television shows can be true to the deprivation of humanity without resorting to lust filled sex scenes. But, in reality, these shows are glorifying hedonism, not pointing to the brokenness of sexual sin. Let’s at least be honest. These shows are not interested in redemption. So that argument is false and being used to justify sin. If you don’t believe me, then take it to your parish priest. Tell them exactly what you have been watching, including graphic sex scenes and gruesome violence. See what they say. It’s probably not going to be what you want to hear, but it will be what you need to hear.

Catholic art has always given an authentic portrayal of the human person, but in light of Revelation. We have a real opportunity here to move Hollywood to provide actual art. We need to stop supporting trash and force them to provide us with the beautiful and the ugly in a proper light. If you are a Catholic who has struggled with watching shows like this, then go to Confession. Trust me, the priests have heard it all. I had to go Confess this very sin of lust recently. I allowed myself to get sucked into the lie and I lied to myself in the process. I am married. I know that sex is beautiful, so why on earth am I ok with counterfeits on television? Why am I ok with watching our culture destroy one of the great gifts that God has given us? I would encourage you to seriously consider what you are watching or reading. Ask yourself, is this strengthening my soul? Does this help me grow closer to Christ? Will this help me become a saint? Does this serve the mission? Chances are, the answer will be no.  When that happens, pray for the grace to abandon those shows and books. It might be hard for a week or two, but eventually, you will forget all about them. The reality is that the closer we draw to Christ the less we want to have anything to do with counterfeits. God bless.

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