Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

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Briefly Noted: The New Narcotic

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on November 18, 2013.]

The Internet is the most formidable and invasive drug dealer in the United States. So says Morgan Bennett in a recent edition of Public Discourse, published by the Witherspoon Institute.[1] Although the United States has nearly 2 million cocaine users and an additional 2 million heroin users (with 600,000 to 800,000 of them considered “hardcore” addicts), it claims more than 40 million regular users of online pornography.

In the article, Bennett begins by noting the growing body of research which proves that internet pornography is a narcotic, having just as potent an effect as cocaine or heroin. He cites Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a former Fellow in Psychiatry at Yale, who writes,

With the advent of the computer, the delivery system for this addictive stimulus [internet pornography] has become nearly resistance-free. It is as though we have devised a form of heroin 100 times more powerful than before, usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes. It’s now available in unlimited supply via a self-replicating distribution network, glorified as art and protected by the Constitution.

The evaluations by Satinover and Bennett illustrate a moral concern that pastors and theologians have been noting for years.

The porn industry has experienced explosive growth over recent decades due to the rise of the internet and its pervasive availability. Bennett points to three major reasons that internet pornography is different, and deadlier, compared to earlier forms: (1) affordability, since there is a large volume of content available online for free; (2) accessibility; (3) anonymity. This has made access to a very powerful and addicting commodity incredibly easy and externally undetectable, but it can have severe consequences for individuals, families, and churches.

Bennett reviews several scientific sources about the effects of exposure to pornography. Bennett writes, “the same parts of the brain react to both illegal substances and sexual arousal. Dopamine, the chemical triggered by sexual arousal and orgasm is also the chemical that triggers addiction pathways in the brain.”

Continuing, Bennett provides a helpful explanation of the dangers of habitual exposure to pornography:

 Think of the brain as a forest where trails are worn down by hikers who walk along the same path over and over again, day after day. The exposure to pornographic images creates similar neural pathways that, over time, become more and more “well-paved” as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. Those neurological pathways eventually become the trail in the brain’s forest by which sexual interactions are routed. Thus, a pornography user has “unknowingly created a neurological circuit” that makes his or her default perspective toward sexual matters ruled by the norms and expectations of pornography.

God designed humans to live within the patterns he created. When humans sin by transgressing the laws of God––laws which are consistent with God’s very nature––the natural world is designed to provide negative reinforcement; sin breaks God’s intended shalom (a biblical word designating a state of universal flourishing, peace, and delight) and humans experience the resulting disorder and discomfort. A glutton, for example, will experience obesity and its deleterious health consequences. Or, alternatively, a compulsive overworker often will experience the loss of his family. To sin is to live “against the grain” of the universe.

Bennett notes that pornography has proven less satisfying than physical intimacy. It rewires the brain but at the same time does not evoke exactly the same chemical rewards as intimate sexual relations. Pornography-viewing, like sexual intimacy, does cause the release of dopamines (which are related with pleasure). However, unlike sexual intimacy, it does not release endorphins (which are related to a feeling of satisfaction).

Bennett notes, “This lack of satisfaction, combined with the brain’s competitive plasticity, causes the brain to require more and more novel and extreme images to get the same chemical result as before.”  In other words, “Tolerance in pornography’s case requires not necessarily greater quantities of pornography but more novel pornographic content.” There is a spiral effect of increasing desire and decreasing return which can lead to accelerated and increasingly harmful patterns of sexual sin.

Another major problem with pornography is its permanent consequences. Bennett writes, “While substances can be metabolized out of the body, pornographic images cannot be metabolized out of the brain because pornographic images are stored in the brain’s memory.” It may be possible to rewire the brain after habitual pornography use and the images may fade somewhat overtime, but there are permanent consequences to pornography that may negatively affect an individual’s relationships permanently.

The scientific evidence presented in Bennett’s article is consonant with biblical teaching on the consequences of sin in general and of sexual sin in particular. Following Cornelius Plantinga’s exposition of the biblical teaching, we note that sin is (a) a perversion: it takes a wonderful thing such as sex and twists it toward an entirely wrong end; (b) a pollution: it defiles a person’s marriage (present or future) by introducing alien intruders into their bed and onto their computer screen; (c) a disintegration: it divides a person’s heart between two masters, and divides their marriage; (d) a parasite: evil isn’t even its own entity. It is a blood-sucking parasite that lives off of the good things God created such as marriage; (e) a masquerade: it presents itself to a person as beautiful, but in reality it is ugly. Sin wears makeup that disguises its hideous nature. It must wear makeup, otherwise a person would never be attracted to its reality; (f) a folly: it is not only wrong but monumentally dumb; (g) an addiction: it is a spiral of death that will eventually siphon from a person’s life everything that is precious and good; and (h) a progression: it will not stop.

For a person caught in the deadly cycle of sexual sin, Scripture urges us to pray that they will come to their senses and allow Christ to break them free from their shackles and the many-faceted horror of their sin. It urges us to speak the truth about sexual sin, pointing out that porn addicts are wasting their lives by constantly driving around the same cul de sac of sexual stupidity, marital passivity, and spiritual rebellion.

For research and guidance on this very important issue, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention provides resources which are helpful in dealing with the personal, social, and political ramifications of porn proliferation and addiction.

[1] Morgan Bennett, “The New Narcotic,” Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse, 9 October 2013, <> (14 October 2013).

Briefly Noted: On Poverty Alleviation and Faith-Based Initiatives

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on December 30, 2013.]

In the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Keri Day tackles an important question about the efficacy and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in the United States.[1] Faith-Based Initiatives are, by definition, government sponsored programs that provide resources to religious organizations for the express purpose of combatting poverty and other social ills. Day’s analysis of these programs is very skeptical, since she sees them as being framed within a neoliberal economic perspective. Neoliberal economics emphasize free market principles while still expressing a significant concern for issues of social justice. Instead, Day approaches poverty and social justice from a womanist perspective, which is a version of contextual theology that she describes as being a progression beyond black liberation theology and feminist theology.[2]

For Day, neoliberalism is incorrect because it “argues that merit, thrift, and hard work can bring socioeconomic success, which means that if one is poor, one must be indolent. In other words, poor individuals are the problem, not the system.”[3] This definition illustrates the greatest weakness of Day’s argument, which is that she does not fairly engage opposing ideas. Day’s representation of free market economics, such as those espoused by neoliberals, is a strawman. Notably, within the limited bibliography of her article, Day fails to engage with other scholars critical to her view.

This caricature of neoliberalism is essential for Day’s argument, since a major plank in her platform is to challenge “neoliberal hegemony” by “reconstituting history from the underside of life so that we may hear, see, and appreciate the voices of the oppressed.”[4] Day argues that there has been a fundamental shift in American views on poverty from colonial days until the present. She asserts that free market principles have shifted concern for poverty from a familial and community concern to one of “contrived and racist characteristics of the poor . . . . [T]his new paradigm located the problem of poverty in the lack of labor discipline, violations of work ethics, and lack of family discipline.”[5] This is contrasted to the modern “welfare state” which views poverty as a national, political problem.

Day’s chief objection to Faith-Based Initiatives is that they seek to reform people in order to combat poverty. She asserts, “In fact, within the idea of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives, poor mothers tend to be generally represented as a kind of moral recovery project for the state as well as churches.”[6] Day is reacting negatively to the perception that there is a connection between the type of behavior that often leads to single motherhood due to children born out of wedlock and poverty. So viewing sin as a problem that must be dealt with in combatting poverty, which is an evidence of sin in the world, is anathema to Day.

Day’s proposed solution is changes in societal structures that involve increasing the minimum wage and creating more child care and health care programs.[7] This is because Day believes the government is responsible for caring for the daily physical needs of Americans.[8] Day’s views claim to affirm justice and a right view of the imago Dei, but they tend to undermine it because of an improper understanding of sin and the role of government.

In response to Day’s article, I limit myself to three comments. First, Day is certainly right to argue that individual sin cannot fully explain all societal poverty. She is correct to assert that concern for structural justice is central to Christian theology and ethics. On the other hand, Day’s rejection of the role of individual sin in perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and an over emphasis on the role of government in caring for the physical needs of people brings into question the basis for, if not the fact of, her rejection of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, the question of the effectiveness and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in American society needs further evaluation, but the solution will not be found through Day’s womanist theology.

Second, I recommend Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,[9] as a helpful counterpoint to Day’s perspective. Olasky outlines the evolution of the American approach to poverty alleviation, arguing that the sort of high level approach that Day advocates is largely ineffective and, at the same time, tends to denigrate the imago Dei. While Olasky’s work should be read critically, his presentation should be at least considered.

Third, I wish to point out that American evangelicals need to work together to build healthy biblically-based models for understanding the roles of the government, the individual and mediating structures in alleviating poverty. We should ask questions such as: what is God’s creational design for government? How should government relate to other beings (individuals) and institutions (family, church, business), especially when it comes to alleviating poverty? When does the government wrongly overextend its God-intended authority such that the state is overinflated or tramples on the jurisdiction of other institutions? When is the government neglecting its role by overinflating the role of the individual? What should be the role of the institutions which mediate between the individual and the government (e.g. non-profit organizations, churches, charities)? Many of the questions that arise will not be answered by any sort of biblical proof-text, but instead must be answered by going beyond explicit biblical statements in order to explore larger patterns within the biblical narrative. In other words, we need creative, biblically-based proposals for promoting human flourishing in a 21st century Western democratic republic.

[1] Keri Day is an assistant professor of theological and social ethics and director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School at TCU.

[2] Keri Day, “Saving Black America? A Womanist Analysis of Faith-Based Initiatives,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33.1 (2013), 65–66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (2nd ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008).