Second-hand steam

Why do we tolerate simulation when the real thing's not allowed?

Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

It would have to be among the most startling of invitations you've ever received. You've lived next door to your neighbors for half a dozen years, and you thought you knew them fairly well. They are fine, upstanding folks in the community, active in school activities and little league. They're members of a different church from yours, but you know they're faithful there and that they take their Christian faith seriously. You've had some fun times with them, but also some serious backyard discussions about politics, kids' behavior, and music styles.

So you're not quite prepared for his invitation tonight. He drops by just before you sit down to dinner with your own family, pulls you aside, and calmly suggests: "Later tonight, my wife and I will be heading for bed-and my guess is we'll be-ah-well, you know, probably doing some of the things married people do. I thought maybe you and your wife would like to come by and watch."

You are aghast. The idea is so grotesque you can't imagine how to mention it to your wife-although when you do, it will certainly not be in the "shall we?" but more in the "how could he?" category of discussion. The images in your mind are repulsive.

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Your neighbor is sensitive, and sees your uncomfortable surprise. "I'm not suggesting any hanky panky," he assures you. "Our marriage is terrific. I know yours is too. I'm just talking about watching." Then, sensing that your reluctance is real, he suggests an alternative: "Maybe this would be better. I have the phone number of a couple who would come over-a couple neither of us knows personally. That way, all four of us could just sit and watch them."

You know he meant it as a solution. Some solution.

If all this seems like a bad dream, with little or no place in WORLD, try this: Every evening this week, hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christian people will sit down and settle for "the solution." Not in person, of course, but on video. Not X-rated videos, but on regular evening television and in the standard fare at your neighborhood movie theater.

Author Doug Wilson first suggested this outlandish hypocrisy in his excellent book Reforming Marriage. He points out that too many people in the evangelical community have come to justify watching on the screen various activities we wouldn't think of viewing in the flesh. Things that would embarrass us all if they were real embarrass us not at all because they are only simulated. The outlandish invitation described in my first paragraph is regularly extended, and regularly accepted, with just a few video adjustments.

The rationalization no longer works.

The phony distinction first hit me with force a couple of years ago when the movie Braveheart took all kinds of awards and became a favorite of thousands of Christians. WORLD itself gave Braveheart a good review-noting especially its commitment to a story of principled courage in the face of anti-Christian mayhem. And the most memorable love scenes in Braveheart are supposedly set in the context of marriage. So bare flesh-as long as it's within marriage-gets our stamp of approval.

Yet to produce that love scene, two people who weren't married to each other pressed their undressed bodies to each other while millions of the rest of us watched and gave our sentimental assent. What we'd never do with our next-door neighbor we paid money to do with someone else's neighbor.

All this took on a new perspective for me last week when I read a column, "Public Displays of Affection: How Much Is Too Much?" The first of writer Scott Smith's several vignettes goes like this: "Exhibit A: Rush hour. Man and woman leaning against a bus-stop bench in an ardent embrace. Open-mouthed kisses. Roving hands. Intertwined torsos. Gawking motorists."

The picture, mind you, is not a movie. It's real life. Mr. Smith goes on to add several similar scenarios, and then pops his question: "Ain't love grand? Sure, up to a point-the point where private, intimate actions become public, exhibitionistic performances." And then, frankly acknowledging his growing worry about such "public displays," he explores what's prompting so many people to do such astoundingly private things in public.

Amazingly, though, Mr. Smith never touches on the role of the media. To suppose that people, watching together, can witness unending intimacies, bedding, and coupling, and then not think it normal for those same people to imitate all that behavior while everyone is still watching-is to engage in wishful thinking.

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