Simulated sin

Time to stop pretending about our pretense

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

From the time we first heard that wonderful word catharsis in high-school literature class, it's been great to know it was possible to exercise our emotions without needing to charge ourselves with actual participation in the event. We get the kicks, but not the guilt.

For Aristotle, though, catharsis was a good bit more serious matter than it seems to be for many evangelical Christians. For the old philosopher, it was a sober struggle. For too many of us, it's just a neat trick.

Thirty years ago, a creative fellow I knew worked hard (but unsuccessfully) to find money to produce a movie whose script, so far as I know, never even got written. The plot centered on an improbable invention that enabled the faithful recording of absolutely real experiences in life-like the eating of a 21-course Chinese banquet, hitting a Mark McGwire homerun, playing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, or winning a presidential election-and then playing back those experiences as often as you wanted, and evoking the full and precise emotional impact that the person making the recording had originally felt, but without actually engaging in the behavior. In my friend's movie, the royalties for this incredible device had been passed on through a legacy to a local church, and the church was being split down the middle over whether it was legitimate for the congregation to benefit from a technology so easily used for evil purposes. For the recorder could obviously be used as easily to simulate the pleasurable side of illicit sex, or of murder, or of theft, as to reproduce supposedly harmless experiences. The unpleasant side, the grim consequences of sin, could of course be edited out.

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Well, we didn't need the movie, did we? Now, of course, through the sophistication of modern entertainment technology, virtually the same dilemma plagues us every day. Now we have pushed entertainment so far that what at first seemed only to be a simulation has driven us for all practical purposes into the experience itself. Hi-fidelity became stereo, and stereo became quadraphonic, and soon the whole thing was surreal. So we come then to this most uncomfortable question: If the process of entertaining ourselves takes us right into the heart of the experience, then does the simulation of some sins, by their very essence and nature, also take us right into the sinful act itself? Or is it at least so close to the border that we should enter only with the greatest of caution?

On at least two obvious fronts of God's moral law, the answer is perplexing. With reference, for example, to the seventh commandment, there can be no question that the portrayal of sensual and then sexual themes, in contrast to their merely abstract description, propels the viewer to the threshold of the very territory that is forbidden. It's tough enough to hear Chaucer tell us his Miller's Tale, with all its ribald imagery-or, for that matter, to read Solomon's Song with its wonderfully sensuous allusions. But to translate either of those to a filmed representation of the same themes, or more pointedly to a performance by live actors and actresses, almost by definition creates in us the very desire that Jesus described as lustful and sinful.

But isn't the same dynamic also at work with reference to the breaking of the third commandment within entertainment settings? Is it really possible merely to hear or to watch God's name being taken in vain without entering directly into the very behavior that God forbids? To hear God's person being blasphemed, or even trivialized, without protesting such blasphemy or trivialization, comes perilously close to being an accomplice to the very sin that God so much despises.

We tend, of course, to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think in such circumstances. We suppose we are our own masters, and that we are somehow able to keep separate our critical minds and our moral souls.

Yet how do we know? Precisely at this point, we hear the words of Paul: "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." At the very least, dare we ever let sin be portrayed without also alluding to its consequences?

And if with reference to the two commands about adultery and blasphemy we find ourselves too easily involved with the sins in question, why should we be so certain we're in control with reference to God's other commands? It may seem to us altogether feasible to portray the robbing of a bank, or the murder of a human being, or even the worship of a false god, without in the process weakening our hearts' defenses against those sins. But how do we know for sure? Can we be certain there is no correlation between the thousands of instances of casual death portrayed on TV and in the movies and the cheapened view of life we have experienced in our society today?

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