catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08


The confessions of a fundamentalist librarian: On lust

I am one of the most refined people I know. Now this may surprise you if have seen my disheveled office at work or my even more disheveled room at home. It may surprise you if you have seen the rumpled, thrift store splendor which constitutes my sartorial aesthetic. But it is true, nonetheless, at least in several key areas: language, manners, and PDMs, Public Displays of Morality that is.

I have loosened up considerably over the past several years, having come to realize that while manners, including linguistic manners, and morality may overlap in many situations, they are not equivalent to one another. It is still a rather rare occurrence, however, when I will say the word “crap,” even rarer when I will say “fart.” Somehow “suck” and it variants have graduated to acceptability, though I am ever cognizant when I am using them. I inwardly wince when I hear a phrase such as the “butt crack of dawn,” particularly if it is said by a woman. I still have a difficult time using the words “shut up,” even casually, much less as verbal slap to the face to shut someone down. And, regarding manners, I am still pretty good with “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me,” and with generally giving deference to others.

And, as for public morality? Well, it’s a piece of cake. It is not really hard to control one’s impulses in public when while growing up the only behavior which was acceptable in public was good behavior, and when the environment one grew up in did not afford many opportunities for even semi-public, adolescent acting out.

Public morality, ah, that is where the problem comes. Because, of course, morality is never meant to be a thing that is divided into public and private dimensions, as if it differed in each sphere. However, when one grows up in a fundamentalist context, though hopefully one will not come to think that sin is alright if it is done in private, that is usually the only context in which gross sin will be committed. And if this happens often enough, one may become a sort of bifurcated individual, a split personality, if you will, and you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that that is not very healthy.

And, so, along with my refined language, manners, and admirable PDMs, ever since my childhood, I have struggled privately with lust, with varying degrees of success and miserable failure, with the failures sometimes amounting to that which is the theme of this issue of catapult: addiction, addiction at times to masturbation, and yes, at times, even to pornography. In fairness to myself, I should note that periods of failure have often been bookended by weeks, months, and, in one stretch, even years of success in not succumbing to temptation.

So, how difficult was that to write down, quite, but not as difficult as you might suppose, because also since my childhood, and especially in recent years, I have been attempting to undo the bifurcation, to integrate my public and private lives, and not simply in this area but also in areas such as the appropriate expression of anger and disagreement. I have been trying to do this not so much by changing the refinements of my public person, because they too are truly me. I am not merely polite and nice to put a good a face on things; that is truly how I want to be, how I think everyone should strive to be. Nor do I want to drag my private failings into any sort of public expression, other than for confession. I do want to be real with people about who I am, though. And so, anyone who has come to know me closely in the past decade or so, especially if they are a male, will come to know the things with which I struggle.

So why am I now making this quantum leap from those still rather private disclosures to this very public one? I do so not as an attempt finally fully integrate my public and private selves, which is a goal which is neither possible, nor absolutely desirable. I will not detail my failings here. However, I write because I believe an examination of both the private/public split that can occur in fundamentalist individuals and the nature of addiction itself are worth examining, and I know no one who struggles with these issues better than I know myself.

First, continuing on with a discussion of private/public compartmentalization, we need to find ways to help one another minimize this split. This is no easy task, as it involves creating safe spaces, and fostering interactions which veer neither toward judgmentalism nor permissiveness. Concurrent with the creation of such spaces, must come the even more difficult work of opening up our lives to one another, to let others see us as we are when we are at our worst. And in case you may be worried, I do believe that this should be done with discretion and propriety, and generally in gender segregated circumstances. However, I do not believe that overexposure of personal struggles in an inappropriate manner is really the error the church is faced with these days. Quite the opposite, deadening silence about such struggles is pretty much the rule of the day.

What would happen, though, if pastoral search committees were free enough, free of the desire to immediately censure and reject, to ask a candidate what were the sins with which he or she struggled, the ones which left unchecked might ruin lives or derail a church? What would it be like for candidates to be made to feel free enough to actually answer such questions? What would it be like for sessions, deacon boards, house churches, campus groups to also reflect such openness? So often the understanding of the depth of a person’s sinful proclivities and struggles only occurs after the person has dramatically fallen. What would it look like if such struggles could be acknowledged ahead of time in appropriate contexts? Could such openness change the scandal strewn landscape of the church? I do not know, but perhaps it might.

In describing sexual addiction, I can think of no better metaphor to use than the type of addiction we generally refer to when we use the term “addict,” drug addiction. The only drug to which I have been and am addicted is caffeine, so I do not completely understand this metaphor from the inside, but anything, pornography, masturbation, smoking, drinking alcohol, eating, shopping, reading, exercising, watching television, fellowshipping can become an addiction. While only the first three items on this list might be considered sin any context (let the debates begin about items two and three), every item on this list equally can be the substrate for addiction. Every item can be used wrongly in an attempt to cure boredom, to fill emptiness, to numb pain. Some of these addictions can be readily fed in public, while others cannot. Some have more dire psychological and social consequences than others, but all can equally lead to bondage.

I do not know much about the psychological aspects of addiction, but from a spiritual perspective I think that addictions are a demonstration of Augustine’s famous statement that “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” From a spiritual perspective, then, addictions are idols that we look to to provide satisfaction and meaning to our lives, or to simply make the pain of living go away for a while. And just like every idol throughout history, this is a promise they cannot fulfill.

This framing of addiction works fine if one is an unbeliever, but what about if I am a believer, if my sins have been forgiven, if the Spirit of God has entered my life? How is it that I can still be restless? I imagine the answer one gives to this question is firmly determined by the theology to which one ascribes. If you have a Catholic/Wesleyan sort of theology, then the answer might be that I am actually not a believer, or that as I sin I fall out of Grace until the time of my repentance. If you are on the Lutheran/Reformed side of the things, with their "simul sanctus et peccator" (simultaneously saint and sinner) understanding, then though sin is still not acceptable, it is expected. Even practitioners of this theological persuasion, though, may look at persistent habitual sin and urge a person to consider whether he or she is actually in the faith.

The second theological camp, in which I firmly have my tent, properly understood, is not at all permissive of sin, and does not deny its seriousness. However, I think that some in our camp, with our belief that we will never be free from sin completely in this life and the emphasis on free grace, sometimes can wrongly interpret the scriptures, or at least blunt them, and can minimize or miss the call to holiness that clearly and loudly rings out in the second half of each of the epistles, in the Sermon on the Mount, and in many other scriptures.

So, then, what is the difference between a believer and an unbeliever and the involvement of each in such addictions? I believe that if you are a Christian that God will not let you stay comfortably in the state of addiction, that he will graciously weigh His heavy hand upon you, increasing your discomfort and restlessness, until you turn to Him again. This is the pattern that we find in Psalm 32 and one which I find true in my own life:

Blessed is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the man
whose sin the LORD does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD "—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found;
surely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.

The longer I take to turn from my sin, any sin, the heavier God’s hand is upon me. Can there come a point in time at which God will remove His hand altogether? Again, your theology will determine your answer, but I believe that the Scriptures indicate that He will never remove His hand from over, and more importantly, from under me. Persistent obstinacy in sin, though, may well add to the painful consequences my soul will have to face and pay for, despite the fact that I will be forgiven of my sin before God.

Finally, here are some questions. How can it be that I who love the romance and nobility portrayed in Jane Austen movies, who wants to emulate the holy innocence of Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia, who loves the goodness of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, who would love to be as steadfast and true as Sam Gamgee, who delights in his own real life nieces and nephews, who values and loves his sisters in Christ, who has cried at the beauty of weddings and the joy of baptisms, how can this same person succumb to pornography? How can I be an ardent lover of beauty on one day and then on the next simply lust after flesh? How can I be hesitant to say the word “crap” in public and then type words into a search engine that I would never utter aloud in any context? Why is it that I, and I believe men in general, can so easily dissociate sexuality from commitment and relationship and love, a fact which pornography so radically demonstrates? 

I do not fully know the answers to these questions, of how such contrary impulses can coexist in my person. I only know that such is the case in my life and it should not be so. And what is more distressing is that I know that such struggles of ignoring my birthright and settling for swill are not simply a function of my singleness, as married friends have attested that the impulse to such wrongdoing does not simply go away without effort. Who will save me, and I imagine a host of other Christian men, from this horrendous situation?

Well, of course, Christ has already saved me, and will continue to do so in my day to day life, if I look to Him. He will continue to help me become whole, to integrate the various pieces of my personality, public and private, to live in integrity. He will teach me to integrate sexuality and relationship, to not divorce the two. He will teach me not to rob the dignity of any of his children by viewing them as objects of lust. And He has and will continue to do this with the painful rod of His love if necessary.

God also has provided friends who will help me along the way. Like my friend who provided the following blessing for me when I got a new laptop:

May the pixels of the screen never bring to light any pornographic images and may the processor and the hard-drive never host any blandishments of Satan to lead you, my brother, like an oxen to the slaughter.  My prayer is that it never enters.  May God honour your desire to serve Him with your writing and your mind and honour your desire to overcome the sinful desires of the flesh.  Here is where we take our stand against the forces of the enemy: by the body and bloodof our Lord Jesus Christ, may he never enter and may you be on your way along the path of the martyrs when you deny him this one thing.  That is my prayer in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit who was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen

God has provided me with friends who will call me, if I ask them, on the night I work late, so that I will not put a fast Internet connection to ill use. He provides friends and brothers to lay hands on me and restore me when I have fallen.

Finally, I must add a personal note to those readers who know me and some notes on how I wish this article to be received. If you know me and the revelations in this piece have shocked and saddened you, please realize that I am saddened by them too. I cannot predict or control what ramifications this piece might have with regard to our relationship, but, hopefully, in the long run, though you may have to adjust your image of me, that it will do our relationship no ill, but, indeed, that it may ultimately make it deeper, truer, and more mutually encouraging. To those of you who do not struggle with this particular addiction, the most distressing thing for me that could occur as a result of the publication of this article would be for it to contribute, in any way, to you finding yourself in the same position, for it to embolden you to sin. It is not meant to be a roadmap into this sin, but one away from it. That, perhaps, is obvious, but I must state it nonetheless. Finally, to those of you who are co-belligerents in this struggle, I pray that together we may be free.

And finally, finally, which is getting to be a bit of a habit in ending these articles, a poem:


When I let him incarnate my dying flesh
With the vileness that he is,
It makes me meaty again, and wanting
More and more and more,

Until I am writhing, restless flesh
Spirit, dying, dying, gone?

Oh, LORD, deliver me, 

Neil E. Das lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He blogs, rather less personally than this article, at The Dassler Effect. If you feel the need to respond in any way to this article, with comments or dialog, please feel free to email Neil.

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