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Jesus-Porn Defined

Based on private comments in response to my Courageous analysis, it may be necessary to define the term “Jesus-porn.”    Let me say at the outset, my intention is not to denigrate any film maker or movie in particular, but to advance the craft of screenwriting.   To make and empower others to make better movies.  To provide an understanding of this particular storytelling crutch so that we might have less of it.

The comparison is easily made.  Both pornography and Christian films are becoming more mainstream. Both have loyal fan bases that watch and collect for particular reasons.

But not all Christian films are Jesus-porn.  No one throws the Jesus-porn label at Ben-Hur, Chariots of Fire and The Mission.  Nor would most apply it to Christian classics as Inn of the Sixth Happiness or Keys of the Kingdom.

What is Jesus-porn and where did it come from?

Much like actual pornography, “we know it when we see it” but simply, it’s a particular violation of the Christian drama subgenre.

Audiences go to movies to be entertained.  That is, they want vicarious experience, to “try on” uncommon situations and stir emotions in the safety of the theater.   Genres were created to categorize these types of experiences.  Care to laugh?  Comedy.  Dream of adventure?   Action.  Got a date?  Romance or Romantic Comedy (romcom).

Writers know the expectations of the audience, and these expectations become conventions.  Some are well known and overused.  These conventions can also be abused, corrupted and redirected so that it becomes pornographic.

We first stumble into it by accident.   Imagine the surprise of a Marlon Brando fan, having loved his recent performance in the Godfather, strolling into a theater one evening in 1972 to watch his idol in a romance only to find him doing unmentionable things in Last Tango in Paris.

Imagine teens venturing to a horror flick for all the excitement and terror it promises, and finding torture-porn like Saw and Hostel.

At first the viewer recoils that the images, but through repeated exposure, the viewer grows to like it, and seek it out.   My Biblical counseling friend describes this phenomenon in the Addictive Cycle of Escalation, where giving into temptation grows into affinity and craving.   It is what makes narcotics and pornography so destructive to society.

The fix the addict gets from pornography is obviously lust, a corrupt satisfaction from romantic love.   For torture-porn… Actually I have no idea.  That stuff creeps me out…

But for Jesus-porn, it’s the discovery that they can feel Jesus is glorified through vicarious experience…  and the characters, don’t have to suffer for it.

In other words, Jesus-porn delivers SENTIMENTALITY.   As Oscar Wilde wrote, “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

Jesus-porn is first encountered in theatrical, melodramatic poses and precious, bumper-sticker phrases, in scenes designed to extort tears from the audience without fully justifying it in the story.  It’s a character repenting without a realistic narrative set up.  It’s a family embracing and weeping together without the realistic struggle for intimacy.

At its height, Jesus-porn is a champagne ending of cheap grace, where sinners are set free through one righteous prayer, opening the floodgates of Heaven’s blessings, dissolving not only sin, but all temporal consequence, and requisite penance, restoring relationships, fulfilling dreams, leaving the protagonist is a wash of tearful, cloud-parting, Godly thanks (with optional cross in background, kneeling at the altar and doves descending).

Jesus-porn, like real porn, is a daring, and soul-weakening, violation of reality.  It lies about our human struggle and the cost of following Christ.  As one stand-up comic said “They should just rename all porn films ‘Stuff That Never Happens, Ever.’”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that

Yeah, I know, Hollywood violates reality all the time.  Heroes leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Parent and child swap bodies.  Women secretly love stalkers.  I get it.  And you want a film that doesn’t denigrate your deeply held beliefs, a film you can share with your family.  But by the same token, movies claiming to deliver the words of life should be held to a higher standard.

How to know if you’re addicted to Jesus-porn

1. The story doesn’t matter.

Just as in porn films (from what I’ve gathered from P.T. Anderson) you know what you’re going to get and the plot is an afterthought:  An electrician comes over, “I’ll fix your electricity.”  And they get going.  A plumber comes over, “I’ll fix your plumbing.”  And they get going.  A pizza delivery guy comes over, “I’ll fix your pizza”…

It doesn’t matter!  As long as you’re there for the fix, you’re an addict.

2.  You justify bad storytelling because you like the message

This is a sin worse than standing up for the film makers because “they’re following God’s will.”   As storytellers, we feel the tension between upholding our craft and validating those who make art.   But Christian film makers don’t create a vacuum.  The world is watching.  So how many mediocre players do you want representing your team out on the field?

None!  Following God is not a license, and getting produced is not a panacea.

I say “love the sinner, hate the sin.”   Inflating the quality of bad, shallow art for the sake of your beliefs reflects negatively on your beliefs.   Continually inflating sub-par movies by Christians creates a Christian subculture addicted to mediocrity.

And worse.   Hollywood executives will say, “If this is the crap they like, we can make that.”  And the cycle will continue.

Stop the cycle.  Repent and learn the craft.   Cheer excellence.  Join the conversation.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. Bren says:

    No. Aspiring to make characters truly fulfilled isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy. But we see to many movies of cheap laughs, superficial loves, empty successes, and we have to be able to clarify what really matters without merely avoiding misery. This isn’t the last word on this subject (nor the first) but a continuing exploration.

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