The Sexual Revolution, Entertainment, and Christian Art
[The following is an address given to the Center For Cultural Leadership annual symposium held in Saratoga, California, October 2015]
The sexual revolution was in large part successful because it used entertainment media as a principal tool of cultural subversion. There were other tools, of course: the massive takeover of academia and political activism, to name two. But when we ask the question, “What entertains you?” we are getting closer to the center of the cultural upheaval of the past five decades. We are asking a personal question at the heart of our identities: what delights you? What satisfies you? It is the question of what you—or society more broadly—worship. If you subvert and change the very nature of what entertains people, you can change the object of their worship. That means you change people, because human beings become what they worship. That means you change culture.
Many understand that the recent victories of the sexual revolution were achieved because of the contributions of the entertainment industry. Lawyers are not responsible for Obergefell. That distinction belongs to Will & Grace. No—actually, that is not true. I would argue that it is considerably more subtle than that: we owe the collapse of sexual ethics to Archie Bunker.
The year was 1971, during the peak years of cultural turmoil. The show was All in the Family. What was the show about? Everybody thought it was about the Bunker family, but it wasn’t. It was about the family. That is, the institution. And it doesn’t take too much skill in hindsight to observe the message: the family as it existed up until 1971, purely typified by its leader, Archie, is an outdated, patriarchal, homophobic, narrow-minded, and bigoted institution. It’s a radical message, one that never would have stood a chance if it attempted its cultural coup d’etat by demanding immediate acquiescence. It succeeded by making Archie… entertaining. The lovable, but woefully misguided, Archie Bunker. The current show Modern Family owes its existence to All in the Family.
Hollywood continued to push the boundaries further and in every direction using the same playbook. Three’s Company soon directly attacked the outdated, prudish convictions against cohabitation—the “villain” of the show is the landlord, who only allows the newfangled “progressive” living arrangement because they trick him into thinking the male character is gay—of which he also, of course, disapproves. Fathers became optional first and famously with Murphy Brown, and later completely celebrated with the Gilmore Girls. Homosexuality was given beautiful, airbrushed treatment in Will & Grace, and soon thereafter HBO’s Big Love gave polygamy its day in the sun. Sex and the City glamorized the casual hookup lifestyle. Meanwhile, at the box office one “romantic comedy” after another preached the message that personal self-fulfillment exhausts the meaning of romance, marriage, and weddings. The ripple effect of these main stage attractions spilled into everything, with the eventual result being the complete normalization of rampant promiscuity. Frasier is (in my humble opinion) the greatest sitcom ever produced—hilarious, consistent, warm, character-driven, and brilliant in nearly every way. Yet it is difficult to miss how normal is the portrayal of Frasier’s rather casual sex life. That is precisely where the architects of the sexual revolution were aiming. Their radicalism succeeded by being entertaining radicalism.
Where are we now? We have largely lost this long, quiet, guerilla campaign against the family as the institutional channel for human sexuality. And we can certainly say that the sexual revolution’s entertainment victory has brought in its wake important political and legal victories.
There are, however, silver linings in all these dark clouds.
First, we need to remember—we must always remember—that the war against sexual purity and the family is a war against God. And that means it is a war against reality. Wars against reality cannot truly succeed. Hollywood can turn Bacchanalian promiscuity into a virtue, but it has no cure for the ills it produces—fatherlessness, single motherhood, poverty, depression, addiction, and crime. As someone important once put it, “the wages of sin is death,” and the real-world slaying is often done by sin’s own effects. Just this month Playboy magazine announced it will no longer publish nude photographs; not because they’ve experienced some sudden conversion, but because the culture of pornography it created is literally destroying their business.
Second, since this is a war against reality itself, the more the bitter fruit of the sexual revolution is felt—that is, the more successful it is—the more likely it shapes its own demise. The Prodigal Son had an epiphany when he got to the pig trough, and I believe Prodigal cultures can experience such epiphanies, too. As an example, I would point to the fact that in recent years there have been a number of films that are almost unintentionally pro-life, like Juno and Knocked Up. The recent film Don Jon explored the devastating effects of pornography on sexual intimacy, Chef is a full-throated anthem of praise for fatherhood and marriage, and one of the top rated television shows is called Parenthood. These are early signs of some people waking up.
Third, as far as entertainment goes, there are frankly few boundaries left to press. Unless HBO decides to produce a blockbuster series glorifying bestiality—and I wouldn’t put it past them—the agenda items are frankly tapped out. Who is a rebel when the revolutionaries win? Someday, hopefully soon, to be “edgy” and revolutionary in entertainment art will mean moving back toward the reality that marriage and family are beautiful, noble, and the way God intended it.
Finally—and this is more a challenge and opportunity than it is a silver lining—Christians need to be in the entertainment business. Note: I did not say, “The preaching and teaching business.” That is the job description of “pastor” or "teacher," not “filmmaker.” Christians have not been particularly good at film, which is a whole discussion of its own that we could take all day to discuss. But one reason is that they do not fully understand the medium. Evangelicalism is a wordy religion, and our films do altogether too much talking. We tell, instead of show. And we try to tell everything at once, for that matter. We teach, rather than entertain and delight. It may be true that aesthetics aren’t everything, but they’re not nothing. Pictures do teach, and moving pictures can teach movingly.
Our films also tend toward the Gnostic in their often unrealistic portrayal of what life in a sinful world is like. The “faith based” market is, for now, completely synonymous with “uplifting and inspiring,” which is why its suffering is never very gritty, its heroes never disappoint you, and why you’re left unsatisfied at the end. An airbrushed, gauzy “Christiany” world is no more real than the airbrushed, gauzy world of the sexual revolutionaries. This is God’s world and his story, and that story often involves horror and tragedy. Christian entertainment needs a healthy injection of a theology of the cross.
Moreover, the sexual revolution did not make one big show pushing every boundary at once; they made lots of shows, lots of angles, lots of characters, lots of stories. Yet Christians seem intent on cramming their entire worldview, complete systematic theologies, into every single product as if God is somehow dishonored if we don’t say everything. You know, it is okay for a talented Christian to write a cute romantic comedy that elevates self-sacrifice above self-indulgence. A couple of centuries ago Jane Austen did it all the time.
The opportunities have never been so widely available for people to make great cinematic art, both in television and at the box office. The democratization of the technology and delivery of entertainment makes it possible for anyone with talent, vision, and modest finances to succeed. Calling our culture back to God’s design for human sexuality is going to mean—it simply must mean—using the technologies of entertainment. The answer to the question, “What entertains you?” tells you what god you worship. And the truth is there is nothing more entertaining than God—have you seen a Hubble telescope photograph? Have you heard the gospel story? Have you felt the transforming power of grace making beauty out of ugly things and turning trash into treasure?
Those are stories worth telling, and the only thing stopping Christians from telling them is a reductionist view of what Christian art can and should be. It is a brave new entertainment world; making art that goes against the flow of the sexual revolution requires bravery. But, on the other hand, the darkness of the current backdrop makes the truth shine all the more brightly.