"Don Jon," Christians, and Porn
Once in Waco, Texas, the Baptist Vatican, I was conversing with a hotel manager, and somehow the topic of conversation turned to when the hotel hosted large groups of Baptists.
"Oh, we love those," he said wistfully, but when I asked why, instead of the answers I hoped for—the kindness of the guests, a spiritual change in the atmosphere—my acquaintance blushed and went mum. At last, I pulled an answer out of him.
Turns out the hotel loved it when religious groups booked in because the purchase of adult movies went through the roof.
Christians have a problem with pornography—and not just evangelicals who are suddenly concerned about porn addiction. Take Jon Martello, the titular hero of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's new film Don Jon (a 21st-century take on the ubiquitous legend of the womanizing character who also appears in Byron's Don Juan and Mozart's Don Giovanni). Every week he goes to Mass, and every week he confesses to two sins—sex outside of wedlock and masturbation to pornographic videos.
Every week, his priest listens, gives him penance, and absolves him.
But we can tell as the movie goes on, as Jon confesses every week to the same damn thing, that the priest would like to reach through that confessional lattice and slap some sense into him.
Don Jon is not a deep film. It's a comedy about a sort-of likeable young man with a big problem, but that problem is not, at its root, Internet porn. It is his attitude toward women and his understanding of what love is, things that, thankfully shift in the course of his journey.
As The New York Times review notes, at the outset, Jon's view of the world is reductive: "All Jon cares about, as he repeatedly claims in a voice-over that sounds like a loop, are 'my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.' That's a whole lot of me and mine." And so it is. Don Jon, like many of us, is all about me and mine, and porn is emblematic of that selfishness.
What makes porn sinful is not related to whether or not it is a victimless crime—although you are deluding yourself if you imagine that it's victimless. HIV is rampant in the porn community (Jon loves the fact that in his porn no one has to wear a condom), and even those who willingly choose the life are subjected to degradation and brutality. If you don't want to read investigative journalism about the perils of the billion-dollar porn industry, check out Warren Ellis's graphic novel Desolation Jones, which dives into the porn subculture and calls it out for its cruelty to women.
But even if porn were not harmful to the men and women acting it out for its consumers, it is harmful to those consumers—emotionally and spiritually harmful—because as Don Jon affirms, it promotes a perverted idea of what sex, love, intimacy, and personhood are all about. Through much of the movie, Jon objectifies women—an approach he clearly learns from his father (Tony Danza)—but it is in his preference for porn over relationship (or even simply to sex with the beautiful women he picks up) that the personal damage of those attitudes about women and relationships becomes evident. Jon is a closed system, as that repeating loop about his priorities suggests. His choice of self-gratification over love and connection with another is sad and pathetic and way too typical these days.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.