CNN on porn: Smart people vs. Bible folks

It seems that the comments pages at the CNN religion blog have been on fire for several days — with good reason. That’s what happens when you publish a feature about Christians hooked on pornography and you top it with a photo of a man reading a copy of Playboy hidden inside his Bible.

That staged illustration didn’t freak me out, truth be told, although I must admit that I share many readers’ doubts that CNN would have run the same photo with a Playboy inside a Koran.

The more serious issue, for me, is the story itself.

On the surface, this long news feature looks like a pretty balanced take on a hot-button topic. The emphasis is on the Christian ministry itself, with lots of color and commentary from the evangelical believers who are at the heart of this work. Then there are voices who express doubts about the ministry, at crucial points.

That’s all good. Pretty normal stuff.

However, as many GetReligion readers have noted through the years, it is possible to do a story that appears to be balanced, when in reality it is skewed one way or the other. In this case, the basic outline of the story looks — to me — something like this:

* Evangelicals describe their ministry, which centers on faith in the Bible, etc.

* A smart critic from a name-brand university or seminary, speaking on behalf of the vague and omnipresent “many religious scholars,” says that the leaders of the ministry are simplistic and naive in their approach to the Bible and the issues at hand.

* More commentary from the evangelical ministry leaders, but without any direct response from scholars on their side of the biblical issues to the comments of the brilliant name-brand scholar from secular and/or liberal Christian academia.

* More commentary from another critic of the ministry with roots in name-brand academia who does similar work (in this case with believers wrestling with pornography) and believes the evangelicals are naive and simplistic.

* Final faith-based words from the evangelicals, once again with no responses to the issues raised by the critics.

In other words, this story presents a one-sided debate between Bible thumpers and brilliant mainstream people. The End.

You must read the story. Let me stress that this is a valid topic and serious subjects are raised. There is quite a bit of good info in the story. But what should readers make of this reference, which opens with material from an evangelical pastor, Jeremy Gyorke (no “the Rev.”, by the way):

Though the words “porn” and “masturbation” don’t appear in the Bible, Gyorke believes the biblical verdict is clear. “Sexual immorality is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and that is what porn is,” he says. He quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

Many religious scholars say that such a view reflects just one of many interpretations.

“One school of biblical study says that desire is a problem and needs to be monitored as a serious threat to salvation,” says Boston University theology professor Jennifer Wright Knust.

But Knust points to scriptural passages that appear to endorse sexual desire, including the Song of Solomon, a poem that some scholars say depicts two lovers graphically describing each other’s anatomy in an ode to unmarried sex.

For me, that vague “some scholars” reference sticks in the journalistic throat. Clearly, this particular scholar has a point of view. That’s fine. But why is it the only viewpoint quoted in the piece? Take that Song of Solomon reference. An “ode to unmarried sex”? How common is that interpretation, out of centuries of biblical interpretation and scholarship among, oh, Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, etc.? The story accepts this one point of view as, well, gospel.

And how about the following references to a — CNN says “the” — pioneer in the field?

The father of Christian-based porn and sex addiction therapy has a word for this “pray-away” method of sobriety.

“Hooey.”

Dr. Mark Laaser pioneered the Christian response to porn and sex addiction in the 1980s and chides counseling centers like Pure Life for what he says is their near-total reliance on prayer.

“Alcoholics don’t wish really hard to not be addicted to alcohol,” he says in a phone interview from his busy therapeutic practice in suburban Minneapolis. “The field of addiction is much deeper than opening your Bible.”

Once again, we are dealing with a “devout Christian” whose credentials are openly stated. He has, readers are told, a “doctorate in psychology from the University of Iowa and a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.” Laaser also has ties — it would seem to be broken ties — to some of the evangelicals quoted on the other side of the church aisle.

Thus, we reach the following crucial info:

In Laaser’s care, a patient will undergo psychiatric evaluation, just as he would in the secular world. Laaser wants to know if the patient has any symptoms of depression, ADHD or anxiety. He says many sex addicts suffer from other mental health issues.

And then:

Richard Blankenship, the Atlanta-based Christian therapist, studied under Laaser in the early 2000s. When Blankenship set up his practice in Atlanta to treat sex addicts, he used the same name as Laaser’s ministry, “Faithful and True,” adding only the word “Atlanta.”

But Laaser wants to make it clear that he has no association with Blankenship’s practice and doesn’t agree with some aspects of Blankenship’s program. Blankenship doesn’t rely enough on psychological expertise, Laaser says.

Note the crucial factual claim that the more Bible-based program is not that committed to “psychological expertise.” And what defense would Blankenship or others make in the face of that serious charge? Do they not work with trained counselors at all? Are they all devoid of formal training in this area?

Maybe. Maybe not. The key is that the story contains no information — positive or negative — from the other side about these important issues. This rather damning claim is made. It is accepted. So what did the other side say when asked questions about the no “psychological expertise” accusation?

Silence. There is nothing there. The story ends with another prayer scene, thus pounding home the crucial thesis. One side has the Bible. The other side has facts, books, experience, prestigious degrees, science, etc.

Is that, in fact, the truth in this case? Well, how would the reader know?

IMAGE: Screen shot of part of the CNN package.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MJBubba

    I note that the “smart critic from a name-brand university” is the author of Unprotected Texts; Jennifer Wright Knust was prominently featured in that laughable Newsweek cover that concluded that the Bible really doesn’t have anything to say about sex.
    A quick sample of the 3102 responses reveals what is to be expected at any mass-media un-monitored comment page: an avalanche of bitter anti-Christian stupid stuff.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    But Knust points to scriptural passages that appear to endorse sexual desire, including the Song of Solomon, a poem that some scholars say depicts two lovers graphically describing each other’s anatomy in an ode to unmarried sex.

    The way this sentence is written, it’s not even clear whether or not Dr. Knust is one of the “some scholars” who would claim SoS is an “ode to unmarried sex,” let alone which other unnamed persons who take this viewpoint might be.

  • GhaleonQ

    The observation’s common and obviously true, but I’d add that the lack of a sense of conversation is its own form of condescension. Cultural anthropology doesn’t just give skeptics the last word. It destroys the sense that parties are equals in dialogue over common terms. The casual reader likely absorbs that assumption.

  • Elijah

    Terry, I think all of your observations are quite true regarding this article. It seems to me it is part and parcel of an oft-repeated and widely believed trope: on one side are the Bible-believing fundies, on the other side are the rational clear thinking bearers of truth.

  • Martha

    “(A) photo of a man reading a copy of Playboy hidden inside his Bible.”

    I think nowadays it would be more likely to be a man hiding a Bible inside his “Playboy”, given the attitude to being perceived as a “Bible-thumper”.

  • Theophile

    “doesn’t rely enough on psychological expertise”

    Psychological? Anyone who has spent enough time researching these theories of psychology, with a critical mind, knows there is more wishful thinking, guessing, and childish attitudes in this pseudoscience, than in basic Christianity. Psychology is concerned with promoting self esteem(pride), which the Bible clearly condemns.

  • Dale

    I see a problem to the story right off the bat:

    “Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

    Many religious scholars say that such a view reflects just one of many interpretations.

    “One school of biblical study says that desire is a problem and needs to be monitored as a serious threat to salvation,” says Boston University theology professor Jennifer Wright Knust.

    Does the reporter understand that, according to Christian ethical thinking, desire and lust are not one and the same? That “lust” is out-of-order desire (all desire, not just sexual), and that Christians have been saying that since at least the time of St. Augustine? That a scriptural depiction of ordered sexual desire doesn’t necessarily conflict with a condemnation of lust? And finally, that masturbating to an electronic image of others’ sexual acts might be a great example of sexual desire detached from its intimate social context, and thus is “lustful”– inherently out-of-order?

    I guess it’s easier to believe that Christians have read their scriptures incorrectly until our recent rescue by “many scholars”. Silly Christians! All that fuss about sex for nothing.

  • Elaine T

    Tmatt, Blankenship is described in the top of the article as a certified therapist, as is his co-worker. So he’s got some sort of training.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    The problem is not limited to the seeming conflict between science and religion. It is so ubiquitous on any topic related to science that I induce it must be taught in journalism school. I have learned to spot the trigger words: “Many scholars say …” followed by the opinions of the writer; my opponent, “doesn’t rely enough on science.” (One is left to conjecture what the opponent relies on). This article quotes a scholar, ““The field of addiction is much deeper than opening your Bible.” which infers that he has acquired far more wise comprehension than God.

    Facts, and logic mean a lot to me; I am an engineer. I am certain that there are more printed words than I can read in one life time. Thus, unless I am content to wallow in comic books there must be some selection criteria in my reading. When I read the above triggers, I note the author and the publication, and after a few propaganda articles, they are dropped. Example: The New York Times, on science and technology, is not worth my time.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Anyone who has spent enough time researching these theories of psychology, with a critical mind, knows there is more wishful thinking, guessing, and childish attitudes in this pseudoscience, than in basic Christianity

    Psychology is many things, but it sure as h*ll isn’t a science.

  • http://makingthingsvisible.blogspot.com/ Ron Garcia

    Greetings All,

    I would make a couple of points in regard to the “psychologists” quoted in this article.

    First, the etimology of the word psychology comes from the greek. The root psyche literally means “of the soul”.

    Second, Jesus was the definition of the human person. So, if we aren’t merely quoting verses, but in fact studying the human person through the lens of Christ, we can know far more about humanity and it’s ills from what Christ has revealed.

    Lastly, if the human person is both material and spiritual. And you are only willing to treat the material, you will get what we have today, which is the medication of every last problem and the rejection of the spiritual needs of the person. This isn’t to say that in some cases medication isn’t necessary, however, it is the primary way that “pyschologists” who reject religion treat people, as if they do not have a soul, spiritual ailments, and spiritual needs.

  • Richard A

    I’d like to know how these Christian anti-porn programs got tagged as “pray-away”. The article, up to that point, doesn’t suggest that prayer is the sole weapon in the arsenal of the counselor or the “addict”. Does it come from Dr. Laaser? I thought his word for it was “hooey”.

    I guess I also don’t get the whole pro-con approach in these articles either. Are the anti-Blankenships suggesting that porn isn’t a problem, or that it is a problem, but that this isn’t an effective way of dealing with it? If the ‘con’ side is that this isn’t helpful, some quantitative measures of success, whatever that might be, should have been included (thus opening the door to all kinds of methodological questions). If porn isn’t really a problem, according to some (which seems to be Jennifer Knust’s view), shouldn’t that point of view be stated more clearly?

  • http://irishpilgrim.blogspot.com Éamonn

    @Steve Sloca – Have a look at what Dale said above in his comment. Desire (whether sexual or not) and lust are NOT interchangeable terms. Desire is just desire, it is experienced when something desireable is perceived. Lust is a disordered desire, one that exceeds proper its bounds.

    BTW inviting someone to revisit Freud – presuming that you are being serious about that – is a bit odd. He has been comprehensively debunked, not least by the emergence of evidence of his falsification of his own research. Reading Freud for serious guidance on psychology is on a par with reading Franz Joseph Gall!

  • JRP

    What I find humorous is “Though the word porn…does not appear in the bible…”.

    Except it does, many times, for instance: ???? ???????? ?? ???? ???????, ??? ??????? ??????? ???? ???? ?? ???? ???????, ???? ??????? ???? ??? ?????? ?????.

    ??????? is porneia (rho looks like a p). It’s always meant something including but also beyond the explicit acts of sexual intercourse, and it’s generally translated as a category of ‘sexual immorality’.

    So, yes, porn”ography” doesn’t appear, but the wider term inclusive of pornography does.

  • JRP

    That should have shown up as Greek. 1 Cor 5:1 is what I was quoting: you can find it, inter alia, on greekbible.com

  • http://romishpotpourri.blogspot.com Ambrose Little

    There are many problems with the referenced article, but perhaps the one that I find most disturbing is the dismissive attitude towards prayer, at one point equating it with “wishful thinking.”

    These days, even in Christian circles, prayer is somehow seen as inactive, docile, even “wishful thinking.” That, sadly, nowhere near approaches the reality of prayer, which is powerful, active, and essential for the true practice of Christianity.

  • Joe

    “Psychology is concerned with promoting self esteem(pride), which the Bible clearly condemns.”

    As someone who suffers from depression, this is highly offensive. There is a huge difference between self esteem and pride, and telling people it’s the same is dangerous. People take their own lives because they lack any and all self esteem. I thank my psychologist daily for pulling me back from the brink.

  • http://returntorome.com Francis J. Beckwith

    I am shocked that the author of the piece did not say that the word “Bible” does not appear in the Bible. And come to think of it, nowhere in the Bible does it say that the only things we can know are found only in the Bible. In that case, to point out that the word “porno” does not appear in the Bible is like saying that because the word “grammar” does not appear in every text you read it has no relevance to what you are doing.

    When are the Evangelicals going to fight back by forming an Anti-Defamation League of some sort?

  • Mouse

    This should not surprise us. It’s the modus operandi of the mainstream media. They rarely get anything about Christianity right, whether through ignorance or malice, depending on the journalist.

    I have been noticing for years that every year around Christian holidays, they run skeptical stories against our beliefs, featuring only the most heretical of “Christian scholars,” while never involving great faithful scholars. And on TV, if there’s any debate between Christians and another group, they almost always air an interview with the most rude, ignorant supposed pastor they can find, rather than an eloquent and reasonable representative of the Faith (like Archbishop Dolan, for example). Then for the opponent, they choose the most nice, calm, seemingly peace-loving Muslim or atheist or whatever. This is no accident. I’m sorry, but they’re not that stupid. It must at this point be intentional.

    If we expect this to change, we’re fooling ourselves. But now we nicely have the net, we can go around them. And a horde of outsiders can reveal to the world the errors we are being fed. In my opinion, on social and religious issues, CNN and the like are nothing but propaganda machines. Really.

    Notice also that none of the major outlets even has “Religion” as a topic tab. They have health, science, politics, entertainment…but not religion (or it’s buried in sub-sub-tabs). In other words, it’s not really important, except maybe as a lifestyle issue, which causes (in their opinion) more harm than good.


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