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January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 27–33 

Obscenity in Literature and Art

Herbert Giesbrecht

The non-Christian society of our time encounters difficulties and entanglements (both semantic and legal in nature), in its endeavors to properly define the nature and effects of pornography. This is so, in part, because pornography is a chameleon-like creature. It modifies its colours and contours in accordance with the character of a particular social context or setting and in accordance with the special tastes of those who produce it or who respond to it as readers/viewers. This particular attribute may account for part—but only part—of the difficulty which non-Christians experience when they attempt to define, or to defend, a particular understanding of obscenity in the literature and art of their time and culture.

For Christians to recognize and properly react to pornographic elements, whenever and wherever they rear their shadowy heads, should be a much less ambiguous and perplexing experience. At least so one would surmise. And yet the plain and unsettling fact is that many Christians either remain unduly prudish and legalistic in their reactions to elements of sensuality in literature and cinema or become unduly sympathetic and supportive of it. Such Christians, it seems, never arrive at the stage where they can include, within a single framework of understanding and response, the biblical principle that “to the pure of heart all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) and the biblical exhortation to the Christian that he avoid what is infected by impurity or fornication (Ephesians 5:3-12). The very prevalence of this state of affairs would suggest that a consideration of the Christian’s perception of, and proper response to obscenity (and to what looks like obscenity but is not such in essence) is still a pertinent and potentially useful one.


How does the Christian distinguish between what is only associated with, and what in fact participates in the evil that we describe as obscenity or pornography? How does he reliably discern, in works presuming to be genuinely artistic embodiments of man’s creative energies, what is harmful and corrupting for his mind and {28} spirit without rejecting prematurely what (on the basis of a larger view) is both revealing and helpful truth?

In respect to open and undisguised pornography—what the sleazy sex novels, “skin flick” magazines, and “porno films” offer so abundantly in catering directly to the prurient tastes and passions of thousands in our society—there can be no doubt whatever in the minds of Christians. These unnatural and unmitigated “works of darkness” stand roundly condemned. 1 But the situation is not quite as simple and straightforward for the Christian reader/viewer in the case of literary and cinematic works of art which deal effectively with significant issues or situations of life and presume to convey an intellectual and moral thrust and yet contain powerful appeals to the sexual appetites and impulses of man.

For the Christian reader/viewer to promptly dismiss these artistic works as unfit and harmful were to act impulsively and even unwisely. To reject and denounce all works of literary and visual art which make any room whatever for the realistic depiction of sensual desire and activity were, in a sense, to strain at the gnat and to swallow the camel. It were to misunderstand and spurn much imaginative literature and art, and their potential benefits, as foolishly as did John Styles when, in 1806, he tidily disposed of all Shakespeare’s plays with these words: “Barefaced obscenities, low vulgarities and nauseous vice so frequently figure and pollute his pages that we cannot but regret the luckless hour he became a writer for the stage.” 2 It were also to overlook the fact that the Scriptures themselves sometimes, and to good purpose, describe vividly the sexual impulses or activities of individuals and groups.

To allude to the way in which the Scriptures set forth manifestations of human sexuality and desire is to hint at one part (at least) of the overall answer to our questions. In these Scriptural accounts, wherever they appear, the descriptive details—whether brief and cursory (as in the account of King David’s seduction of Bathsheba) or more expansive and intimate in character (as in the case of the descriptions of the physical attraction felt by the lovers, for each other, in The Song of Solomon) are always subordinated to the larger intention of the writer, an intention which is without question a moral and didactic one. This moral intention is present (whether explicitly or implicitly) no matter what the particular literary form (or genre) of the book may be to which the account in question belongs.

The one implication of this observation, for our purposes, is simply, this: to determine for himself whether a work of literary or visual art is in fact obscene, or bears strongly obscene tendencies and overtones within it, the Christian must assess the work as a whole, not {29} merely single and disconnected passages or isolated features of it. He must assess it in terms of the larger intentions of the artist and the tone and thrust of the work viewed as an integral whole. This may not prove an easy exercise in aesthetic or intellectual analysis and judgment, in many instances. Yet it is ultimately a fairer and more rewarding exercise for the Christian who is concerned about extending the boundaries of both his literary and spiritual experience.

The imaginative work of a writer/artist (in the sense of both creative process and product) 3 is, ordinarily, so fundamentally and inextricably bound up with the sources and movements of his own being and experience that the work can hardly fail to reflect, at some level or in some respect, the personal attitudes, responses, insights, outlook and ideals, of its author/artist. To detach the created work of a writer, artist, or producer from the personality, experience, and deeper intentions of its creator—by declaring the created work to be an independent entity which is to be studied quite apart from any consideration of the creator’s own background and experience—is virtually to ignore the fact that a creative author (artist) and his artistic endeavours remain closely linked to each other in mysterious and constantly vital ways.

One valid inference to be drawn from the above generalization concerns the artistic and moral responsibility of the writer/artist/producer with respect to both his work and the audience to which his work is presumably addressed. The writer/artist can hardly absolve himself from the responsibility of affecting and influencing his readers or viewers in distinctly moral ways, and the honest one will indeed face up to the challenge of this responsibility. The Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, left no doubt about his stance on the matter when, in angry reaction to those who compared the realism of his plays to the less responsible naturalism of E. Zola’s fiction, he contended: “Zola descends into the cesspool to take a bath; I to cleanse it.”

But the other inference to be drawn from it brings us right back to the responsibility of the reader/viewer towards the work of art which he happens to be reading/viewing. The Christian respondent, aware that this vital connection between artists and their created works exists, must learn to respond in increasingly more sensitive and discerning ways. He must learn to discover the deeper motions and intentions of the artist as these are reflected, or refracted, in the diverse “mirrors” within a specific work. These “mirrors” embodied, for example, in the characteristic actions and conversations of key characters (in fiction and drama), in the ways in which point of view or authorial asides are managed, in the habitual manner in which the physical impulses and experiences of man are treated by the author, or in the characteristic pose and tonal context in which the nude body (in visual art {30} especially) is featured. 4 He must learn to respond to these discovered intimations, impressions, and intentions, within a specific work of art, with mature and appropriate responses.

For the responsible Christian such responses necessarily involve both aesthetic (literary) and moral (spiritual) factors. It is quite naive, and entirely misleading, to argue, as some do, that increased sophistication in aesthetic/literary response alone will enable the Christian to determine easily what are obscene traits and tendencies in literature or art. Such sophistication may bring an expanded capacity for critical appreciation to him—appreciation in strictly humanistic terms, that is—but this is not yet what is implied by a fully Christian response. The Christian reader/viewer must allow the biblical conception of man, of man’s relationship to God, and of God’s purposes for man, to knowingly direct his imaginative and intellectual responses to literature and art. He must also allow the Holy Spirit to exercise a decisive role in the actual shaping of these responses. It is precisely the deepened moral sensitivity and insight which the Holy Spirit introduces into the experience of the Christian reader/viewer which enable him to perceive more astutely when and where, in a particular work of man, sexual urges and impulses (for example) are being exploited mainly to evoke erotic and/or amused responses (as in the novels of Harold Robbins and Norman Mailer) or whether they are being described and represented in order to usefully illuminate one aspect of the total experience of man (as in the novels of William Golding or the plays of Sean O’Casey, generally speaking).

It is the personal activity of the Holy Spirit, in the very midst of the Christian’s varied responses to, and involvement in artistic endeavour, which reminds him that, while he lives in the world, he is not carrying on a worldly struggle, and which urges him to “destroy every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God and to take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).

What the Christian who would properly come to terms with obscenity in literature and art, needs to acquire is a “baptized imagination”. The “baptized imagination” is one which, while it constantly remains open to an author’s/artist’s exploration of specific areas of human experience and to his distinctive (perhaps unusual) ways of carrying out that exploration, continues to subject that artistic exploration to moral evaluation and judgment. Such an “imagination” is one which has been matured and schooled by the instructive guidance of the Holy Spirit to the extent that it is not easily deflected by temporary fashions (in the critical response to literature and art). Nor is it easily deceived by the stratagems of gifted, yet wily artists and writers who hide dubious motives (for writing) or dubious values (for {31} human living) beneath the surface splendors of a seductive style or of an exciting portrayal of human experience.


In our discussion thus far we have implied that the individual Christian needs to develop this ability to discern (intellectually and morally), and to properly deal with pornographic elements and influences, in literary and visual art, within and for himself—and this under the constant tutelage of the Spirit of God. But this implication may presuppose altogether too much, and may require some modification in order to become distinctly practical for our workaday lives. For we observe that Christians do in fact vary with respect to their individual capacities for the kind of perception and discernment called for in this article. Particularly is this true of the aesthetic and literary side of such perception and discernment. Clearly, it is not given to every Christian reader/viewer to exercise the rather special kind of discernment here under discussion, at least not in the same measure. Here also one may see the essential truth of 2 Corinthians 12:4-11 revealed: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord.”

This simple observation points up the need for more practical guidance, within the typical Christian community, via the inspired and helpful leadership of such as evidently do possess this specific gift of discernment. There would seem to be no good reason why Christians possessing the capacity for more penetrating insight (in this area of human experience) should not view it as another gift, from the Giver of all good gifts, to be used for the spiritual welfare of others in the community (church) of which they are a part. Such individuals should permit the Spirit of God to refine and strengthen this capacity within themselves and permit Him to direct them into situations wherein they can advise, instruct, or exhort other Christians (and non-Christians) according to the need of the hour.

Such instruction and exhortation, if extended in a group context, might take a variety of forms. It might include the group discussion of a specific novel, play, film, or series of paintings, for example, in the course of which both literary and moral criteria (for the detection and analysis of obscene elements and tendencies within a given work of art) are clarified and brought to bear directly upon the work under discussion. 5 It might take the form of a careful study of the biblical conception of sexual love, and of its frequent confusion with, or subtle transmutation into varieties of lust, in the art, literature, and actual living of our times. 6 Or it might also assume the form of an objective review of the ways in which obscenity presently infects society and debases its traditional notions of manhood, womanhood, marriage, {32} and love generally, and of the ways in which Christians (individually and collectively) can usefully protest against this invidious spread of pornographic influence. 7 The consideration of protest against the public spread of pornography might also lead to a discussion of the thorny question whether morality (sexual or any kind or morality, for that matter) can be legislated in a non-Christian society, a question which we must leave untouched in this article. 8

Such instruction and guidance might also be extended to others on a continuing basis via critical reviews, in church-related periodicals, of specific novels, plays, films, or works of visual art. Here one might take lessons from the reviews which now regularly appear in such periodicals as Christianity Today (see the “Refiner’s Fire” column) and His (“Scene and Heard” column). Of course, the moral influence and responsibility of such reviewers can be considerable and this fact itself suggests the potential danger (of bias or abuse) associated with an undue reliance upon the personal views of one person.

Whether the use of rating codes, with respect to specific works of art is useful to Christians may be debated. My own view on the matter is that discerning discussion and Spirit-directed preaching and teaching (of the central truths of the faith and of their implications for daily living) together provide a more constructive context, for most Christians, than do rating codes.

The opportunities open to Christian teachers, especially in church-related schools, to help students develop literary and moral sensibilities and to clarify for them Christian conceptions of man and of his creative role in church and society, are plain enough and yet are frequently not explored in such schools. The tendency in many of these schools is to yield to student interests and to societal pressures or else to deal with the core issues involved (in classroom or chapel) in only superficial and uncomprehending ways. Here, as in other areas of human endeavour, the very difficulty of bringing Christian perspectives to bear, clearly and compellingly, upon non-Christian studies and concerns should remain a constant challenge to teachers.

Ours is without doubt a thoroughly sensual age—particularly is this true of the cultural spirit and outlook of western society. Pitirim A. Sorokin made this observation and contention several decades ago (as a sociologist who never professed to be a Christian believer) and defended his contention with massive evidence derived from a critical examination of the literature and art of western society. 9 And this contention, if it in fact reflects the reality of the situation, reminds us of Thomas Howard’s recent remark, a remark not calculated to increase our hopefulness about the future of western society: “It seems that the {33} increasingly random and public celebration of sexuality arises in the dotage of civilizations.”

We, as evangelical Christians who desire to reflect the mind of Christ, ought to be—if anything—more discerning than our non-Christian contemporaries in matters (especially) which reflect aspects of the moral character of our society. We ought to belong to that company of people, always, who turn away from whatever reflects a deliberate desecration of what God once created good and beautiful, and who yearn, always, for those experiences in life wherein the “beautiful betakes itself to the holy.”


  1. The actual effects (emotional and moral) of obscene literature or art upon those repeatedly exposed to it are not my immediate concern in this article. They may be usefully studied, in brief, in Harry M. Clore’s essay in Midway (Spring, 1968 issue): “Effects of Obscenity—the Arguments and the Evidence.”
  2. Quoted in John Chandos, ‘To Deprave and Corrupt . . .’ (Association Press, 1962), p. 22.
  3. See Paul Ramsey’s trenchant reply to those (new) critics who contend that literary intention is both a meaningless and undesirable notion for the task of judging the meaning, or artistic worth, of a work of art, in Essays in Criticism (October, 1972 issue): “A Question of Judgment; Wimsatt on Intent.”
  4. See DeWitt W. Jayne’s article, in the Fall, 1958 issue of Gordon Review, entitled “Nudity in Art: A Christian Appraisal;” also Kenneth Clark’s Nude: A Study of Ideal Form (Princeton University Press, 1972).
  5. Several useful books for purposes of this kind of discussion are the following: F. Getleins’s and H. C. Gardiner’s Movies, Morals and Art (Sheed and Ward, 1961); A. Schillaci’s Movies and Morals (Fides Publishers, 1970); Donald Drew’s Images of Man (Intervarsity Press, 1974); and Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible (Intervarsity Press, 1973).
  6. A helpful and non-technical book to be recommended in this area is John White’s Eros Defiled (Intervarsity Press, 1977).
  7. Chapter 12 (“The Action Answer”) of J.W. Drakeford’s and J. Hamm’s Pornography: the Sexual Mirage (Thomas Nelson, 1973) offers a number of suggestions in respect to the ways in which Christians can register such protest in a responsible manner.
  8. Two articles—one taking a “pro” stance, and the other a “con” stance on this question—which might be profitably studied are these: R. V. Pierard, “Should Morality be Legalized?” (HIS: November, 1978 issue) and Lynn Buzzard, “There Oughta Be a Law” (Eternity: October, 1978 issue).
  9. See his book, The Crisis of Our Age (E. P. Dutton and Company, 1956).
Herbert Giesbrecht is the librarian at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He very recently completed the requirements for the masters degree in English at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.

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