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The young man looked down as he talked to me about his ongoing struggles with what he felt to be a compulsion toward pornography.

After this many years in ministry, I’ve had that conversation so many times I can almost script it in advance. But this Christian was able to summarize his situation better than most. “I guess I would say that my problem started with lust,” he said. “And then it was guilt and shame. It’s still all that, but it’s something else too. It’s boredom.”

The same afternoon I talked to a middle-aged Christian, really successful in his career, who said, “I’ve achieved everything I set out to do; and now it just all feels so empty and without meaning. It’s like I’m bored.” I’ve had that conversation too, countless times.

That day, though, I started wondering if, in some way, these conversations were really about the same problem.

I was prompted to ponder this question after reading a jeremiad against “today’s turn towards the pornographic”—not from a likeminded conservative evangelical viewpoint, but from a decidedly secular anticapitalist philosopher.

In his book Capitalism and the Death Drive, Byung-Chul Han clarifies that this “pornographic turn” does not just show up in explicit sexual depictions on the internet, but an even deeper aspect of spiritual malaise.

Han argues that pornography attempts to sever signs from meaning, sensations from communion, the bodily organs from the person. This results in a fragmentation that comes from a kind of hypervisibility and hyperavailability.

Pornography makes use of sexuality, but ultimately it fragments and undermines the tension necessary for the erotic. For him, the point is that pornography has no plotline.

By this, he doesn’t mean that pornography can’t be embedded in a story. What he means is that genuine feeling can’t be manufactured, bought, and sold. The genuinely erotic, he contends, requires patient unfolding and long-lasting connectedness.

A pornographic mindset confuses this because people think of love as a random arrangement of consumable feelings—not as part of an ongoing drama. This distortion leads people to the compulsion to constantly change partners (whether “in real life” or in their minds) to maintain those fresh and novel sensations.

I doubt whether Han would ever frame this as “sin” or “immorality,” but he certainly sees it as self-defeating and self-destructive. And the result is a society that seems burned out—burned out on attention, burned out on meaning, burned out on love.

Unlike pornography, Han argues, love has a plot. Love isn’t a random set of sensations, but something that must be set in a larger context. And fidelity, Han argues, is not just an emotion but also an act. As a matter of fact, fidelity is a series of acts that requires a storyline.

Han gives the example of a French man’s letter to his wife, in which he anticipates their life together in the future as though it were present tense: “You’re 85 years old and have shrunk five centimeters. You only weigh 40 kilos now, yet you’re still desirable.” This kind of love requires a vow and a life.

As I read this, I thought about the advice that’s usually given to parents when it comes to pornography.

Those without concepts of sin, grace, and God seem to increasingly assure parents that porn shouldn’t be thought of as “immoral.” But they usually follow that up by saying that porn is not a good source of sex education.

Kids who learn only from porn, these people will say, won’t understand that real people’s bodies don’t respond so formulaically. Porn alters expectations of what sex, consent, and mutuality should look like, they say.

If that’s the primary problem with porn, however, the implication seems to be that it could be addressed with “more realistic” pornography that might help prepare these young people for genuine intimacy.

But intimacy is with a person, not just with a set of genitalia. Therefore, it can only be approached with the mystery that makes up a whole person—and this cannot be “consumed.”

This is how the Bible depicts human beings and sexual intimacy. The love story of Ruth and Boaz resonates with us because, like every true love story, it doesn’t transport us immediately to a sensation and leave. The story unfolds with tension and indeed keeps unfolding.

What seems to be the unlikely and accidental introduction of these two people—with a background of deep tragedy—turns out to result in a house of David. And we know how that story takes us to back to Bethlehem and beyond.

Remember that when the apostle Paul explains the mystery at the heart of the one-flesh union in Ephesians 5, he did so to a congregation gathered in a city known for the temple of Artemis. This was a culture in which temple prostitution—the use of sexual orgasm for the alleged purpose of connecting the divine—was a cultural norm.

Paul writes that the joining of man and woman points to the communion of Christ and his church, not just by using abstract principles but by showing us how this all fits into a larger cosmic story of redemption. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, washing her with water.

This cannot be mimicked by a momentary firing of nerve endings. It can be modeled and embodied by nothing less than the giving of an entire life. That requires a commitment to share the same story—in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

Such a story requires a people who can learn what it means to be in communion with one another, and with the one in whom every good story holds together. Because whether we are sexually active or not, we are all members of one another in the body of Christ.

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

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