Yesterday morning I was scrolling my Facebook wall when I came across this post from the pastor of a local church.
“Machine Gun Preacher story in Penthouse Magazine, May issue. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.1 Corinthians 9:22.”
I almost choked on my chai latte. Er, I beg your pardon?
For those who haven’t heard of him, the “Machine Gun Preacher” is former Pennsylvanian drug-using biker turned evangelist and philanthropist Sam Childers. Childers recently toured Australia on a church speaking tour to coincide with the DVD release of a movie based on his story of the same name. I’ve neither heard Childers speak nor rented the DVD, but many of my friends have been inspired by his story. I was not really interested, but my interest was piqued by this apparent link between the well-known evangelist with an international ministry and an orphanage in Sudan, and an equally well-known porn magazine. How does a pastor get an article into such a publication, and how is it that nobody else apparently sees this as a problem? What’s going on in my own head that I actually feel there is one?
I went in search of the Penthouse article in question, online at first. I had to remove the safe search setting on my browser to even peruse any links to Penthouse magazine in the first place. I couldn’t find the article, so I messaged the pastor who Facebooked the status in the first place, and asked if he was sure about it.
Quite sure, he said. It’s on page 63.
Oh. Okay then.
I had just one thing to clarify after that – whether I was more uncomfortable with the idea that a Christian evangelist felt it was appropriate to have his story published in a porn magazine, or that this pastor could give me the page number without even flinching.
I looked online all morning for the article without success, so I went out and visited half a dozen newsagents looking for the physical magazine. “Er, I’m actually a journalist.” I explained to one woman who very discreetly fumbled on my behalf in the secret drawers where they hide such things away from public view. I picked up the June issue and a few special issues and even girl-on-girl-on-girl special edition issues looking for the article. As it turns out, I must have missed the May edition by only a couple of days. In the end I had to give up because I was feeling physically sick. I began to feel increasingly…intimidated. Not by the images of the naked women (I’ve seen plenty of boobies and fannies in my time, and have a set myself), but by the atmosphere created by them. There was something about being in the proximity of those images that made me feel kind of trapped. I felt enveloped by an invisible gaze, like I myself was being viewed detachedly through a testosterone-fueled stupor from all directions. I felt physically and mentally vulnerable and unsafe – it’s really hard to describe, but the closest I can get is to say like I was caged in a rape dungeon and about to be breakfast. I wanted to get out of there. I described all this to my husband last night, and he concurred. “You need to try and understand the kind of feelings these magazines are designed to stir up in men,” he said. I think I do understand. They seem designed to evoke a feeling in men that womens’ bodies are prey, a thing to be consumed, over and over and over. They’re designed to reduce a body down to a piece of warm flesh useful only for stabbing another piece of warm flesh into. They’re meant to create a feeling of detachment and indifference toward the people whose bodies appear in the photographs. Pornographic photos such as those in Penthouse and magazines like it are carefully mechanised to convey an illusion of sexual consent on the part of the subject. They want it. They like it. They say yes to what I want to do. Nobody here is saying what I want to do is wrong, bad or unwanted. And amongst all of this, I was searching for a piece of text about a man of God. Feel uncomfortable?
Now you’re getting it.
I took my concerns back to my Facebook community and asked if anyone else had a problem with an article about a preacher appearing in a porno magazine. Most common reply, from several men I should point out, was “But didn’t Jesus hang out with prostitutes and whores?” I think I know what they think they mean – that perhaps having an article about yourself published in a magazine equates to some kind of evangelism to the people in the industry. I can see – kind of – why those with a progressive, if not slightly overly machismo – evangelistic bent might think this could be a good idea. But I have to wonder about how the article on Childers article came to be in Penthouse magazine in the first place, and what the thinking was behind it. An enthusiastic publicist? A syndication agreement? A straight out co-promotion for the speaking tour and DVD release of the movie? A real attempt to reach people with the gospel? Which people?
WWJD? Take out a half-page in Penthouse?
I feel very uncomfortable with any discussion that tries to equate the placing of the Penthouse article with the preaching activities and gender politics of Jesus Christ. More specifically, I take exception to descriptions of the women whose images appear in magazines such as Penthouse as “prostitutes and whores”. Whatever you or I may think about the industry they work in, they are in fact paid professionals, either contractors or salaried employees, executing a legitimate form of commercial enterprise. They are women, wives, mothers, daughters and tax-payers. The removal of their clothes and their posing before a camera does not make them into “whores” – only the misogynist gaze of a very stupid person is capable of accomplishing that. When a man calls a woman a “prostitute” or a “whore” , he isn’t referring to her employment or vocation. He’s telling you exactly what he thinks of her in the most derogatory terms he can think of. Jesus did in fact “hang out” with women who worked as prostitutes, but I doubt he saw them as anything other than what they were – women, who happened to have a gainful employment that was frowned upon, but widely patronised nonetheless.
Having already stated that I do not believe women photographed for porn are categorically whores, I do think that pornographic images of women are a form of abasement. As someone in possession of a female body, I feel the feminine form is diminished when depicted as an object whose primary use is for a sexual act, and which is detached from the human being inhabiting it. But having your photo taken naked is still a legal job that pays money. Where Jesus was concerned, we find various Biblical accounts of how Christ made a specific point of addressing any abasement or denigration of women as a priority in the contexts he found himself. The woman caught in adultery is physically and morally liberated from the condemnation of her accusers. Jesus rebukes the men who try to eject Mary as she anoints him with oil. He has a dignified conversation with a Samaritan woman, and does not simply accept a cup of water from her, then dismiss her in search of some man to give his own “living water” to. In every situation that warranted it, Jesus stopped the men present in their acts of oppressing or abusing women. He actively indicated that the men see the women around them as people, and not ignore or redefine them merely as objects. They were not wallpaper. They were not accessories. To Him, they were not symbols or stereotypes, or simply “prostitutes and whores”. It strikes me that Jesus did not ever consider the women whose company he found himself to be some kind of general political or social vignette against which he might conveniently set himself. Jesus always saw the people he was with, whatever their gender or social standing.
I can’t help thinking that an evangelist who has an article published in a porn magazine may not really be hoping to actively proselytise either the readers or the industry generally. I don’t even know if Childers is aware the article appears in Penthouse. However it came to be there, it strikes me as a kind of “cred by association” grab. Perhaps his “people” are trying to sell Childers’ brand to consumers of a certain type, a certain ilk. Blokey men. Macho men. Men who like porn. Men who like to look at pictures of naked women and masturbate over them. Childers is a pretty blokey kind of guy, by all accounts. A publicist attached to him it seems sees porn consumers as a tenable market for the Machine Gun Preacher brand. My (male) friends on Facebook magnanimously remarked that Childers message might actually turn men from their consuming of porn. By that logic, at least in their minds, the end justifies the means. Now, I havent seen the article yet so can’t comment on specifics, but if you think about it, publishing an article that discourages men from consuming porn would be a pretty stupid step for the editor of a porn magazine to take. The pastor who gloated on Facebook about the article said he felt the piece really spoke to men about how they can aspire to a mission greater than their own penis, and that perhaps the article might encourage readers – or are they viewers? what do you call people who consume porn magazines? – to seek out other, healthier avenues to vent their masculinity. I wonder if the pastor considered that his evangelist friends appearance in a porn mag without any reference what his attitude might be towards it might already speak volumes to readers about what he considers to be healthy avenues to vent their masculinity.
Now, I’d just like to say that I’m not condemning people who use porn, or saying it makes good people into bad people. Christians have been saying this for a very long time I know, because it’s behooved them to make people feel bad so they can have them join in their church-ordained activities they believe will make them feel like they are good again. I know full well that guys and girls of all ages, sexual orientations and dispositions like porn. Some of the nicest and most wonderful people you and I know like porn. This is not about whether people who use porn are bad people. I happen to think the world would be a better place without porn, because for me it’s not necessary, and I believe it can be unhealthy and cause all kinds of problems, kind of like smoking cigarettes. But I appreciate that an awful lot of people smoke cigarettes, and feel it is absolutely necessary. I understand, I too used to smoke. For the people who’d like to stop smoking cigarettes – or using porn – because it’s unnecessary and is causing them harm, there is help available. You might not get that help from your friendly neighbourhood Christian, at least not in a form you’d deem helpful, but there is help.
I’ve heard some things about a new church movement called XXX who are outreaching to the porn industry, and good for them. Creating relationships and sharing the gospel is the heart of the Message, God knows. But as Dr. Phil says, we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. You will not be evangelising porn consumers or industry workers and employers by simply placing your product on their shelves. XXX apparently go to sex expos and pay for stalls so they can walk around and actually talk to people about who they are, what they do, and give out Bibles and build networks. If you say you want to preach the gospel in the porn industry, then it won’t be accomplished by simply placing an ad or piece of editorial in their publication promoting your product. That’s good marketing, but it’s not good preaching. It’s certainly not evangelising. It’s absolutely not building supportive relationships, unless you’re talking about the commercial kind. And perhaps that’s exactly what we’re talking about. I will say though that if you enter a marketplace and pretend you don’t see the human souls all around you, or just some of them, or some in preference over others because it suits you, that’s not bringing Christ. If you’re a minister, and you get your mug in a porn magazine all the while pretending you’re not surrounded by pornography, that is bloody spiritual misogyny.
Those who believe that it’s okay to ignore any of the damaging, misogynistic and exploitative and implications of pornography in order to “preach” to consumers are misguided to say the least. At worst, they are compounding these aspects, perhaps even counting on them. Women who have their pictures taken for porn mags are not “sluts and whores”, nor are they merely plebian masses to be brushed past so the more important men can be reached with the gospel, as if it could ever really be okay to treat the naked bodies of women as wallpaper, just to get a few *wankers* proselytized. Pun intended.
NOTE – I have emailed the editorial department of Australian Penthouse asking for the article in question to be emailed to me so I can view the actual context and ascertain the intended message. So far I have had no response from them. Until such times as I receive the article and am convinced my perceptions regarding the intent and context are incorrect, my opinion on the subject stands.
POST SCRIPT – Penthouse emailed me a PDF of the article. It briefly outlines Childers past as a militant in Sudan, which followed his becoming a Christian in the US. The article is brief, contains no implicit or explicit references to the gospel at all, nor does Childers make any reference to the context in which this particular piece appears – ie; he doesn’t mention porn, or preach against it, as many of those who criticised my article proposed he might. In fact, true to the style of the magazine, most of the article consists of photographs: 12 in fact over two and a half pages, showing Childers either holding guns, wearing army fatigues, standing in front of military vehicles, preaching from a pulpit and posing with a Sudanese child. The actual article appears to be just a few loosely assembled paragraphs designed to fill in the spaces between the photos. It’s not evangelism, by any stretch. The article ends halfway down a page, the rest of which is taken up by a half page ad for a phone sex company, consisting of about a dozen pornographic thumbnail photographs. I guess it’s safe to say my original opinion is unchanged.