The lust of the eyes, as St. John the Theologian calls it, might be called the sin du jour. Ours is a visual society. Advertisements, television, movies, billboards, posters, Internet pop-up windows: Never before has mankind been bombarded by so many visual images whose chief aim is to attract our attention. Ours is the culture that excels above all others as a producer of things that appeal to the visual imagination.
Yet it is the development of the Internet that has brought the worst of the lust of the eyes—explicit pornography—into every American household. In a survey of pastors, 40 percent said that they had visited a pornographic website, and 37 percent said that this is a current struggle for them (Leadership Journal, Winter 2001). This is just from those pastors willing to admit such things. It is unlikely that the struggles among the laity are less profound.
Our Lord said, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Matthew 18:9). But so much has the “lust of the eyes” become engrained in our culture that such old Christian values seem prudish and outdated, even to otherwise morally upright believers. Consider John Chrysostom’s comments on the words of Christ:
Chrysostom equated theatergoers with adulterers, using Christ’s standards set forth elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount. Fourth-century theaters were often rather bawdy, but they probably weren’t terribly explicit by our standards, since although there were female roles, there were no female actors. But to John, theatergoers were those who, for entertainment, set their eyes (and minds) on things unchaste, and they were the ones he thought of as having “offensive eyes.” John was a prude. And a saint. (It is funny how often those traits run together.) He went on to say that just as we sever relationships with those who do us ill, so too should we treat theatergoers, for such people might draw us into the same net of sin. That is, just as we should pluck out an offensive eye or cut off an offensive hand, so too should we remove ourselves from such bad influences.
Among the church fathers, John Chrysostom was hardly alone in this view. So why does he seem like such a stick-in-the-mud? Perhaps it is because we have become unstuck and have lost our moorings.
Few people in our culture have not been exposed to unseemly visual images. In fact, 44 percent of children polled in a 2000 Time/CNN survey admitted to having visited X-rated sites or sites with sexual content. Not surprisingly, 43 percent of children surveyed—nearly the identical number—said they do not have rules about Internet use in their homes.
In dealing with this problem, perhaps the place for us to start is to establish rules for our children, and rules for ourselves. Not just rules in a legalistic sense (although that might be a good idea), but rules in a religious sense: rules of life. We need to think of how we wish to live as Christians every day, and form that into a rule such that it becomes a way of life for us. There are many excellent old sources of Rules available, but then again, these seem rather outdated for our sophisticated age. We wouldn’t want to be called a prude or, worse yet, a saint, now would we?
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Unmoored Sticks” first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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