Recently I had the opportunity to see a pre-release of Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directorial debut about a young man whose porn use interferes with his relationships.
While many Christians in particular would consider the movie to be highly inappropriate (see this post for full details), there were quite a few aspects to the story that are worth discussion. Art, after all, ought to motivate the viewer to reflect and act; and for all its explicit content, Don Jon is an artfully created film.
Don Jon Goes to Church
One of the fascinating aspects to the story—to a Christian, at least—is Jon’s relationship with his church. Jon the everyman is presented as a stereotypical Italian Catholic: free to sin from Monday through Saturday; absolved with a hand-slap in the confessional on Sunday.
His time in the confessional mirrors his daily experience. He recounts to the priest a running total of the number of sexual liaisons he’s had and the number of times he has masturbated to porn and is assigned a certain number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, which he repeats while lifting weights or doing sit-ups at the gym.
While he is exclusively seeing Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he confesses to sex “with only one woman who is not my wife” and lies about giving up porn to both Barbara and the priest; his penance is lightened slightly. When, in a fit of rage, he punches his fist through a car window (on his way to church), his penance is slightly higher. Usually it hovers around the 10 Hail Marys/10 Our Fathers mark.
By the end of the film, Jon has learned to replace the false intimacy of porn with the “true” intimacy of losing himself in another person (a problematic solution). In a much better mood, Jon skips up the church steps, practically beaming as he’s sitting in the family pew.
Then, when he enters the confessional, this (paraphrased) scene takes place:
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. Since my last confession, I have slept with one woman who is not my wife, and unlike a few months ago, when I said I quit porn…” Jon pauses. “You know, I’ve always wondered something. Is it always the same priest in there, or do you rotate or something?”
Jon, taken aback, continues. “Anyway, unlike a few months ago, when I said I quit porn, I really did this time.”
“Ten Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers.”
Jon is startled. “Really? I thought for sure it would be lower this time. Can you at least tell me how you got to that?”
There is a long pause. Finally, with hollow words, the priest speaks up. “You must have faith, my son,” he says.
The next time Jon heads to the gym—the usual site of his absolution—he starts heading toward the weight room as usual, but turns around. Instead, he heads into the basketball court to shoot some hoops and goof off with his friends. The message is clear. Jon has been shedding things that “don’t work” throughout the movie, and penance was just one more thing to shake.
The Never-Ending Cycle of Sin
It’s a damning conclusion. But the hollow response is also an accurate reflection of some churches, Catholic or Protestant, liturgical or contemporary. Some churches don’t call out porn use as a sin, or only give it lip service as a moral issue. Other churches may over-emphasize it as a sin and stigmatize porn users.
In other words, Jon’s pattern of sin-confess-penitence-sin probably looks familiar to most Christians, regardless of denomination…but that’s because often churches fail to provide the answers required to break the cycle.
So, then, what should churches do to help members trapped in sinful patterns?
1. The “Who”: Emphasize the Gospel over Formulas
While we never hear an excerpt of the homily when Jon attends Mass, it’s a reasonable assumption that he has never heard or understood the Gospel, of God becoming man, by whose wounds we are healed. His religion is more legalistic; his salvation and freedom is dependent on formulaic prayers. Jon arguably never understood the nature of sin—that it separates us from a loving God. Without a proper understanding of his own brokenness, there is no room in Jon’s life for Jesus to come in as the hero of the story.
2. The “Why”: Emphasize Gospel Accountability over Heartless Confession
In spite of not actually understanding the power sin has in his life, Jon does make a point of confessing every week, but by the end of the film it’s clear that it does him no good. Hail Marys do not lead to any sort of actual transformation in his life, nor does the priest encourage it in him.
Lest Protestants look smugly upon their stereotypical Catholic brethren, this problem is not unique to liturgical traditions (nor, I should add, do all Catholics fail at this). Many accountability groups, for example, lead to awkward confessions of sin and uncomfortable silence with no real help. Or the advice given may be formulaic and unhelpful, focused on modifying the behavior rather than looking at the underlying heart motivations and the transformative power of the Gospel.
The accountability I need, therefore, is the kind that corrects my natural tendency to focus on me—my obedience (or lack thereof), my performance (good or bad), my holiness—instead of on Christ and his obedience, performance, and holiness for me. We all possess a natural proclivity to turn God’s good news announcement that we’ve been set free into a narcissistic program of self-improvement. We need to be held accountable for that!
In short, confession for Jon was about punishment. In many churches and small groups, it’s about behavior modification. In reality, churches should guide their members to gospel-focused accountability. (Check out our e-book, Porn-Free Church, for more on creating a culture of accountability in the church.)
3. The “How”: Provide Support for Specific Sins
Jon’s priest is written as the worst kind of shepherd possible. Not only does he not point to the Gospel, he doesn’t even point to methods for Jon to break free from his sinful habits.
Simple Pavlovian behavior modification should not be the be-all, end-all of breaking sinful habits, but it often does need to be a part of the process. It’s easy to call habitual porn use a sin and to say, “Go now and sin no more.” Unfortunately, many sins (especially porn use) have deep neurological impacts. While miraculous changes can occur, resulting in a complete 180 on sinful behaviors, it’s not that easy for most people. They need time and support to retrain their mind.
Consider 1 Corinthians 10:13 for a minute: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (emphasis added). Paul does not say that people will automatically be able to endure sin. They are instead given a way to escape it.
Church leaders in particular need to be prepared to hand their congregants specific tools to help in the struggle. For many, Internet Accountability Reports have become the means through which they escape temptation. Just knowing that a report of their Internet activity will be sent to someone else has been enough motivation for many to resist the urge to click.
Software alone will be helpful for many, but pastors may also want to be prepared with a list of counselors. This is especially necessary for those whose porn use has led them to acting out through adultery, or for those whose marriages are on the brink of divorce as a result of porn use.
How is your church doing?
Is your church providing help for sinners, or are you forcing them to look elsewhere for answers? Does your church do anything that has worked well to support Gospel-centered accountability and healing? Let us know in the comments!