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Don Jon’s Religion: Why the Church Often Fails to Help Porn Addicts

Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Lisa Eldred

Lisa Eldred is the Educational Content Strategist at Covenant Eyes, and has 10 years of experience in researching and writing about porn addiction and recovery. She has authored numerous blog posts and ebooks, including More Than Single, Hobbies and Habits, and New Fruit, which was co-authored with Crystal Renaud Day. Her writing about faith and fandoms can be found at Love Thy Nerd.

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?”

Silence.

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.

As Tullian Tchividjian puts it,

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!

  • Comments on: Don Jon’s Religion: Why the Church Often Fails to Help Porn Addicts
    1. Matt on

      I appreciate the article and the core points, but it shows a deep misunderstanding of the sacrament of confession in its criticism of it. Disregarding the grace of God given through the sacraments and only valuing them to the extent they are a therapy or accountability session.

      I can understand how a non-Catholic might misunderstand it, but it weakens the overall analysis quite a bit while confusing readers in the process.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Please elaborate. I don’t know if the Sacrament itself is explained as much as the portrayal of the Sacrament in the film (and thus the portrayal of it in pop culture in general).

    2. Rodney Jenness on

      You say that God will provide a way out. What if the way isn’t clearly shown? Some times I wonder if suicide is the only way out (just kidding)?
      I thank God for the ones that have found the way out!

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Often I find the ways out are very clear, but those ways seem too inconvenient or radical (or even simplistic), so we don’t take them. I know men who have gotten rid of computers and made policies for themselves never to travel alone, and this distancing from porn gave them the sobriety they needed to get their head clear enough to pursue lasting freedom. Yes, those are radical departures from “normal life,” but they were divinely appointed ways out, and these men took those ways.

    3. Marty Hayden on

      Luke I would be happy to give you the ‘nickle tour’ of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Or dime tour, if you are interested.

      Don Jon’s experiences in confession are bizarre at best. The Sacrament is rendered as soulless and stupid. I have been to confession hundreds of times with dozens of priests and have never come close to the creepiness portrayed in the film. Honestly, is anyone really that stupid? Be honest Luke: do you know any adults that would ever come back to that church? It really seems to defy the laws of Common Sense.

      Some have said that Catholics are the last remaining group in the West that can be openly slandered without any basis of fact or without any threat of reprisals. Imagine, if you would; what would happen if the Sader Dinner or if Ramadan were depicted in an mindless and depressing fashion?

      If Ramadan was portrayed that way the studio might get bombed. If the Sader where shown that way; well, let’s just say that particular movie would probably never get funded.

      Just keepin’ it real bro,

      Marty Hayden

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        I don’t deny what you’re saying. You’re absolutely right. But that’s the point of the article. When our religious experience starts to look like Don Jon’s over-caricaturized experiences, we should realize that the solutions we offer aren’t helping people. Of course, many people have not experienced Confession the way Don Jon has because his experience is the amalgamation of everything that could go wrong. But then there are those like yourself who can say: I’m so thankful that’s not my experience of this Sacrament. For others, it might be closer to the truth.

        And like Lisa writes here, the conclusion of the film is a damning one: just toss away the advice of the priest and go shoot some hoops. The film paints a picture of everything that could be wrong about religion and then hints that maybe we shouldn’t take religion seriously at all. Lisa offers a middle way and some advice to churches: In so far as your church is like Don’s, it is time to change your approach so we give to hurting, broken sinners what they truly need.

    4. Marty Hayden on

      Hi there Luke, thanks for your reply!

      Intellectual honesty.

      If Joseph Gordon-Levitt wanted to depict an amalgamation of everything that could go wrong, then he would have had the protagonist going to other churches and experiencing basically the same thing. It seems like that would accurately represent the word amalgamation.

      The filmmaker could have selected two or three of the over 90,000 Protest churches in the world.

      Sometimes it’s hard for us to see the world through other peoples eyes. To realize we are different, and to respect and celebrate those differences.

      Consider if the protagonist had to rid himself of his childhood demons. He fights, he prays, he shoots hoops, etc. His demons, it turns out, are a result of upbringing by his sadistically insane mother.

      Forgive me, but try to imagine that the mother in this movie is your very own dear mother. How would you feel? What if your mom were portrayed this way over and over again (and even by the good people)? Would you feel angry?

      Well, the Catholic faith has always taught that the church can be represented as the ‘Mother Church.’ Although made up of human persons (some of whom can be bad and even very bad), the church is nevertheless guided by the Holy Spirit.

      And this is true. We have even had some real scoundrel Popes! Yet the basic teachings of the church (called the Magesterium) has never changed. The Church’s doctrine on faith and morals has never changed despite a few bad apples.

      This film could have been awesome! I would have recommended it to so many people! Sadly, it ends up being a statement about one specific church.

      Intellectual Honesty.

      All the best,

      Marty Hayden

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        I really don’t disagree with you about how the film portrays Catholics. The film over-caricaturizes the Catholic church in a big way.

        All the same, that’s not the point of the article. The point of the article is to say that insofar as you see any of these unhelpful elements in the church, strive for something better without rejecting the church itself. The article is addressed to church leaders to be agents of change.

        I’m still trying to understand the nature of your objection to the article. You’ve said Lisa misunderstands Confession, but her critique was not of the Sacrament but of the movie’s portrayal of it. Please explain what you mean. Where specifically does she state something wrong about what Confession really is or really does?

    5. Jayson on

      Hello,

      I just realized CE’s has a blog. This is good for a few reasons. One right now is, that I need to be reading recovery material as part of my recovery. The blog provides a great way for me to do that. Short, helpful, informative articles. Thanks!

      I can understand the sensitivity to the post by my Catholic brothers in Christ. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I have been offended by an article, that depicted Christianity, or worse personalized it and depicted a Christian in a certain light. I probably lost the crux, or original intent of the article many times because of that.

      Lord knows, that there are plenty of Protestant churches out there that are doing the same, if not worse. I attended one, now I attend one that is much more helpful.

      Anyway, what Lisa is trying to say, is spot on as far as I am able to decipher. I think she could have gone into quite a bit more detail, and used less of a “movie in” approach. (You know, when you go to church, and they can’t seem to start off a service without a movie clip about what the sermon will be about).

      This part, is spotter than spot on:
      “”””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.”””””

      Quick fix would be for Lisa to Bold, font size Extra Large, and color red it.

      Other not so quick fix would be a blog addendum, or re-write, that focuses on the blog title “The Church”, and doesn’t get specific about what the movie involves. But then really, a re-write just not including the movie at all, and writing about how the “Church” is failing in this category, would be ok. ;)

      I don’t know Lisa at all, just started reading the blogs tonight, I can tell she’s not trying to bash the Catholic Church. It’s what’s in the movie, the church in the movie is a Catholic Church.

      Let’s use a full on Protestant example. I go to one of my elders at my previous church. I tell him I have a Pornography addiction. And I have been lying to my wife, since we’ve been married. Long story short, I reached out, my wife reached out years before that.

      I received no follow up, no phone calls, my wife was told to keep praying, and not to be too upset with me. I can’t even begin to describe how much my sin destroyed who my wife used to be, not because of the unhelpful advise we received, but because of my choices. The advise was certainly unhelpful to us both though.

      This article is about the Church, and how it could be extremely helpful/useful/Powerful in confronting and Destroying this garbage. It’s the one big secret that is destroying churches. The stigma attached to it is huge, and it’s a multi billion $$ industry, but no one seems to be looking at it.

      Lisa, this article was too short!

      Reply
    6. Marty Hayden on

      Hello there, maybe I posted this on the wrong blog. I wouldn’t be surprised if I made a mistake here!

      What I was trying to say was that the film got it wrong, not that Lisa got it wrong. Actually, I think she wrote a wonderful review, and I haven’t even seen the film!

      On the contrary; keep doing what you are doing. God Bless the CE team.

      MH

      Reply
    7. James on

      I think your ministry is extremely important because this sin is very prevalent in the church. Do you have any good ideas how churches can address this issue? Perhaps church leaders could directly question members about this. Maybe leaving flyers on a church book table about sexual sin and porn would help address this. I attended a conservative church and I observed groupthink in regard to men using porn. I was addicted but I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I was isolated and my addiction only got worse. My sin ended up destroying me. I wish my church would have done something proactive in addressing this sin. When I finally told church friends about my addiction, I discovered that I was not alone.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Great question, James. It is vital for church leaders to have an action plan concerning this. I highly recommend you read a paper I wrote on this subject called Fight Porn in Your Church.

    8. Lisa on

      I did not see his going into the gym to play basketball as a sign that he’s shrugging off penance, but rather a sign that he is more willing and able to interact with people.

      Reply

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