A few years ago I was sitting in a ward council meeting when my bishop told a story. A young man in our ward, he said, had been struggling with pornography addiction. But over the last few months that young man (whose anonymity the bishop preserved) had confessed and was working to overcome his problem.
Despite this young man’s confession and his desire to change, he was having a rough go of it. He’d fallen into a pattern, the bishop explained. He’d commit himself to avoiding pornography with the sincerest conviction, but in isolated moments, he’d let himself be drawn back to it. Afterwards, he’d be wracked with guilt, call the bishop, and renew his commitment to stop his interactions with pornographic material. This pattern, it seemed, had been going on for months.
Earlier that week, the bishop said, this young man was home alone. His parents were out shopping, and the internet—his window to pornography—was right there. He felt his old urges well up, so he tried to distract himself. He played video games. He ate a sandwich. He watched television. But through all of it, the temptation to get online and seek out pornography stayed with him.
He decided to check the mail. His hopes, the bishop reported, were that some distraction in his mailbox—a letter from a friend or maybe even an interesting piece of junk mail—would rescue him. But the only thing in the mailbox was a Kmart advertisement.
This young man flipped through it, and on one of the pages, he saw pictures of women wearing bras.
And for this broken, distressed young man, the game was then over. He let the rather mundane images of women in their underwear undo his resolve, and he succumbed to temptation.
My bishop’s point in telling this story was to illustrate just how difficult it can be to extricate ourselves from addiction’s ugly grasp, and to remind us that we need to be vigilant, because even simple, everyday things, like Kmart ads, can tempt us.
I agree with my bishop’s points here. I believe we must be vigilant, and though I don’t know who this young man is or what eventually came of him, I long for his healing, and I hope he’s managed to break his addiction.
I share this story here, however, for a very different reason.
I want to make a point about texts and how readers use them. I think this story illustrates an important idea—that the morality of a text is intrinsically linked to what readers do with those texts. I’m not comfortable, for example, calling the Kmart ad in this young man’s story “pornography.” Though the Kmart mailer did present women in their underwear, I don’t think sexually healthy people are aroused or titillated by Kmart advertisements.
So, the Kmart ad in this story isn’t an immoral text (at least not in a pornographic way). But it isn’t a moral text either. It’s just a text—a mindless mailer designed to showcase Kmart products and prices. It’s neither moral nor immoral. It’s amoral.
But it was used by the young man in my bishop’s story in a decidedly unhealthy way. So here’s what I’m thinking:
Perhaps what constitutes moral and immoral art is less a product of texts themselves and more a product of how readers interact with them.
Consider, for example, this scene from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a book I regularly teach at BYU-Idaho. The main character, a teenager named Holden Caulfield, is staying in a hotel in New York City, and he’s accepted a prostitute into his room. I’ll start the scene when the prostitute asks Holden his age:
“Hey, how old are you, anyways?”
“Like fun you are.”
It was a funny thing to say. It sounded like a real kid. You’d think a prostitute and all would say “Like hell you are” or “Cut the crap” instead of “Like fun you are.”
“How old are you?” I asked her.
“Old enough to know better,” she said. She was really witty. “Ya got a watch on ya?” she asked me again, and then she stood up and pulled her dress over her head.
I certainly felt peculiar when she did that. I mean she did it so sudden and all. I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.
“Ya got a watch on ya, hey?”
“No. No, I don’t,” I said. Boy, was I feeling peculiar. “What’s your name?” I asked her. All she had on was this pink slip. It was really quite embarrassing. It really was.
“Sunny,” she said. “Let’s go, hey.”
“Don’t you feel like talking for a while?” I asked her.
Having encountered this scene, readers have a choice. How will we choose to process what’s going on here? Perhaps somewhere there is an immature reader who will fixate on Sunny pulling “her dress over her head” or on her wearing nothing but a “pink slip” and use these images to gratify selfish desires.
Or perhaps there are other immature readers who will see a prostitute undressing in front of a teenage boy and condemn the book on its subject matter alone. “What’s happening here is wrong,” these readers might say, “and I don’t want this wrongness anywhere in my life.”
But what’s really going on in this scene? Is this scene meant, even remotely, to be sexually gratifying? Absolutely not. When Sunny begins undressing, Holden feels “peculiar” and “depressed.” His encounter with Sunny is full of lies about names and ages and, more significantly, intimate emotions.
This is what we should take away from this scene—not any twisted sexual gratification at having witnessed a woman undressing in print, not any equally twisted moral objections to mature issues being handled in literature, but an acute awareness that hollow physical intimacy leads to depression and discomfort and is not a real cure for loneliness.
That’s Salinger’s point. And it’s a beautiful one, but Salinger can’t just drag us to that conclusion. We have to choose to go there with him. And if we choose instead to interact with Salinger’s text in an unhealthy or immature way, we can get left behind. We can even, if we choose, use this text to gratify immoral desires.
So, it seems that at least some of the burden of creating moral art falls squarely on readers and on how those readers choose to interact with texts.
Of course, all of this talk about readers’ choices and responsibilities doesn’t excuse writers, and these musings are not an attempt to pass on to readers the responsibility to create moral literature. Those of us who write still have an intense responsibility to create works that are honest and moral.
And I understand there are potential pitfalls with the ideas I’ve outlined here. For example, certain texts are simply not worth examining. There’s just not enough ethical or moral material in them for us to work with. Literature that turns people into sex objects, celebrates immoral behavior, or ignores the natural consequences of actions seems particularly troubling. And I’m uncomfortable with the argument that we can read whatever literature we want as long as we don’t use it in a bad way.
In all honesty, my musings here scare me a little bit. Because my argument, if truly understood, doesn’t make it easier for us to read “bad” literature. In fact, my argument makes it harder for us to read anything. If readers are somewhat responsible for drawing morality out of a text, then reading turns into a non-passive act. Reading becomes an active moral pursuit—a quest to uncover and create that which is virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy, not through sifting the good from the bad, but through developing a sustained habit of constantly choosing the most moral, mature path.