John Goerke is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in the field of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, MN. @JohnGoerke
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.- Leviticus 18:22
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.- Exodus 21:7
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.- Exodus 35:2
And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.- Leviticus 11:7
Of all the characters on The West Wing, Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett is consistently my least favorite. Rumor has it that Aaron Sorkin originally intended to only have him appear occasionally and in passing. But thanks to his memorable speech at the end of the pilot, which began “I am the Lord, your God,” Sheen’s character appears in almost every episode.
The rub is that President Bartlett, like the actor portraying him, is both a liberal Democrat and a Catholic. Sorkin, whose usually stellar writing has a homosexual Congressman arguing against gay marriage and cocky Democrat getting smacked around by a young Republican woman on national television, adopts a much less interesting perspective when concerned with matters of faith. So called “conservative” Christians usually appear as either completely incompetent or openly hostile. The speech at the end of the pilot was directed against the second type of Sorkinean Christian, three lobbyists petitioning the President to say that handing condoms out like bubble gum might be a bad thing for kids. They leave being labeled as bigots because an anti-abortion group (with which they were not affiliated) sent President Bartlett’s granddaughter a doll with a knife through it.
Helen Rittelmeyer once wrote that for Sorkin, the plural form of the word ‘Christian’ is ‘lynch mob.’ A more careful description, at least as far as The West Wing is concerned, might be that, for Sorkin, the plural of the word ‘Christian’ is ‘hypocrites.’ In addition to the pilot episode’s rant by the President about abortion, the voice of Martin Sheen again sounded off for liberal political causes in a monologue directed at Dr. Jenna Jacobs about homosexuality. Dr. Jacobs, based on radio personality Dr. Laura Schlesinger, gets a good thrashing by the President because she uses the Bible to say that homosexuality is wrong, per Leviticus 18:22. In a rip-off of a letter directed at the real Dr. Laura, Sheen’s Bartlett raises a series of questions derived from other Levitical laws.
Questions about slavery and a good price for the children, what ought to be done about a neighbor who doesn’t appreciate the smell of bulls being sacrificed, does one need 20/20 vision in order to approach the altar of God…all these and more are hurled about as if they were a knock-down argument against Christian “homophobes.”
These critiques of Leviticus, at first blush, seem to demand a response rooted in careful biblical exegesis. The laws of Leviticus are actually prescriptions intended for specific sectors of the nation of Israel. Couched around those exciting injunctions to kill people are dense levels of context which help to explain their purpose. But careful Biblical analysis isn’t very popular these days, as the bank accounts of John Dominic Crossan or Reza Aslan will attest. Slippery scholarship pays.
Besides, the critics of the laws of Leviticus merely use them as a means to critique laws in general. In more than a few conversations, the letter to Dr. Laura has come up implicitly. Questions about hard and fast Biblical rules quickly give way to questions about the need for rules at all. Moral absolutes, rules that may not be transgressed ever, are old hat, so the thinking goes. “The golden rule is that there is no Golden Rule,” argued George Bernard Shaw. It is now a matter of controversy to post the Ten Commandments in a court house, as if a court of law would be better were it merely a court of common opinion.
The plain fact is, human nature demands laws. Once we do away with the laws of God, others will creep into their place. A quick survey of the publications on offer at my local grocery store reveals reams of new commandments to be obeyed. The cashier is clouded by self-help mags and sex how-tos. From “3 Simple Steps to a New Size” to “Follow this Simple Trick to Drive Him Wild,” rules seem to be the only way to achieve happiness.
Even in higher culture, art culture for instance, the paintings of Monet or even Banksy have distinct shapes, that is to say: they have limits. Chesterton said of this need for limits, “I have spent the greater part of my life in an unsuccessful attempt to explain it.” What is in need of explanation is the concept of liberty. Carter Skeel, over at the Intercollegiate Review, differentiates between negative liberty (freedom from) and positive liberty (freedom to). His argument sits squarely on the question of which external authority we ought to succumb to. “When God is the dictator, totalitarianism doesn’t seem so bad.” I can almost hear Christopher Hitchens turning over in his…well you know…body donated to science.
Chesterton and I are rather concerned with a different kind of liberty than Mr. Skeel. “I have felt that the world is conceiving of liberty as something that merely works outwards.” writes Chesterton, “And I have always conceived it as something that works inwards.” The liberty that saves, the liberty of the Saints, is not merely a matter of adherence to external laws but an even more radical adherence to internal laws. St. Jose Maria Escriva called getting out of bed on time: “the first battle of the day.” Blessed John Henry Newman would toast to conscience before toasting the Pope.
The joy of self-limitation, far from being the purview of sour-faced saints (perish the thought), is quite obvious in the lives and ways of children.
It is plain on the face of the facts that the child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exalt in a challenge that he has offered to himself.
My sister and I were once given to the bizarre rule that only one of us could possess the couch at any given time. Save for the times when our parents would tell us to get up to do something, leaving the couch meant losing the couch. So, eager to invent some limits, we would race downstairs to claim the couch, and only then would we reach the 6 or so feet to turn on the TV. In childhood, this meant keeping a single foot on the couch while the rest of our body stretched out over the abyss of carpet, straining to reach the buttons.
Take another example. Upon receiving my first headlamp, it was the dead of winter. While still in my Godzilla pajamas, I giddily found some AA batteries and immediately began exploring my cave. The cave in question was actually my living room, but in my mind, I could see the low-hanging rocks and dangerous pools. My avoidance of certain patches of carpet as well as the lengths to which I would contort myself as I maneuvered over a few square feet of carpet, must have appeared very bizarre to my mother since she snapped a photo of me carrying on with my shenanigans. Looking at the photo, I can still see the rock cave that once occupied my living room…and thats about it, since my mother mistakenly stood behind a stalagmite when she took the picture.
The eternal interest of the Noah’s Ark, considered as a toy, consists in its complete suggestion of compactness and isolation; of creatures so comically remote and fantastic being all locked up in one box; as if Noah had been told to pack up the sun and moon with his luggage. In other words, it is exactly the same game that I have played myself, by piling all the things I wanted on a sofa, and imagining that the carpet around me was the surrounding sea.
The skeptic may reply that Chesterton’s reflections, and my own, only serve to demonstrate that any child can be happy with a couch and a few yards of wholly shag. But the joy found is not from the objects themselves, but from the limits and rules placed on and around them. What has this to do with pornography? It should be obvious. The carpet will drown the animals and the odd blocks in the sidewalk are made of lava. They must be avoided with all due caution to avoid pain and suffering. How much more rewarding for us grown children to avoid something which actually can burn us? Once we re-awaken our childlike wisdom concerning self-imposed rules, we may only then be able to rid ourselves, and the world, of pornography.