The Crucible of Our Formation
By: Phillip Johnston
Of all the alarming reports emerging from the current global pandemic, one of the most striking stories has nothing to do with overburdened hospital systems, infection numbers, or event cancellations.
Quite the contrary: When Italy announced that the entire country was going on lockdown on March 9, the world’s biggest pornography website — think YouTube, but for “adult” content — announced that its premium service would suddenly be free for all Italians for the entire month of March. No credit card information required; just log on for unlimited access to an endless stream of high-definition porn, algorithmically curated according to each user’s unique and ever-shifting preferences.
“Forza Italia,” proclaimed the company’s Twitter account, “we love you!”
The company added that a portion of their proceeds would be donated to local hospitals. Admirable, of course. But you don’t have to be a cynic to see that this simple business move is aimed at creating a new kind of person.
Confined to houses and apartments for the foreseeable future, individuals will seek relief from the onslaught of unsettling news reports and the piercing loneliness of trying to keep themselves and others uninfected. Humans are social creatures, but with cafes closed and church services suspended, personal screens come alive with the glittering prospect of comforting distraction. And who isn’t even a tiny bit sexually curious while home alone, lonely, and online?
The stage is set for turning an infrequent porn user into a voracious porn consumer. But the conditions are also optimal for awakening a person who never previously considered seeking relief from the vicissitudes of life in pornography to discover just how pleasurable these images can be. Our brains love the stuff.
The logic? Introduce quarantined individuals to free premium porn during the pandemic and come out the other side with an increased number of paying customers.
These enterprising pornographers expanded free premium access to locked down Spain and France on March 16. As of this writing, viewers in the US and Canada still have to pay. The story, however, provides a microcosm of a temptation that will beset all of us in this strange and unprecedented moment.
In these days and weeks of quarantine, each of us will be tempted to seek our own pleasure in isolation rather than seek our own good or the good of those around us. We will be changed by what we choose. The patterns of life we adopt while our regular responsibilities are on hold will shape who we will be when this is all over.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. "What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
Free premium porn is a pathway to personal change in these quarantined days, but there are other pathways on offer that stretch toward better destinations. Let’s look at four of them.
We’re likely to find ourselves with extended free time over the next few weeks. The first recourse for many of us will be to fill those hours with social media and streaming TV. There’s nothing wrong with either one, but the infinite scroll of our socials takes a toll on our mental health and bingeing shows all day is enough to make anyone numb to the world’s abundant beauty and need.
Rather than rushing toward easy stimulation, bring to mind a few topics you’ve been wanting to learn about or a skill you’ve been wanting to cultivate. Talk to some friends or do some creative online searching for the best books, articles, and other resources to help you pursue it.
If your library is still open, reserve a few books. If not, borrow from friends, call your local bookseller (they need you more than ever right now), or order online. Mark out a stretch in the day for your study time. If you’re still working from home, pick an evening or two each week to focus on your studies. Ask a few friends to join you from their homes at the same stretch of time and catch up with one another regularly about what you’re learning.
This is also an ideal time to pick a book from the library of Scripture and dig in. Log on to the BibleProject and print out a visual outline of a book to help you as you read. Consider making the acquaintance of a gifted commentator with a rich imagination. You won’t regret walking through Ecclesiastes with David Gibson or the book of Job with Christopher Ash. Dive into Samuel and Kings with Peter Leithart, Isaiah with Ray Ortlund, or any book of the New Testament with N.T. Wright.
By all means, catch up on a few shows during the pandemic — but also come out with an expanded mind and heart.
In a March 13 blog titled “On Digital Minimalism and Pandemics”, Cal Newport offered two pieces of advice for the days ahead. First, check the news only once a day. This won’t be easy, hence the second part: “distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.”
Certain members of our communities are in dire need of our “value-driven action” right now. If you’re young and healthy, make a list of people you know who are neither healthy nor young. Give them a phone call, send them an email, or set up a video chat. Offer to help them in any socially distanced way possible. This could look like picking up prescriptions, going grocery shopping, mailing packages, or acting as a free meal delivery service. Take the time to chat face-to-face with them, albeit from the suggested six feet of distance.
If the people you contact don’t have any immediate needs, keep checking in. Assure them of your desire to meet their needs. Even if they have other family and friends helping them, regular contact from you will help stem the tide of loneliness.
We pray for a low fatality rate from COVID-19, but high numbers are currently an inevitability. The list of people who need our help and friendship will only expand as this virus spreads. Keep your eyes and ears open each day for new people to serve.
“Wash hands, for sure,” writes Scott Sauls. “Then, wash feet.”
In his book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan suggests that we’ve become too busy “when we stop caring about the things we care about”. The nonstop stimulation of life in the modern world makes it so easy to forget what matters most, particularly the people we once actively loved but have lately forgotten.
Listen to the wise pastoral counsel of Kenneth Tanner in a recent letter to his congregation:
We can take this moment to have those conversations we need to have, or contemplate in silence the goodness of God, or pick up the phone and talk to each other, or write handwritten letters/cards and post them to the quarantined.
We can learn what it means to simply be with our close friends and family without electronic distractions. There are so many good interpersonal interactions we put off.
Now is the time to pursue these connections and conversations, even at a distance. The internet can be more than entertainment and distraction. Things like Skype and FaceTime can connect us face to face when we need to spend time apart.
How wonderful might it be to walk out of this pandemic a better friend than we were when it began?
Consider these words of Augustine, a father of the church who lived through no shortage of pestilence and plague: “Faith pours out prayer, and the pouring out of prayer obtains the strengthening of faith.”
Faith isn’t simply our belief in what Jesus has done, but our posture toward what he will do. When we take our minuscule amount of faith and channel it into prayer, our faith is strengthened and we are changed. Faithful prayer fashions us into people who are capable of acting in faith.
The inverse is also true: If we neglect our small amount of faith, it will shrink — and we will be gradually fashioned into paralyzed, destructive, or resentful people who do not reflect the character of Jesus.
A high bar for many of us, but now is the time to strengthen these spiritual muscles. We will need them for the days ahead.
During these days of quarantine, look into praying the daily office from Every Moment Holy or The Book of Common Prayer. Pick up a classic book on prayer like C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer or a new one like John Starke’s The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World.
Read or listen to the audiobook slowly in the early hours of the morning before you check the news. Offer prayer to God as you go. Expect to be changed.
We will all be changed by this pandemic, but Christians hold out the certain hope of positive change through pathways like these, not because we are especially wise or disciplined but because we do not walk them alone.
We learn by the Spirit of Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). We serve by the Spirit of Jesus, who came among us as the One who serves (Luke 22:27). We reconnect with those we love by the Spirit of Jesus, who is a friend of sinners like us (Luke 7:34). And we pray by the Spirit of Jesus, who offers up our desires to the Father in his own voice (Hebrews 7:25).
“The crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines,” writes Tish Harrison Warren. Walking by the Spirit of Jesus, we can hear these as words of hope. Who will you become in these precarious, precious days?