2 Live Crew and Mapplethorpe’s photos may be legal now, but the fight for decency isn’t over.

Nineteen-ninety may well be remembered as the year when decadence duked it out with decency—and it looked like decadence might win. The champions of decency lost a few rounds as 2 Live Crew and the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe took refuge under the banner of Art, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) told producers of X-rated material they would no longer have to wear that scarlet letter.

After these losses, we are worried that indecency is becoming “decent” in the land. Our courts, Hollywood boardrooms, and fine-arts centers seem increasingly to favor freedom of expression over common decency—and common sense.

Defensible reasons can be found, of course, constitutional and otherwise, for 2 Live Crew to be acquitted, as it recently was, for obscenity charges. The groups’ lyrics are offensive, obnoxious, and misogynist, but the defense marshaled experts who claimed the rappers’ “nasty as they wanna be” grossness had artistic merit. The music, it was claimed, did more than appeal merely to prurient interests, a key factor in applying the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Much the same line of defense was successfully employed in Cincinnati, where a local jury acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center (and its director) of obscenity charges for exhibiting such Robert Mapplethorpe photographs as one of a man urinating into another’s mouth and of nude children with their genitals prominently featured. The label art, it seems, covers a multitude of sins. Especially when the prosecution fails to mount a persuasive alternate view.

But something more than legal definitions of obscenity is at work. We are witnessing an erosion of public standards, and a weakening of public will. Indeed, the pounding away on decency is not limited to the arena of the courtroom.

Witness the MPAA’s creation of the NC-17 rating for films that would otherwise wear an X (and face near-certain death at the box office). Movies once confined to back-street movie houses are now playing in the same shopping-mall theaters frequented by youngsters. In the “family” theaters of this country, Henry and June have moved in next door to Fantasia. It’s hard not to be cynical about the ratings system’s professed goal to serve parents when this decision promises a windfall to directors and distributors.

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Things have not fared well, either, for those favoring National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) restrictions on the granting of public funds to artists. The hue and cry of censorship bedeviled the agency, and they quickly dropped a requirement that grant recipients pledge not to violate congressionally imposed obscenity restrictions. As of this writing, the only guideline facing the NEA is that grants are made “taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” Let’s just call it bureaucratic window dressing.

Unfortunately, in the new climate, talk of public scrutiny, moral sensitivity, or concern about young minds is in danger of being deemed the Philistinism of the “booboisie.” But we must not throw in the towel. Christians must unite in mounting a counteroffensive through our families, churches, schools, and other institutions. The legal issues surrounding public standards may be complex, but the moral imperatives are not. We must not abandon the ring of public debate to those who would use freedom of speech as an excuse to be as morally offensive as they “wanna” be.

By Timothy K. Jones.

Saddam Hussein is not the Messiah; but to hear some Christians talk, you’d think Baghdad’s reigning bully was the next best thing.

“It’s a time to rejoice for Christians,” said one television preacher, identifying the invasion of Kuwait as a precursor of Armageddon. “We’re going home.”

That evangelist may or may not be right in the way he ties Persian Gulf tensions into Bible prophecy; but the teaching of Scripture and the lessons of history should cause us to pause before making end-of-the-world predictions.

Such predictions can fuel a world-denying piety that wishes it were somewhere else than on the planet where God’s providence has placed us. Nineteenth-century Baptist lay preacher William Miller stirred up much apocalyptic fervor, using current events to predict Christ’s return. His message was not designed to transform the world, but to show people how to escape it. Although Miller later repented of his predictions, some of his followers formed an ongoing movement that shunned the world and promised escape.

Historians and social scientists who have studied Miller’s spiritual heirs note that this escape-hatch eschatology appeals largely to people from among the working class and the have-nots. We are not surprised. Assembly-line slaves are rarely at ease with the status quo. And escape-hatch eschatology has got one thing right: the second coming of Christ will liberate the oppressed. The prophecies of Revelation are primarily promises to the persecuted.

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But the escape artists have one major item wrong: the new order to which “we’re going home” is not to be found on some gold-paved, bemansioned suburbia in the sky. The Bible looks forward to both the gradual and the cataclysmic transformation of this planet and its civilizations. The Scriptures consistently locate God’s throne in heaven, but believers, it seems, are destined to inhabit a renewed Earth.

In the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13, Jesus warned his disciples not to read wars, earthquakes, or famines as signs of the end, for “this must take place, but the end is not yet.… This is but the beginning of the sufferings” (vv. 7–8). The key words in Jesus’ address were not predict and postulate, but endure (v. 13) and stay awake (v. 37). Thus, when Jesus invited his followers to note certain cataclysmic events as signs of the end (vv. 24–29), he immediately cautioned them: “of that day or of that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32). Apparently, those who are convinced the Persian Gulf tensions are the threshold of Armageddon are better informed than the angels.

Escape-hatch eschatology, in addition to being unbiblical, can lead to two foreign-policy follies: First, it may tempt us to help bring on Armageddon (by arming one side in the conflict). Second, it may offer the opposite temptation, to think that foreign policy doesn’t matter since the Earth will be destroyed (leading us to ignore issues of justice and human rights).

Escape-hatch eschatology may also distort our piety, for the ethics of the Gospels are closely tied to the eschatology of the Gospels: Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom is inescapably bound to his teaching about the persons we ought to be. That proclamation drove his listeners to live by a rule of reconciliation—not retaliation. The desert dwellers at Qumran were, however, not unlike today’s Saddam-watchers, looking for war and predicting the End. They had an eschatology of doom, which issued in a compulsion to live right—so that when the Judgment came, they could say, Good-bye, cruel world.

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All is not right with the world. Just as things were looking better and communism was collapsing, Saddam Hussein came along to remind us of that. He may be the last in a string of such reminders, or there may be many more. In a way, that doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we love the world God loves—or whether we’re eager to escape it.

By David Neff.

The great French novelist, Balzac, once referred to bureaucracy as “the giant power wielded by pigmies.” Maybe that explains why all those offices in Washington are so small. At any rate, tiny minds seemed to have been working overtime to stymie two projects that should be considered points of light.

In New York City, federal regulations requiring the installation of elevators in multi-story buildings forced Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity to abandon their work there among the homeless. Here is a case where it might have been better for the regulators to apply the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The very persons the regulations intended to protect ended up losing what they need most: respect and a chance to make it. In their appeal for an exemption, representatives from the order argued that it was their custom to carry the disabled over barriers, noting that the human touch reflected their high esteem for individuals. The bureaucrats relieved them of this burden, leaving the handicapped with the loss of yet another oasis of decency in a desert of rejection.

At least 117 similar havens for the downtrodden felt the bludgeon of bureaucracy when the Department of Labor told the Salvation Army to start paying minimum wages to participants in its work rehabilitation program. Never mind that the Salvation Army provides food, housing, and job training to the 70,000 men and women in this program. And never mind that without this program, most of those men and women would be dependent on welfare. Rules are rules.

We fully support the sound principles behind regulations to protect the handicapped, and we are thankful for generous minimum-wage standards. But when the application of any good law harms those who need its protection, something is wrong. In both cases, officials felt the loss of care for society’s unfortunate is a fair exchange for total compliance.

Not only is that not a fair exchange, it should be an intolerable one for all who care about the needy.

By Lyn Cryderman.

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