The divine actor

We are in the last times before Jesus returns again writes Evangelical Christian Alex Monro

Evangelical ("good news") Christianity celebrates a God of speech and action who is involved in the world. Evangelicalism puts God at centre-stage in the drama of human history, which it depicts as a story of unrequited love.

This God spoke to humanity through history in a crescendo of revelation that climaxed in the life, words, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Evangelicals believe God's authorship of the universe is already communicated to us in the order, complexity and beauty of the material world. Moreover, he has made himself known through a people he chose, through prophets he appointed and, finally, through Jesus of Nazareth, "the word made flesh". (The biblical God is Trinitarian, father, son and spirit - from the first book of the Old Testament God often uses the first person plural and Genesis 1 verse 2 refers to the spirit of God "hovering over the waters" - but the perfect unity of the three persons means he can only be counted as one God).

God's authorship of all is the essence of evangelical faith. Hebrews 12:2 described Jesus as "the founder and perfecter of our faith". We believe that life, salvation and hope come from him.

Humanity plays its part in this divine drama too, but as Goneril, the ungrateful daughter who takes all her father gives him before turning her back to him. No prayers, pilgrimages, religious observance, social action or costly acts of generosity can mitigate humanity's guilt before this perfectly just God. This is the low point in the history of God's world, and the hallmarks of it are plain - discord, decay and death.

God is far from finished with mankind, however, and chooses Abraham as the first player in a new plan for the fallen creation - Abraham has righteousness "credited to him" by God because of his faith (and, crucially, before he is circumcised). The books of the Old Testament tell the stories of many such men and women of faith, and Hebrews 11 lists a number of them for us - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and others. The writer of Hebrews says they were approved thanks to their faith in God, not to their works or ethnicity - yet even faith is from God, as Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast"

But all these sinners are only a shadow of the climax of God's earthly play, which comes to life with an unprecedented deus ex machina that flies in the face of human religiosity. God the son becomes man, is born in a disreputable town, lives as a refugee among an occupied people in a far corner of the Roman Empire and is unjustly killed as a common criminal, rejected by his followers and his friends. He is the antithesis of a manmade God - earthly political ambition (such as Zionism) is not a feature of truly evangelical Christianity.

This shameful death is Jesus' crowning glory, as he himself pays the blood price for the sins of those who rejected his rule and his plan. He does it for no good reason, except that his justice and his love demand it as the only solution. The result is that Christ takes on human sinfulness so that humanity can take on Christ's purity, and be restored to God. The biblical accounts describe how, at the moment Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain that had divided sinful man from a perfect God is torn in two. The curtain, it says, is torn from above - humanity has done nothing to earn its salvation. The resurrection is the display of God's final victory over sin and over its Siamese twin, death.

The play has reached its penultimate act. Christ has risen and returned to the father and these are "the last times" before he returns again. It is in these last times that Christians are called to take to heart Jesus' final words to his closest followers. "Go and make disciples of all nations", before God calls human history to an end so that justice can finally be done and followers of his "from every nation, tribe, people and language" be brought into his presence forever.

Alex studied French, then Chinese before pursuing a career in journalism. He now works for Trusted Sources, a political and economic risk consultancy, where he is a China analyst
ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times