Simon Blackburn’s Lust: A Review

In 2002 and 2003, the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press hosted seven lectures on the seven deadly sins.  The lecturers were from various fields and approached the topics from differing angles.  The lecture on lust was delivered by Simon Blackburn.  His lecture, along with the others, were all later published as a series of books on the sins.  I noted this when these first came out about a decade ago, but I remembered it specifically some weeks ago when I was preparing to preach on Jesus’ words concerning lust from the Sermon on the Mount.  I was happy to see that philosopher Simon Blackburn’s volume, Lust, was available on Kindle, and I found it to be an interesting if saddening read.

I knew, of course, that I would not be reading a Christian take on lust, but I was interested nonetheless to see how a philosopher like Blackburn would approach the subject.  Again, the book is very interesting and I actually drew a number of illustrations from it for the sermon.  Blackburn is at his best in trying to define lust and in giving illustrations, often literary, of what lust is.  He defines lust as “essentially the anticipation of the pleasures of sexual activity” and notes that “lust is not only desire, but desire that is felt, the storm that floods the body, that heats and boils and excites” (Kin.Loc.171,178).  His summary definition is helpful:

Putting it all together, we are talking about the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake, and from now on that is what we shall take lust to mean.

Blackburn makes some memorable observations (“Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic.” Kin.Loc.63) as well as some patently absurd ones (“Sexual climax…drives out prayer, which is part of the church’s complaint about it.” Kin.Loc.223).  He does rightly show that some Christians have taken a tragically low view of sex itself.  I would simply want to point out, however, that Scripture itself does not take this low view, and that the view that sex is inherently dirty or wicked is a blasphemous notion to orthodox Christians who see creation as good.  Sex is not dirty, but the abuse or misappropriation of it is.

Anyway, his survey of approaches to lust, religious and otherwise, is indeed interesting and helpful, but Blackburn’s great error is in his dismissal of the Christian sexual ethic and in his possible caricaturing of it as well.  Blackburn’s personal conclusion is rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ notion of lust as a movement towards human completion.  He likens lust, when it is reciprocated, as something of a symphony, a relationship between two people in which lust acts as an agent of longing for unity.

What is interesting about this is that, as I read it, this mitigates a bit against Blackburn’s own earlier definition of lust as a desire for sex in itself.  What Hobbes seems to be describing would be something like mutual desire leading to completion.  As a believer, that is seen as a good thing so long as the sexual act of completion is reserved for the bonds of matrimony.  But lust itself is, I would say, a pernicious longing for pleasure that is dependent upon the objectification of another as an object of pleasure.  Which is simply to say that what makes lust a sin is its consumerism and objectification devoid of God and residing in a vacuum of the self.  It seeks to own and to use.  It does not desire reciprocal motions.

Reading philosophers is always a bit of a challenge, for it’s never really clear what exactly they’re saying, but as I understand Blackburn I think what we have here is simply a green light for a kind of benevolent lust that does not seek to harm another.  As a Christian, this view of human sexuality is naive, for it does not honor the divine intent of the marriage bed and it does not take into account the effects of lust on the human heart.  Lust is never benevolent.  It is always selfish.

It really is a very dangerous sin.

Randy Alcorn’s Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle

Randy Alcorn tweeted a couple of days ago that his little booklet, Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle, was available for free as a .pdf download.

It is, in all, just under 60 pages. As I read it yesterday, it struck me as a wonderful little primer on an important issue that I think could be read with great benefit by Sunday School classes, small groups, youth groups, etc. I think the brevity and simplicity of his approach may make this especially helpful for young people (though a few of the case studies he points to at the very beginning are quite intense, if still briefly presented).

Alcorn first offers some basic facts about sexual temptation:

  • We are targeted for sexual immorality.
  • We are vulnerable to sexual immorality.
  • We are fully responsible for our moral choices.

He then offers helpful suggestions and advice concerning cultivating our inner lives, guarding our minds, and taking precautions with the opposite sex. He warns against subtle signs of attraction and the various ways we rationalize immoral behavior. Furthermore, he gives sound advice on cultivating your marriage, on being honest with your spouse, on accountability, and on confession and repentance.

His section on counting the cost of sin was very well done. In it, he offers a partial list of the effects of being caught in sexual sin. It is a sobering list and one well worth heeding. He concludes on a positive note, encouraging the reader to victory in this vital and difficult area of life.

Again, this is quite a good little look at the issue of sexual temptation. If you know somebody who could benefit from it, by all means send them the .pdf.

Al Mohler’s Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is an astute cultural observer and commentator.  I approached his earlier book, Culture Shift(reviewed here), a bit reluctantly (I’m generally weary of a lot of culture war material), but was so impressed by the keen insights I found there that I decided to read his Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance.  I’m glad I did.

Desire and Deceit is a concise, well-organized diagnosis of the sexual wasteland that modern culture finds itself in as well as a powerful proposal for the church to counteract this madness through radical fidelity to God’s ideal of sexual love within the covenant marriage bond.  Mohler addresses pornography, homosexuality, and some of the key figures that have sought and are seeking to redefine basic sexual mores in our times.

I found his chapter on Kinsey to be absolutely unsettling.  Furthermore, his discussion of the homosexual movement’s cultural, political, and theological agenda is well-documented, convincing, and reflects deep and seasoned Christian cultural analysis at its finest.  Mohler somehow manages to avoid the typical hysterical tone that many a red-faced Christian culture warrior puts forth while at the same time writing with passion and genuine concern.

Mohler is reminiscent of early Schaeffer here, or of modern Guinness, and he has done the church a valuable service.  In truth, I needed this book.  In a sense, it is difficult to live in our society, with its constant barrage of secularism and sexual anarchy, and not grow fatigued by the sheer immensity of the anti-Christian forces in our culture.  This fatigue, in turn, leads not so much to disinterest as a sense of resignation with the way things are.  Mohler has cut through the fog here and reminded all of us of what exactly is at stake.  Most importantly, he transcends shrill platitudes and calls, correctly, for the church to lovingly but clearly disarm and win over Christianity’s cultural despisers by showing them in our own lives and homes the beauty and majesty of biblical relationships and covenant marital fidelity.