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Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart:
Cultivating a Sacramental Imagination in an Age of Pornography

edited by elizabeth t. groppe
catholic university of america, 368 pages, $35

Anyone who has tried to break a bad habit knows that it is far easier to change by seeking something better than simply by stopping something bad. This is the insight behind Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart, which counters the contemporary scourge of pornography with a Christian visual culture rooted in a broader sacramental imagination. 

This is no small task, as the first few essays, documenting the ravaging effects of pornography on relationships, mental health, and the vulnerable, demonstrate. Most pernicious is the way pornography “blinds us with one eye and coarsens us, concealing the [truly] sacramental character of the world from our sight.” Pornography is not so much a lack of sacramentality, but a rival sacramentality, an “anti-sacramentality.” “Jonah,” whose testimonial of porn addiction is one of the more powerful parts of the book, describes how “pornography lowers a man’s gaze and convinces him that the highest good to which he should aspire is a cheap, neurochemical ‘high,’ a high earned off the backs of exploited and abused women (and men).” The crisis of pornography is no less than a competition between rival visions of human fulfilment, and pornography is “perfect” in presenting an ephemeral, objectifying, abstracting, exploitative vision of “­flourishing.” 

Can prayer, Scripture, or the recollection of beauty successfully counteract pornography? Not on their own. The magnificent Christian visual culture portrayed throughout the volume is no rival to porn on the visual-­sensory level alone. But this Christian culture is embedded in a sacramental and liturgical imagination that ­engages all the senses, culminating in Eucharistic taste and touch, and pointing us toward the communion with others and God that constitutes true human flourishing. Jonah claims the power of porn cannot be resisted on one’s own. Only truly intimate and embodied interpersonal communion—whether through the works of mercy, friendship, marriage, or liturgy—can serve as a means to resist the power of porn. These are indeed foretastes of the telos of humanity that ­pornography subverts.

—William Mattison

Image by Nick Thompson via Creative Commons. Image cropped.