Shame Over What?
Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for their annual awards show. It marked the end of the prognostication season and ushered in the season of bemoaning the films and performances that were overlooked in the various categories. One film that was overlooked is Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” Many who follow Hollywood’s awards circuit had projected a Best Actor nomination for the film’s lead, Michael Fassbender. Fassbender, whose work earned him a Golden Globe nomination, plays Brandon, a Manhattanite struggling with sex addiction. While the role and the film came up empty with the Academy, they provide an interesting psychological and sociological subject. In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit I haven’t seen the film. The reason I haven’t seen it is perhaps the same reason it was snubbed by the Oscars: the MPAA rated it NC-17.
To say that the subject matter is complex and interesting doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. There have been a number of films that have dealt with drug or alcohol addiction, but none (at least that I’m aware of) that have dealt in any kind of meaningful way with sex addiction. This may be because it wasn’t recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1987. Even today there are differences of opinion among medical and psychological experts over whether such a condition even exists. My curiosity lead me to reading reviews of the film to get a sense of how McQueen dealt with the subject. The more I read, the more what stood out to me was not so much anything about the film itself, but the way in which many of the reviewers think about sex addiction. Roger Ebert calls Brandon’s condition “his cross to bear.” I suspect he and other critics who have expressed similar sentiments are not unique in their perspective.
Painting with broad strokes, the culture at large is in a difficult spot when it comes to sexual addiction. A culture that has fully embraced the Sexual Revolution and has cut ties with a Judeo-Christian morality when it comes to sexuality can offer little more than pity to the one who finds himself in Brandon’s shoes. In contrast to the drug addict, whom we can all empathize with in his fight with the seemingly unquenchable cravings while at the same time giving a disapproving shake of the head to the decision he made to mess with the drugs in the first place, when it comes to the sex addict the culture can only shrug and feel sorry for them. Sorry that the individual no longer experiences the same pleasure from their sexual conquests. There is no accompanying shaking of the head towards the person for having indulged in sexual promiscuity and pornography in the first place. After all, the culture doesn’t believe these are wrong. This may be why the experts can’t agree as to whether sex can even be considered an addiction.
Christians can share in the empathy the culture has to offer the struggling individual. But while the culture has to stop there, our understanding of the matter goes deeper. We understand that God created our sexuality to be expressed within the covenant of marriage. We know that sexual intimacy outside of marriage violates God’s will as revealed in Scripture. That’s why we can say that the decisions that lead Fassbender’s Brandon to addiction were wrong in and of themselves. This is really a fundamental difference in the way popular culture and Christians understand sexual addiction. Popular culture can say, “We’re sorry your sexual gratification is driven by impulse rather than pleasure.” Christians can say, “We’re sorry you’re struggling with this; Christ offers a solution.” This is not to caricature the way in which the secular culture deals with this issue. It’s just to say, when you see the problem differently, you see the solution differently. The blood of Jesus Christ offers atonement. The gospel doesn’t promise freedom from the pangs of addiction, but it does promise freedom from sin.
Based on some of the reviews I’ve read, it seems McQueen did a fine job painting a portrait of a dark subject but doesn’t offer much commentary on the subject’s condition. Fassbender is said to have done an incredible job of displaying the pain, guilt, and self-loathing his character felt. His sad state surely makes him pitiable. Praise God that the gospel offers more than pity.