Article Jun 2, 2016

Attacking the Image? Human Dignity in a Secular Age

Sorting out a revolution is a tricky business. When the prevailing cultural sentiment is “you do you,” what does an appropriate response to moral chaos even look like?

As evangelicals, we are increasingly in need of thoughtful answers to the difficult questions arising from the still-evolving sexual revolution. Beyond the multi-faceted LGBT movement and the controversy of gender and bathrooms, we are now being confronted with an innovation that is different in kind; an emerging subculture that consists of adult men “who dress and behave like dogs.”

(Warning: Images and subject matter may be disturbing)

As Nell Frizell writes for The Guardian, “It’s easy to laugh at a grown man in a rubber dog suit chewing on a squeaky toy.” And she is correct. Even in our ever-progressive age, it seems that the subject hardly merits any serious consideration at all. But before dismissing it altogether, recognize this practice is directly tied to significant issues that Christians must be prepared to address.

Pay attention to this statement from Frizell’s article quoting someone on the inside of the movement, “It feels like you can be gay, straight, bisexual, trans and be accepted…All I want is for the pup community to be accepted in the same way. We’re not trying to cause grief to the public, or cause grief to relationships. We’re just the same as any other person on the high street.”

Those words are chilling because they invoke the legerdemain that brought us the sexual revolution; a plea for acceptance. Our age is defined by tolerance and acceptance. Our culture has declared war on any notions of absolutes and anything that smacks of tradition or institution. Yet, at least for the moment, the majority of people in the United States would likely regard this practice—of dawning leather costumes, eating from dog bowls, and participating in all manner of canine imitation and illicit sexual activity—as socially unacceptable. But for how long? And with what instrument might we determine such a boundary?

It is apparent that as a society, we lack the moral basis or credibility to pass such judgments with integrity. Given this reality, it is likely that pup play and related vicissitudes will gradually gain acceptance in the broader culture. And while this is a problem for society at large, there are particular considerations for the church. Christians have been fighting and losing a culture war for decades. Embattled and exhausted, we have endured a torrent of cultural change and watched our best methods and messengers fail to stem the tide. So, as evangelicals engage the issue of pup play and the myriad innovations that are sure to follow, we must seek a better way forward. We must retain a prophetic voice and gospel witness even if the moral foundations of American culture continue to erode.

Diagnosing the problem is not difficult. Christians embrace a biblical model of personhood and sexuality. We believe that every human being bears the imago Dei. And from these beliefs we arrive at several conclusions which fly in the face of the sexual revolution. We affirm the binary nature of gender. We affirm a compatible, complementary, and monogamous view of marriage. We affirm the innate patterns and dignity of personhood. And for this, our beliefs are deemed offensive and we are maligned as bigots. Thus, we find ourselves in direct conflict with the modern zeitgeist. Not only does our conception of these things defy innovation, we audaciously claim that accepting our understanding of them is best for society.

Pup play distorts what we know is true about humanity, namely that personhood is unique and valuable. It is dangerous because it further threatens our culture’s fragile understanding of personhood. Participants seek solace and shelter from life’s burdens in escapism. But the practice of imitating animals represents a strange form of reductionism that denies our dignity and complexity. But most importantly, it is a direct attack upon the image of God borne by every human being. The answer to human struggles is not to pretend to be something other than human. As evangelicals, we contend that the answer to our burdens and brokenness is found in a restored identity that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. As a culture, we should recognize that the special dignity of human life is fundamental to our society and our laws. We can ill afford to forfeit this belief.

So how might Christians respond to pup play and the like? In John 3:17, the Scripture declares that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christians are called to be messengers of light in a world filled with darkness. Perhaps our biblical ethics will never again dominate the social mores of American culture, but we must neither fear or be dismayed. We are not called to win the culture war; we are called to bear witness to the light.

In the opening of her article, Frizell chides our willingness to dismiss or denigrate the behavior associated with the pup community. She is correct there as well. It is tempting to mock that which we find strange or novel. In recent years, Christians have gained much practice in showing love to those with whom we have deep disagreements. It appears that the future will hold the same. We must respond to cultural change by continuing our efforts to advocate and model the biblical patterns of personhood and sexuality. We will be less concerned with dominance than faithfulness. We will see more victories in our neighborhoods than in Washington. But in dealing with pup play, the sexual revolution, and an ever evolving culture, we will follow the example of our Lord. We will neither be scandalized by the sin we witness or cower to demands that we accept it. With God’s help, we will faithfully bear witness to the light.