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CNN on porn: Smart people vs. Bible folks

It seems that the comments pages at the CNN religion blog have been on fire for several days -- with good reason. That's what happens when you publish a feature about Christians hooked on pornography and you top it with a photo of a man reading a copy of Playboy hidden inside his Bible. That staged illustration didn't freak me out, truth be told, although I must admit that I share many readers' doubts that CNN would have run the same photo with a Playboy inside a Koran.

The more serious issue, for me, is the story itself.

On the surface, this long news feature looks like a pretty balanced take on a hot-button topic. The emphasis is on the Christian ministry itself, with lots of color and commentary from the evangelical believers who are at the heart of this work. Then there are voices who express doubts about the ministry, at crucial points.

That's all good. Pretty normal stuff.

However, as many GetReligion readers have noted through the years, it is possible to do a story that appears to be balanced, when in reality it is skewed one way or the other. In this case, the basic outline of the story looks -- to me -- something like this:

* Evangelicals describe their ministry, which centers on faith in the Bible, etc.

* A smart critic from a name-brand university or seminary, speaking on behalf of the vague and omnipresent "many religious scholars," says that the leaders of the ministry are simplistic and naive in their approach to the Bible and the issues at hand.

* More commentary from the evangelical ministry leaders, but without any direct response from scholars on their side of the biblical issues to the comments of the brilliant name-brand scholar from secular and/or liberal Christian academia.

* More commentary from another critic of the ministry with roots in name-brand academia who does similar work (in this case with believers wrestling with pornography) and believes the evangelicals are naive and simplistic.

* Final faith-based words from the evangelicals, once again with no responses to the issues raised by the critics.

In other words, this story presents a one-sided debate between Bible thumpers and brilliant mainstream people. The End.

You must read the story. Let me stress that this is a valid topic and serious subjects are raised. There is quite a bit of good info in the story. But what should readers make of this reference, which opens with material from an evangelical pastor, Jeremy Gyorke (no "the Rev.", by the way):

Though the words “porn” and “masturbation” don’t appear in the Bible, Gyorke believes the biblical verdict is clear. “Sexual immorality is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and that is what porn is,” he says. He quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

Many religious scholars say that such a view reflects just one of many interpretations.

“One school of biblical study says that desire is a problem and needs to be monitored as a serious threat to salvation,” says Boston University theology professor Jennifer Wright Knust.

But Knust points to scriptural passages that appear to endorse sexual desire, including the Song of Solomon, a poem that some scholars say depicts two lovers graphically describing each other’s anatomy in an ode to unmarried sex.

For me, that vague "some scholars" reference sticks in the journalistic throat. Clearly, this particular scholar has a point of view. That's fine. But why is it the only viewpoint quoted in the piece? Take that Song of Solomon reference. An "ode to unmarried sex"? How common is that interpretation, out of centuries of biblical interpretation and scholarship among, oh, Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, etc.? The story accepts this one point of view as, well, gospel.

And how about the following references to a -- CNN says "the" -- pioneer in the field?

The father of Christian-based porn and sex addiction therapy has a word for this “pray-away” method of sobriety.

“Hooey.”

Dr. Mark Laaser pioneered the Christian response to porn and sex addiction in the 1980s and chides counseling centers like Pure Life for what he says is their near-total reliance on prayer.

“Alcoholics don’t wish really hard to not be addicted to alcohol,” he says in a phone interview from his busy therapeutic practice in suburban Minneapolis. “The field of addiction is much deeper than opening your Bible.”

Once again, we are dealing with a "devout Christian" whose credentials are openly stated. He has, readers are told, a "doctorate in psychology from the University of Iowa and a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary." Laaser also has ties -- it would seem to be broken ties -- to some of the evangelicals quoted on the other side of the church aisle.

Thus, we reach the following crucial info:

In Laaser’s care, a patient will undergo psychiatric evaluation, just as he would in the secular world. Laaser wants to know if the patient has any symptoms of depression, ADHD or anxiety. He says many sex addicts suffer from other mental health issues.

And then:

Richard Blankenship, the Atlanta-based Christian therapist, studied under Laaser in the early 2000s. When Blankenship set up his practice in Atlanta to treat sex addicts, he used the same name as Laaser’s ministry, “Faithful and True,” adding only the word “Atlanta.”

But Laaser wants to make it clear that he has no association with Blankenship’s practice and doesn’t agree with some aspects of Blankenship’s program. Blankenship doesn’t rely enough on psychological expertise, Laaser says.

Note the crucial factual claim that the more Bible-based program is not that committed to "psychological expertise." And what defense would Blankenship or others make in the face of that serious charge? Do they not work with trained counselors at all? Are they all devoid of formal training in this area?

Maybe. Maybe not. The key is that the story contains no information -- positive or negative -- from the other side about these important issues. This rather damning claim is made. It is accepted. So what did the other side say when asked questions about the no "psychological expertise" accusation?

Silence. There is nothing there. The story ends with another prayer scene, thus pounding home the crucial thesis. One side has the Bible. The other side has facts, books, experience, prestigious degrees, science, etc.

Is that, in fact, the truth in this case? Well, how would the reader know?

IMAGE: Screen shot of part of the CNN package.

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