6 min read

Lust: disordered desire

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

In the fourth of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Belle Tindall explores how Lust minimises or sensationalises sex and desire.
Illustration of Aubergine

In the Emmy-nominated HBO show, White Lotus, we’re introduced to three generations of a glamorous Italian-American family: F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco play a grandfather, father, and son, two of whom are in an ever-present battle with a sex addiction. Lust has made a home in this family, it has dug out and paved its own neuropathways, and ultimately blown these people apart. Scene after scene, we witness these men pathologically view women as nothing more than bodies to conquer, much to their own despair. You could say that Lust is the unseen, unspoken, yet undeniable villain of the entire series. We witness it obliterate relationships of all kinds and ultimately make way for danger and death to ensue.  

It’s a masterful case-study in how destructive of a force Lust can be when left unchecked, not only to the objectified, but also to the one who can’t help but do the objectifying.   

I conducted a little experiment in preparation for writing this piece, I asked five friends of mine who would not, and never have, identified as Christians, for the three things that they most associate with Christianity.   

Out of those five people, four of them mentioned Christianity’s rather peculiar sexual ethics. Now, I know that as far as research goes, this isn’t the most scientific finding. But it is telling. An article on lust may just be the least surprising thing one could find on a magazine site that offers ‘Christian perspectives on just about everything’. In popular culture and common thought, Christianity is to sex is what Jamie Oliver is to sugary drinks: an almighty party-pooper, a tiresome force that is out to spoil everybody’s fun. That’s largely a result of Christian sexual ethics being reduced to a set of repressive ‘don’ts.’  

  • Don’t have casual sex, or any kind of sex outside of the confines of marriage, for that matter. 
  • Don’t watch pornography  
  • Don’t explore self-sex 
  • Don’t talk about it  
  • Don’t think about it  

Just don’t. 

As such, Christianity’s view of sex has been regarded as square or prudish at best, and oppressive and cruel at worst. And here you are, having stumbled upon an article which is about to place Lust back in its familiar old ‘deadly sin’ category. Ground-breaking, I hear you cry. 

Well, allow me the pleasure of beginning this piece by saying something that is less predictable: Lust is not interchangeable with sexual desire. The two are not one and the same.  

Sex is good. Very good, in fact.  

According to the book of Genesis, the book that acts as the Bible’s start-line, it is one of the first instructions ever given to humanity. It’s an apparent component of our purpose (pre- ‘original sin’, might I add). We’re told to go ahead and multiply, to increase in number, to have sex. But it doesn’t end there. If it did, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Bible presents sex in purely practical and procreational terms. But, not so. From one biblical poem to another – this time, the Song of Songs. This book is nothing short of erotic literature, it is a fully-fledged sex-scene. The composition and inclusion of this book speaks volumes, it does away with the notion that sexual pleasure and desire are some kind of inherent evil. On the contrary, if it’s a biblical perspective that you’re after, here it is: sex was designed by God and gifted to humanity. For procreation, yes. But also, for pleasure, intimacy, and well-being.  

So, in summary: sex is a gift, a very good one at that.  

With that firmly in mind, let’s return to Lust. If Lust is not sexual desire, per se, what exactly is it?  

It is a perception of sex, and a corresponding desire for it, that has been either minimised or sensationalised. Sex is a gift, that is the Christian insight at least, but Lust wants to blur your vision, it wants you to believe that sex is either more or less than a good gift. Lust seeks to disorder your desire.  

To only desire one third of a person, to regard them exclusively as a body, is to undermine their full personhood. 

The belief that sex is inherently meaningless, that it can be devoid of any kind of sacred or unique value, often acts as a wide-open door to Lust. It is also the predisposition that tends to normalise Lust, allowing it to hide in plain sight. That is, until it has damaged us and/or others. Lust tells us that we can obtain a person’s body, without paying any heed to the rest of them. It lessens them in our sight, it reduces them, it de-humanises them. This may sound a little dramatic, but if we are the sum of our bodies, our minds, and our souls – then to only desire one third of a person, to regard them exclusively as a body, is to undermine their full personhood.  

A more subtle, yet just as pervasive, form of a disordered sexual desire would be to regard sex as more than a gift, to sensationalise it, to mistake it for love. Lust’s other tactic is to suggest that sexual activity is tantamount to value. It seeks to convince us that to be sexually desired is to be appreciated, and being sexually active must equate to being actively loved. Lust wrongly offers us sex as a source of worth, affirmation, and significance. In such cases, we may not be regarding someone as a means to a physical end, so much as a means to an emotional one.  

Whether its tactic is to minimise or aggrandise, Lust whispers in our ear, encouraging us to regard another person as an object to possess, a tool of gratification. All the while, telling us that it doesn’t matter, because sex doesn’t matter.  

As is the case with all of the deadly sins, it’s not that you possess them, as much as they begin to possess you. Lust can be a demanding master, indeed. Insatiable, even. And indescribably harmful.

The demand for restraint on the part of the powerful, purely for the protection of the poor and the vulnerable was nothing short of jaw-dropping. 

Lust has much to answer for. In its darkest and most insidious extremity, often intertwined with toxic perceptions of power, Lust has led to atrocities being committed against people who were ever-so-wrongly treated as objects.  

There is a reason that Lust is regarded as ‘deadly’.  

Tom Holland recalls that in Graeco-Roman households, for example, it was utterly taken for granted that the bodies of enslaved people were objects to be possessed, owned, and utilised for physical gratification. In fact, Holland recounts how their bodies were spoken of in the same terms as urinals. People were regarded as nothing more than literal places/products for their masters to relieve themselves. 

When placed in this context, the sexual ethics that were being adopted by early Christians were radical, not square. The very idea that there was something morally good about standing up against the whisperings of Lust was unheard of. The demand for restraint on the part of the powerful, purely for the protection of the poor and the vulnerable was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Historians note that as the Christian movement began to bubble up, so did a rather radical sexual revolution.  

Not quite so Jamie Oliver-esque after all. 

This revolution was fuelled by the idea of imago Dei, the notion that every person was made in the very image of the one who did the making. Therefore, every person is worthy of being treated as such, of being afforded unconditional dignity and worth, of being acknowledged for the uniquely valuable individual that they are. It was also, in part, a defiant re-enchanting of sex; it was a bold reminder that sex was always supposed to be healthy, enriching and inherently good. That it is precious and fragile, and therefore needs to be guarded with the utmost care. Such notions leave very little room for the reductive tendencies of Lust. Christianity, in its very essence, wages a war on such things.  

This is not to say that Christians have won such a war, nor have they always fought this war well. To say so would be telling only half of the story, and do a significant disservice to those, for example, who have had shame heaped upon them in the name of purity culture (ironically, a culture which was/is also fuelled by reducing a person to the sum of their body parts).  

But the war itself is one that is still worth fighting, surely? For the sake of others, ourselves, and sex itself.  


7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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