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Larry Crabb, Oscar Wilde, and Jonathan Edwards on Christian Hedonism

I was honored in 2000 when my friend Larry Crabb agreed to write the Foreword to my book, Pleasures Evermore (NavPress). I’ve often told people that it is the best part of the book! Larry’s observations on Jonathan Edwards’s hypothetical observations on the life and trial of Oscar Wilde is an excellent summation of Christian Hedonism. I commend it to your consideration today. Continue reading . . . 

I was honored in 2000 when my friend Larry Crabb agreed to write the Foreword to my book, Pleasures Evermore (NavPress). I’ve often told people that it is the best part of the book! Larry’s observations on Jonathan Edwards’s hypothetical observations on the life and trial of Oscar Wilde is an excellent summation of Christian Hedonism. I commend it to your consideration today.

Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for committing, as the old English court put it, “acts of gross indecency”.

Wilde was an avowed aestheticist, one who lived to indulge his passion for beauty. Rules were justifiably broken if they interfered with the experience of pleasure. That was his philosophy. Wherever he found beauty, wherever he discovered an opportunity to bring a sense of pleasure into his life, he indulged himself.

For Wilde, those opportunities included the company of young men. Victorian law referred to the homosexual activity he enjoyed with those men as “gross indecencies”. Those who stood against him in court raised high the banner of morality, a morality that properly declared violations of lawful decency as wrong. The choice facing citizens in that culture was either to pursue pleasure where you found it or to abandon the pursuit of pleasure in favor of doing what was right.

It never seemed to occur to advocates of either view that doing right and pursuing pleasure might not be incompatible. Many of us still think there is a choice to be made between these supposed contradictions.

The conservative church has long stood on the side of the do-righters and condemned those who long to experience pleasure as sensualists given over to their base nature.

“Hedonists!”, we sneer. “Pleasure-seekers, narcissistic selfists who care nothing for the holy law of God and live only for immediate feel-good sensations.”

As I think about Oscar Wilde’s dilemma and the typical response of the Christian world, I find myself wondering what Jonathan Edwards might have said had he been asked to testify at Wilde’s trial. Would he have begun by holding his Bible high, opened to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and censorially quoted, “God gave them over to shameful lusts. They abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”?

Would he have walked over to the defendant and, again quoting Paul, have declared, “Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty of their perversion”?

I think so. After all, these are words inspired by God. Homosexual activity is a gross indecency. Edwards believed the Bible. He believed that God’s standards are moral absolutes and that all violations are sin.

But I don’t think he would have stopped there. I don’t think he would have then returned to his seat in the courtroom, enjoying the approving nods of the pharisees whose self-righteousness by then would have been strengthened by the belief that they were not guilty of any gross indecency. I envision Edwards turning to the judge and saying, “If it please the court, I must say more.”

And then, to the irate bewilderment of the prosecutors, I think he might have said something like this: “Although I believe Oscar Wilde’s behavior is morally wrong and grossly indecent, I do not quarrel with his desire to pursue pleasure. I quarrel with his understanding of where pleasure is to be found.”

“Real pleasure, the only kind that satisfies the human soul and, at the same time, transforms a man into a marvelously decent person, is the sheer pleasure of living for the glory of God. It’s what each of us was designed to do. As the eagle finds pleasure in soaring through the heights, so a person finds pleasure in knowing God and doing God’s will. There is no choice to be made between the pursuit of true pleasure and obedience to a holy God. They are one path. Oscar Wilde’s greatest sin is unbelief. He does not believe there are pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God.”

Perhaps more than ever, we need to hear the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards. In our postmodern world, we have even more sharply separated the choice to become whole through authentic living from the choice to buckle under imposed rules. Too many Christians struggle against sinful passions (which we should do) by running away from all passions (which we shouldn’t do). We’re like children who grudgingly eat our spinach of obedience, hoping someday we’ll receive a cookie.

But the battle to resist pleasure and instead do what’s right isn’t the core battle Christianity introduces into our lives. The core battle is to believe that the Eternal Community of God is a party that we all long to attend and to discover and freely indulge our deepest passions for their kind of fun.

[Larry then proceeds to summarize the essence of my argument.]

Sam Storms stands on the shoulders of John Piper who stands on the shoulders of Jonathan Edwards who, perhaps more than most theologians, stands on the shoulders of the writers of Scripture who declare that God’s command to be holy is His invitation to a party.

Sam goes so far as to say that the only hope for experiencing meaningful victory over sin is to live for a greater pleasure. There are pleasures in sin for a season. But they turn sour, always, eventually. There are true pleasures in holiness for a lifetime. They never turn sour.

We are invited in this book to become Christian hedonists, aesthetics who yield ourselves fully to the pursuit of the pleasure available in the beauty of God, in all that He is, in all that He does, and in all that He commands.

If Sam’s thoughtful, disarmingly simple, and powerfully biblical presentation of the Christian life had been understood by Oscar Wilde, he would have remained a passionate lover of beauty and all its pleasures by repenting of homosexuality and becoming an ardent follower of Jesus Christ.

If we digest the message of this book, we will find ourselves standing in the company of pleasure seekers who have discovered that godly living is the friend, not the enemy, of all true pleasure.

This volume belongs on the shelf of every counselor who longs to lead people into freedom and joy, of every pastor who desires to persuade his people that satisfaction and holiness are not alternatives between which we must choose, of every person who cannot escape the fervent wish to be profoundly happy and who suspects that happiness is somehow tied to living for God’s glory.

I read Sam’s words as God’s invitation to come to His party, where everyone learns that goodness and joy belong together. To party animals everywhere, I say, leave the pigpen behind, become party humans, and prepare yourselves for the greatest party ever held.

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