Saturday, March 15, 2008

too much fun

No brainer question: Does God want us to enjoy ourselves -- have fun, that is?

I raise the question not because I'm concerned my life has become a hotbed of hedonism, nor because I fear I've been flagellating myself too frequently, but because there historically has been a wide range of reactions to pleasure and its role in the faith.

The Puritans get a bad rap for being so serious-minded and hating carnal pleasures like dancing, but the truth is that they loved their fermented apple cider, and felt that if husbands and wives weren't having sex on a regular basis that marital trouble was brewing.

Then there were groups, like the Shakers, who prided themselves so heavily on their self-control and took such a dim view of sexual pleasure, that they developed a serious fetish about abstinence and being marvelously asexual. All their sensuality was channeled into religious expression and ecstacy, and they visualized the return to Paradise as a time when men would have no sexual organs.

And then there are the mystics in Christianity, such as those in the Philippines who have themselves literally crucified during the Passion week, or the famously dour monastic orders who sought to mortify the flesh with fasting, flagellation, grueling vows of poverty/silence/other.

In "Crime and Punishment" Dostoevsky includes a character who falsely confesses to a murder because he considers that the physical suffering inflicted by the law's judgment will be good for him because he's done other things worth punishing.

That sort of suspicion of pleasure continues to permeate Western Christianity. Fundamentalist sects decry dancing as a carnal pleasure, and I've known Christians to feel guilty over enjoying something "too much" when it was not avowedly religious or spiritual.

Catholics and many mainline Protestants during the Lenten season feel an obligation to give up something, as though there is something superior about giving up a pleasure, whether it's meat on Fridays or some other sacrifice we feel compelled to make.

A student of mine at Central Christian Academy actually dropped out of the chess club because it was "distracting him from his relationship with God." (Alex was one of the most religious kids I've ever known, and chess club took all of ninety minutes per week, tops. His mom made him start going again two weeks later.)

I think God intends for us to enjoy ourselves, as evidenced by the number of feasts and celebrations included in the Torah, and the gospels' own depiction of Jesus as someone whose critics could accuse of being a glutton and a drunkard (not saying that he was -- but evidently he enjoyed his food and his wine).

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