I have been greatly inspired by the writing and content of a book by Philip Yancey called, Soul Survivor: how my Faith Survived the Church. It’s been around since 2000 so it’s surprising that I haven’t gotten around to it until now. But what a good read it is about some of the most important people in Yancey’s life who helped him overcome a period of disappointment and rejection of the church because of rampant hypocrisy.
He calls his experience the ransom of his personal faith from the damaging effects of religion through these people that he writes about. Some like Dr. Paul Brand, Annie Dillard, and Fred Buchner he came to know through personal friendship. Others, like Martin Luther King, G.K. Chesterton, and Leo Tolstoy, he discovered through their writings.
Every chapter is a masterpiece, but I was especially impressed with the one on the life and influence of G.K. Chesterton. Though I have known of him, I have known very little about him. Through Yancey I learned that he spent most of his life from 1874 – 1936 as an editor of a weekly newspaper in England. Over the course of his writing career he wrote several novels and biographies as well as a large number of short stories. Though he started his adult life as an atheist over a period of time in which he studied the various movements of the day he found himself coming to accept the Christian faith “…as an expression of the deepest truths about the world.” It was Chesterton who penned the classic statement: The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.
Chesterton is one of those people who came to the conclusion that even the worst experiences of life give us some clue in a mysterious way to the existence and goodness of God. But what really intrigues me about Chesterton’s perspective is what he calls, “the problem of pleasure.” This reference has to do with the question about how anyone can account for the very existence of pleasure so common to all people. He asked such questions as: Why is sex fun? Why is eating enjoyable? And why are there colours? What explains the artistic design in nature or the beauty of a new birth?
In the end Chesterton came to the conclusion that “moments of pleasure are the remnants washed ashore from a shipwreck, bits of Paradise extended through time.” And his attitude is that we should receive all of this goodness with an attitude of thanksgiving, humility, and restraint. Yancey comments that “in a world estranged from God even good things must be handled with care, like explosives.” We need to be careful not to turn good things into idols, replacing God with the good things themselves. Otherwise “eating becomes gluttony, love becomes lust, and along the way we lose sight of the One who gave us pleasure.”
For some time I have felt that we don’t give enough proper attention to the legitimacy of pleasure. While it is true that sensual pleasure can be a problem often addressed by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, we should be careful not to move to the other extreme of denying the good things that God made for us to enjoy. In the church, we need a better and fuller theology that recognizes the value of legitimate pleasure for the glory of God. At the same time we need to realize how easily we can exchange the worship of God for the pursuit of pleasure.