One of the most helpful quotes I’ve ever read from any work of C.S. Lewis comes from The Screwtape Letters1:
He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! … He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working—Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us.
The phrase in quotes above, “pleasures for evermore” comes from Psalm 16:11, in which David prays, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” But is this reality? Is the God of the Bible really a “hedonist at heart”? Is he truly as “vulgar” as Wormwood says he is?
At this point, some would say “no”. Perhaps their experience of Christianity or the church has been “[a]ll those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses” and couldn’t possibly see how a God who calls for such things could actually be considered joyful. Or perhaps others would point at human suffering and question whether a God in whose right hand are “pleasures forevermore” would also ordain pain and suffering. Perhaps others see the prohibitions – the “no”s of the Bible – and wonder why a God who is supposedly a God of “yes” would also at times say “no” to certain things. Or perhaps it all seems just too good to be true—wishful, sentimental thinking that doesn’t line up with reality.
To be sure, all of these reasons for saying “no” to the questions I posed have some legitimacy to them. I’m not here to negate anyone’s experience with the church or the world. But I would like to address what Lewis is saying and ask whether his claims line up with what the Bible teaches about the character of God.
Disclaimers and Definitions
But before I get going too far, let me set your expectations low. I’m not a writer by trade, nor have I done any sort of public writing besides my last post. Moreover, I’m not an accomplished theologian, much less an excellent communicator of theology. Furthermore, none of my thoughts are all that original; I’ve quoted from C.S. Lewis and the Bible, but I’m also greatly influenced by the thought lives of John Piper2 and Joe Rigney3. If you’re at all familiar with their work, you’ll probably hear echoes of their writing in my own.
I titled this post “The Vulgarity of God”. Obviously, the inspiration for this title comes from Screwtape’s exclamation, “He’s vulgar, Wormwood!” And perhaps it would be helpful if I define what I mean when I use the term “vulgar”. Merriam-Webster defines “vulgar” in a number of ways, but there are two (from Screwtape’s vantage) that make sense in this context:
- ostentatious or excessive in expenditure or display, or
- lewdly or profanely indecent.
Thus, Screwtape looks at the “world full of pleasures” that God has created and sees it, in sum, as ostentatious gesture to the creature (that is, to humans). It’s excessive (more on that word later), and far more than he is obligated to (or even should) offer. Lastly, it’s indecent of him, as an omnipotent and infinite being, to stoop to such small creatures to offer them such great joys.
So, when I speak of “The Vulgarity of God”, I am referring to God’s lavish, unblushing, and almost excessive provisions of joy for the human being, especially as expressed in the created order (though not limited thereto).
Now that definitions are out of the way, next time we can get to the fun stuff. We’ll start by examining “The Vulgarity of God in Food and Drink”
- The Screwtape Letters, for those who are unfamiliar, is stylized as a series of letters written from an older and more experienced demon (Screwtape) to his nephew and apprentice (Wormwood) concerning “the patient”, a man who they are trying to ensure will end up in hell. ↩
- John Piper was the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN, where I attended church for roughly two years. He was so influenced by the work of C.S. Lewis that DesiringGod (Piper’s own ministry) put on a conference in honor of C.S. Lewis back in 2013 entitled, “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis”. ↩
- A self-proclaimed Narnian and student of John Piper’s, Joe Rigney is an avid Lewis fan and is “convinced that he’s descended from King Lune of Archenland on his father’s side”. He is one of the pastors at Cities Church in Mineapolis, MN, where I attended for just under a year during my senior year of college. ↩