What’s your pleasure?” was, and is, a humane and courteous question, for bestowing pleasure is one facet of gracious living. Groucho Marx’s brutal and discourteous answer (“Women. What’s yours?”) shows you why my mother would never let me see any of the Marx Brothers’ films; it also shows why and how pleasure becomes a moral problem. Pursuing pleasure can lead one sadly astray.

What does Scripture say to us about our pleasures? Does it, as some imagine, tell us to give them all up, as having no place in holy living? Certainly not! Scripture favors pleasure—“I commend the enjoyment of life,” says the wise man (Eccles. 8:15)—and only forbids surrender to it as a lifestyle. But this has become an area of real difficulty for Christians in our day.

Since World War II, the West has grown affluent. Society now practices and promotes spending rather than saving, self-indulgence rather than self-discipline or self-improvement, and amusement at all costs. Amusing Ourselves to Death is the telling title of Neil Postman’s 1985 assessment of American television: the same grim phrase might be used to describe the behavior that has led to the AIDS epidemic.

The ideology of pleasure is, in fact, global and has been so throughout history. To treat pleasure as a self-justifying value, and to run all sorts of risks and embrace all sorts of folly in order to get it, was always the way of the world. The modern West is simply doing this more blatantly than poorer communities are able to do, or than it could itself do in earlier times. Here, as elsewhere, there is nothing new under the sun.

Hedonism enthroned

The philosophical name for the vision of life that we are looking at ...

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