Salvation by recreation: 'The Problem of Pleasure', by Dominic Erdozain


I've just finished reading Dominic Erdozain's new book, 'The Problem of Pleasure'. It's eye wateringly expensive, and I hope a paperback version is forthcoming because it deserves a wider reading.

Firstly I found in it a devastating critique of why and how Churches became dispensers of 'religious good and services'. And secondly it provides an explanation for the inane pantheism of Christians who declare they no longer need church, as they now meet God on country walks/playing golf (insert suitable recreation here).

Dominic's thesis (as I understand it), is that a secularisation took place by Christians, when salvation was turned into social morality in the 19th century.  With the challenge of the development of leisure activities, their was a focus on family and pleasure that the Church had to respond to.

Initially the Church broadly responded by relocating salvation as an issue of conduct, equating sin with pleasure, whereby 'leisure' became 'vice'.  This led to the mutating of religion into ethics, wherein spiritual values for salvation were substituted with human sources and social values.

Sin became less about understanding condition before God, and more about avoiding 'vice'.  Or to put it another way sin became vice and 'salvation' became about avoiding vice.  A move took place from a God centred vision to a humanistic vision.  Evangelical ecclesiologies then became mechanisms for this humanistic vision and the battle over pleasure and leisure.

But the Evangelical imperative of mission and relevance meant that this obsession with leisure and pleasure was transformed into the establishment of recreation as an ecclesiastical duty.  Rather than let faith order life and leisure, leisure was to firstly be resisted as 'vice' and policed. Then ultimately Christian leisure activities were offered as missional activities themselves as a solution to the problem.

Then end result was a focus on the self, and self creation, with a retreat by the church into moral sources for the self instead of supernatural ones.  Where the Church didn't try to integrate sports and leisure with Church, there were less problems.

Dominic uses the YMCA as a key historical example of this process, of how pleasure becomes defined as Christians mission, until mission becomes barely Christian at all.  Conversion becomes transformation of the self through leisure.

Now in all this Dominic is no jeremiad against sport and fun, and offers not a critique, but a clarification of the Evangelicals relationship with it.  Any reaction to Dominic's work as a damming of leisure  probably reveals our captivity to to 'recreation as salvation', and less an interaction with his suggestions.  Read his book before jumping to conclusions.

(There is also an interesting section in the book on histiographical method, of the current trend to historicism.  Dominic explains how too often individuals and cultures, indeed whole periods of time are seen to be subject to forces beyond their control.  Individuals are seen to be prioritized but are ultimately obliterated by discourses and conditions that compel them to act.  It's the kind of trap I think Phylis Tickle's book, "The Great Emergence' falls into with her 500 year periodisations.)

So as I tried to apply this to my experience, and research, I tried to make some connections.  And please remember that from here on these are my correlations with Dominic's work, and are subject to my poor interpretations.

The Evangelical church with is pragmatic approach to ecclesiology ended up providing an ecclesiology that secularised itself.  The role of Church became the support of a vision for life that was something other than missional, and God centred.

The 'good life', great jobs, holidays, and an expansive social life became the vision for life that the Church was expected to dispense services to support.  Church was now supposed to mostly be there during a crisis, and to provide prayer support for the things needed for the 'good life'.  And Church was relegated to rites of passage, marriages, christenings and death.  But it lost it's place as a location for worship, and the construction of identity around the mission of Jesus in the world with others.

So the Church trained and facilitated the notion of a 'Churchless faith', that being a Christian was something you could sustain in private, on your own, through hobbies and leisure.  For example the pressure on parents to capitulate to the religious humanistic sources of identity in leisure for their kids seems insurmountable.

The most virtuous way to bring up our kids is to ensure they have access to all sports, hobbies and leisure, for that is the way that true identity is formed, and anything less is tantamount to abuse.  With three teenage kids, I know this pressure only too well.

The resources of faith, the supernatural and Christ, are relegated to support that way of life, and Church is something that one can always come back to later in life if needs be.  And it is returned to in crises, marriage, and death.

Whilst the old mantra goes, 'entertaining ourselves to death', Dominic Erdozain introduces an alternative maxim.  That what really has taken place is that we are 'playing our way into virtue'.

And it's heart is a theological problem as old as humanity.  What is the focus of our affections, and desires.  What do we order our lives around, and how does the Christians community supposed provide the resources for a Christ given identity, in mission with each other in our current context?

Empire, fascism, nationalism might provide the resources for identity, that the Church has often ceded to for it's social imaginations.  Dominic Erdozain shows how all to often it is the resources of leisure (and consumerism) that are now the alternatives to Christ for our affections and church constructions, be they traditional evangelical churches, or new emerging alternatives.

So what do you think of Dominic's suggestions, and who do you see this working out today?