The Christian Sensualist

(Spectrumbot) #1

In his much neglected allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis narrates the adolescence of a young man named “John” who, after having caught a glimpse of some distant “islands”, discovered the sweetest and most profound awakening of human desire imaginable. As Lewis describes it, John felt a “sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly… all the furniture of his mind was taken away.” John longs to see the islands again, but they rarely appear to him through the sea mist, and as he grows older the sweet magic of the place becomes painfully inaccessible to him.

Lewis’s ‘distant islands’ evoke our first religious impulse; a sharp realization that we desire a ‘better country’; a world not subject to sin, sickly guilt, and the general malaise of becoming always what we were never meant to be. Sadly, in the case of John, and so many like him, this sharp longing for God does not translate into the immediate satisfaction we humans demand: we do not, upon receiving Christ, find ourselves in Heaven or, even, for that matter, smilingly ensconced within some utopia. Our disappointment cannot be underestimated. We grow bitter with age as our hopes get deferred, and as our faith shudders in the realization that the Heaven we once ached to enter has become a mere cliché.

Of course, we feel that we must solace ourselves, given that we still long for some kind of heaven, and in very much the same manner as C.S. Lewis’s allegorical hero, we begin to search for whatever sweetness we can have ‘right now’. One afternoon, as John strained to recapture that sweet longing, he heard a woman’s voice. As he turned about, he saw, “there in the grass beside him a laughing brown girl of about his own age, and she had no clothes on.” The girl then said to John, “it was me you wanted… I am better than your silly island”. Without any delay, “John rose and caught her, all in haste, and committed fornication with her in the wood”.

Lewis’s narrative is, of course, allegorical, and it seems quite likely that the incident with the ‘naked girl’ tokens a substitution of the sensual for the spiritual. On one hand, the girl represents the immediate pleasure that the worship of the sensual brings. Yet, this bliss soon dissolves into a jaded epiphany of deep loss as both the original ‘sweetness’ and even the desire, itself, become trapped in a habitus of futile gestures that no longer work. In my literature classes, I describe this effect as the ‘pleasure trap’: what is sweet in place of God proves sweet no longer, but it has stayed sweet just long enough for it to become habit forming. The habit no longer brings the sweetness, but the habit will not let me go, and if it did what would I replace it with if not just another addiction?

Solomon, by his own admission, pursued ‘pleasure’ to its necessary and bitter end. In Ecclesiastes Chapter 2, we discover the King’s hedonistic experiment—as Solomon puts it, “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure…”. By the end of the experiment, Solomon can only say, “I hated life”. In Proverbs the usual gnomic style diverts briefly into narrative when, in Chapter 9. 13-18, a ‘foolish woman’ calls out to ‘passengers’ from the ‘door of her house’ in the ‘high places of the city’. This well-born woman makes a siren’s plea: “stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant”. But, then, as the proverb-maker soberly warns, “but he [the would-be client] knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.”

Recently, a number of sources report that around 50% of evangelical Christian men regularly view pornographic websites. In the U.S. as a whole, some 70% of men between 18-35 view pornographic material once per month. ‘ChristiaNet’ reports that in its survey, 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women view pornography. The possibility of instant sensual pleasure has never been more available than in our time. The number of ‘dead’ even now descending into the ‘hell’ that Solomon describes probably well exceeds numbers surveyed. As Lewis writes, “John” still returned to the window hoping to view the distant Islands; but, now, “he had little hopes of it. He visited it more as a man visits a grave.”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

All the old bald headed men were down front at the burlesque until inter-net. Now its a cell phone world that has captured all ages. Everyone has a front seat. Pastors are not exempt. But let some one pop a cork and self righteousness sets in. The world is more like that of the Rome of Paul and John’s era. The only thing less curable than porno is self Righteousness. Tom Z

(Kim Green) #3

Interesting…it started out and ended in a place that I didn’t expect.

In Lewis’s narrative the “naked girl” and the fornication with her could also represent the complete immersion of self and the “letting go” of feelings which is something that does not exist when one is just a voyeur. But isn’t that what our society has become…simply voyeurs? We can do this while sitting in front of our TVs and in front of our computers…we can even do it while sitting in a pew. We are a culture that does not fully engage or “let go”…we are not full participants. Yes, I understand that the author’s main point is about pornography but the issues are far deeper than that.

(Steve Mga) #4

I think there is more to the story to be “felt” than to be “read”.
There is a change in John, but the remembrance is still there, just how the remembrance is dealt with is different.
At first there is the anticipation and excitement of always getting the glimpse of the island and hoping the fog curtain will lift and it can be seen again. BUT pleasure just SEEN is NOT pleasure FELT. It is only felt when touched. Like an old master’s painting. Just looking at it is one thing. To TOUCH the painting, to TOUCH where the master touched centuries ago is not touching the painting, but touching the master. To feel the master. This is the exhilaration that comes from visiting an old painting, sculpture, piece of art, a building.

The girl knew that participation was touch. She did not destroy the memory of the Island.
All that happened was a NEW WAY to participate in the memory of sight. He did NOT stop looking out the window.
"…Visits a grave." What do we do when we visit a grave? It stimulates our memories. Memories that would not be stimulated in any other place. A grave site is sad, but at the same time pleasure-able. So looking out the window remained Pleasureable to John. He could always HOPE in the Resurrection. The lifting of the Fog. The sighting of the Island again. The Island was still there. The Island was NOT gone. The Island burned into the memory of his brain was NOT gone.

Thank You Karl. Thank You C.S.
What a great Sensual Experience both of you have allowed me to enjoy!
I apologize for changing the the article into something else.

(Kim Green) #5

I think that we are all “experiencing” it differently, Steve :slight_smile:

(Andrew) #6

Touch has a memory, John Keats

It’s like yesterday, I can still feel my father as I lifted him into bed, hours before he passed away. The very last time I touched him. Over quarter of a century ago.

I can still feel the first kiss I have to my now wife.

On a divergent note, I can still feel the sting from the corporal punishment I received at school from my sadistic headmaster!

But you make a good point. We have become voyeurs. We lose the ability to interact. We make quick judgements from the security of the screen. We become lazy in our minds and layer our own short comings onto others.

(David Read) #7

Interesting essay. It is interesting that the plague of internet pornography has become so ubiquitous and destructive that even those coming from an anti-Christian perspective can see that it is a very real problem for our society. My friend Elizabeth Iskander recently published a column that noted that three recent Hollywood movies had focused on the problem of internet pornography:

(Carolyn Parsons) #8

The problems of pornography have never been only recognized by Christians. There is nothing new about secular people having problems with the morality of pornography.

(Phillip Brantley) #9

This is a marvelous essay, all six impeccable paragraphs.

These are my subjective thoughts the essay has provoked: Much of what we don’t see is real and much of what we do see is a false reality. The distant islands are real, even though John has only caught a glimpse of them. The laughing brown girl in the wood that he sees, studies, touches, smells, and experiences in every way is a false reality. Porn is a false reality. The video game is a false reality. The celebrity culture is a false reality. Las Vegas is a false reality. We should strive to live lives that are real and authentic.

(jeremy) #10

particularly when women are perceived to be victims, as 50 shades of grey has revealed…

(Sirje) #11

Pilgrims Regress is not about Christianity being a good cure for lust. In fact, it’s not about lust at all. Like a poem, we tend to personalize the message, thereby saying that any poem can mean whatever we want it to mean. That. of course, isn’t so. Neither can we assume that just because Lewis mentions lust as substitute for “that better country”, that his book is about lust in any sense.

The better country Lewis weaves throughout his writing is not the blatant Christian faith per se. Lewis was drawn by that “better country” long before Christianity became an issue for him. It was about an experience - a sense - named in German as sechnsucht, the best translation being “longing”. Lewis felt this longing from childhood; and it fueled most of his writing. He tried to hold on to this longing through music and myth which he called the “northerness”, being totally enamored by Wagner as well as the Norse legends. George McDonald made the connection between this “longing” and and the Gospel call. When he could no longer deny the Christian saga, he realized that all those feelings of longing were actually a natural longing for God and the “better country” He offers. We all try to find the object of this longing by delving in all kinds of activity that promises to be its object, but find it always disappointing. This is where lust comes in. It’s only one of the distractions that looks promising, but ends up a failure, as that “better country”.

In my experience, not many people know what he’s talking about. The experience offered by Christianity has been secularized. It’s become about memberships, duty, performance, prohibitions - all temporal activity, performed on a superficial level of feelings - in fact, without feelings that go deep enough to be meaningful. Those, Lewis might also place in the category of substitutes for the real.

(Harry Allen) #12

Thanks, Karl G. Wilcox.

What does it mean by “brown girl”?

Why, in the narrative, was she “brown”?


(Bill Garber) #13

Sensuality and spirituality cohabit the same part of the brain, the part that has no language, the part the is essential to memory, the part that is the fountain for attachment, and the part that is truly irrational by reason of being independent of the cortex. There may well be solid neurologic explanation for why divinity students reported the most deep and compelling spiritual experiences of their lives when, as an experiment, they permitted themselves to metabolize LSD under the care of Timothy Leary.

Perhaps a takeaway is that suppression of sensuality is isomorphic with the suppression of spirituality.

We are created complex creatures by design.

And the really fundamental and most interesting results of our Divine design appear to be knowable in a way that is far beyond language to express or measure.

And yet we can’t stop writing and reading, despite the inadequacy of mere words.

(Karl G. Wilcox) #14

As Sirje points out, Lewis’s allegory largely traces a literary quest; a search for God that most American Christians cannot easily identify with (we are not Edwardian; we are not steeped in Nordic poetry; we do not, generally, equate ‘olde bookes’ with those ‘distant Islands’). To be sure, idolatry preys upon us with most subtlety in the arts, literature, religiosity, and the legitimate ‘gifts of God’. Yet, Lewis chooses to figure his own idolatry (arguably of a literary sort) with ‘fornication’ and base lust… he is not alone in this equation, since the Bible, too, calls sin ‘fornication’ and straying from God ‘harlotry’.

My motive in choosing Lewis’s allegory was a simple one: to show how the sensual naturally substitutes for the love of God, since God is invisible, we are sensible beings, and the wrong use of sex emerges as an attractive ‘short-cut’ to the ‘beatific vision’ that awaits those who will wait-- in faith. I chose to read the allegory on its ‘literal’ level on the grounds that allegory, as a genre, allows for that-- indeed, the best allegories collapse literal and figurative values into a single complex expression Truth which is almost impossible to capture in critical commentary.

I had hoped to show that when Christians participate in the pornography culture, they are actually expressing a certain ‘longing’ for the real which they hope will be satisfied in sexual sin. Too often, we morally attack the sex addict, the shopping addict, or the food addict without acknowledging what we have in common with them: a need which we all share; namely, to see God!. Lewis, we might say, was a literary or ‘story’ addict, and he chose to represent that ‘respectable’ addiction as ‘fornication’.

I do not think any hope can be given to the pornography addict until they understand that what they really seek is God. I do not think that any hope for the intellectual addict can be secured until they understand that their substitution of ‘ideas’ for God is ‘fornication’.

(Karl G. Wilcox) #15

I have wondered based upon some other things Lewis wrote, if, perhaps, the ‘brown girl’ might not refer to the sun-tanned mass media image with its open appeal to the sensual as a means to selling products/materialistic dreams. However, it is probably more likely that the ‘brown girl’ simply evokes the exotic and the distant… as in she is not the ‘distant islands’, yet she is a possible substitute given her foreign appearance, etc. Lewis also writes about the value of ‘myth’ and the necessary quality myth has to awaken desire for God… the ‘brown girl’ may express the very opposite of myth insofar as she is immediately accessible even as she seems different or even distant.