Culture At Large

Hugh Hefner, evangelist

Andy Rau

The opening lines from Christopher West's article about the theology of sex over at Breakpoint have been stuck in my head all day:

If the typical Christian in our culture spilled the contents of his mind on a table, ideas about sex would probably look a lot more like Hugh Hefner’s vision than the apostle Paul’s.... Hugh Hefner has been one of the most successful “evangelists” of our time. The world is starved for love, and when the Church fails to proclaim the glory of the banquet, we inevitably fall for the lies of the dumpster.

My brain initially balked at the use of the word "evangelist" in the same sentence as "Hugh Hefner," but thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. When Hefner introduced Playboy to the world, he was tapping into widespread dissatisfaction with society's (and the church's) understanding of sexuality. He understood people's need for a better answer to human sexuality than puritanism and the hypocrisy that often seemed to come hand-in-hand with it... and he sold us all on his solution to the problem. He preached an idea (that sexuality is to be celebrated without boundaries) and he got America to buy into it. He evangelized us.

It's unsettling to think that Hefner might be one of the best models of idea evangelism in the 20th century. When you think about the people and ideas of the last century that have had massive, lasting impact on our culture, he's near the top of the list.

On the other hand, it seems from my perspective that Hefner's answers to our questions about human sexuality don't seem as satisfying as they perhaps did decades ago when Playboy first began to mainstream pornography. As West's article points out, people are still unsure how to understand sexuality—Hefner's answer had its appeal, but it sometimes feels to me that there's a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the anything-goes philosophy that Hefner preached. It's clear that years of "true love waits" and "purity pledges" and the usual Christian responses to out-of-control sexuality have not had anything near the societal impact that Hefner's message did—but I wonder if the right answer, and the right understanding of society's questions about sexuality, might strike a lasting chord today. If Christians can figure out the best way to preach it.

Can we learn anything from Hefner's successful evangelism of the sexual revolution?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism, News & Politics, Social Trends, Home & Family, Sex