Hugh Hefner the moral theologian: He tried to escape from personal pain into a new life

So let's put together the pieces of the Hugh Hefner puzzle that was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which grew out of my earlier GetReligion post, "The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary."

This is a journalism puzzle, but one rooted in theology.

Start with Hugh Hefner's frequent references to his Puritan heritage (with a large "P" and a small "p"). Then you add the details of Methodist faith in which he was raised, in the conservative Midwest of the late 1940s and '50s. We need more than the word "strict."

Then you add the remarkable detail that Hefner was a virgin on his wedding day (with the help, he stressed, of lots of foreplay). In other words, young Hefner thought that true love waits. Ponder that.

Only he learned, as a married man, that his fiance had not waited. She had been unfaithful while he was away in the Army. In its lengthy Hefner obituary, The New York Times noted:

A virgin until he was 22, he married his longtime girlfriend. Her confession to an earlier affair, Mr. Hefner told an interviewer almost 50 years later, was “the single most devastating experience of my life.”

The Los Angeles Times added, literally, the doctrinal fallout from this event, in terms of the moral theology written into the Playboy philosophy.

Years later he said the experience set him up for a lifetime of promiscuity because “if you don't commit,” he told The Times in 1994, “you don't get hurt.” He said it also showed him what was wrong with traditional attitudes towards sex: “Thinking sex is sacred is the first step toward really turning it into something very ugly,” he said on another occasion.

Put all that together and you have what? Is this a "secular" story, as in a story devoid of faith content and issues? You can make a case that the old Hefner, after this crushing blow during his first marriage, died and then he sought escape from his past, seeking to rise again as a new and changed man -- the ultimate playboy.

One more thing: Is it a "secular" story that Hefner openly stated that his goal in life was to knock down centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality?

What's my point? There are all kinds of newsworthy subjects linked to Hefner's gospel of sex and trendy consumerism.

One of the biggest subjects -- for modern religious groups -- is the omnipresent role that porn plays in the lives of legions of men, including those in pews and pulpits. The statistics are stunning. Check out this Christianity Today feature -- "Porn and the new normal" -- on this side of Hefner's legacy. At the same time, divorce culture looms over the lives of millions of children and, often, the church is afraid to address this reality.

However, I remain fascinated ("haunted" might be a better word) with that stunning, soul-shattering twist that took place when the young Hefner learned his wife had been unfaithful during their engagement.

So far, I have found only one newspaper story focusing on that angle -- The Sun over in the U.K. Frankly, I'd kind of like to see the subject addressed in a non-tabloid (think Page 3 girls) format. Still the facts are strong, even presented in this format:

It was the betrayal a young Hefner suffered at the hands of his first wife that marked his formative years and one that he went on to describe as "the most devastating moment" of his life.
He married Mildred Williams in 1949 in the belief the pair had 'saved themselves' for one another. The couple had met at college in the mid 40s.
Little did Chicago-born Hefner know that his beloved Milly had slept with another man while her beau served in the US military during the Second World War.
Explaining his heartbreak, he said: "I think the relationship was probably held together by two years of foreplay.
"That wasn't unusual for our time. In fact, most of my immediate friends didn't have sex until they married. Milly and I had it just before. I had literally saved myself for my wife, but after we had sex she told me that she'd had an affair. That was the most devastating moment in my life.
"My wife was more sexually experienced than I was. After that, I always felt in a sense that the other guy was in bed with us, too."

Hefner was determined to change the rules after that, through the birth of Playboy magazine. Meanwhile, the Hefners divorced in 1959, with two children -- Christie and David.

There was no looking back after that, at least not that Hefner talked about. The old faith was gone and he dedicated his life to a new one.

Is that a secular story?

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