I spent almost an hour this morning hearing about sin and salvation, fall and redemption. I wasn’t at a church service; I was cleaning the kitchen. The girls are at an age where they clamor for “pop” radio in the car and on account of that I’d downloaded Adele’s album 21 and was giving it a full listen-through as I worked. For those not familiar, I’d describe Adele as a soul/blues singer in the classic mold; 21 is a break-up album. Though Jesus was notably absent, religious language and concepts—Christian, in particular—were an integral part of the lyrics. One could theorize that this prevalence of religious language is due to the genre—Blues and Soul have deep roots in the Black Church tradition and that certainly accounts for some of it.
On the other hand, on the way to and from the gym earlier this morning I was listening to Tom Shear’s latest effort, Bruise. Tom’s Assemblage 23 is EBM/Industrial in the vein of VNV Nation—solid beats and electronica accompanying dark, introspective, philosophical lyrics. Again—sin, redemption, existence, eternality, and the presence/absence of God were explicit themes.
This is not the first time I’ve observed this. Christian language and thought structures form part of our cultural vernacular. Pop music and culture are familiar with notions of sin, fall, and redemption. Of course, the “redeemer/redemption” in question tends to shade somewhere from moralistic therapeutic deism to some vague moralism (about being “good”) to the power of love/positive thinking/whatever to some form of gross individualism.
You know where I’ve not heard much about sin? The Episcopal Church. Well, I take that back… The preaching at my church does tend to mention sin at least a few times each month—and that’s one of the reasons I go there. To clarify, I don’t hear much about sin in the public discourse of the Episcopal Church. Ok, fine, I’ll go ahead and say it: when I read things like this post on CWOB up at the Cafe, I cannot see if or where sin even fits into the theological structure from which the argument proceeds. It’s as if there’s an inverse relationship between language of/about “inclusivity” and language of/about “sin”. And it doesn’t have to be that way. My parish is inclusive; our preachers are openly gay—and yet we still hear about sin and our need to be redeemed from it by the saving action of God through Christ.
True, some of these public-speaking folks may talk about “structural sin” and use that as a short-hand for governmental systems and theories to the right of them, but there is an absence of personal sin apart from “exclusivity.”
They seem to insist that talk about sin is exclusive, it turns people off, it turns people away. People don’t want to hear about sin! Stuff like that just doesn’t make sense to people today! If that’s so, why is language of and about it so common and understandable in our broader culture? If today’s youth don’t understand it, why is it so endemic in pop music? Even those artists who bring up sin in order to advocate an enthusiastic embrace of it do so with the recognition that part of the thrill is the transgressive nature of the behavior. Which means they’re *still* operating out of a classic understanding of sin…
People—even young people—do have a concept of sin and redemption. The cultural view is fuzzy and, I’d suggest, often wrong because it lacks Jesus and accompanying concepts of virtue and sanctification, but to say that people don’t “get” sin is factually incorrect.
You can’t do church without reference to sin. This is wrong. This leads to a distortion of the Gospel.
The practice of spirituality is, to my mind, the inculcation of habits that maintain a proper relationship with God, our neighbors, and the rest of creation. To try and maintain these relationships without a healthy awareness of sin—our own and that of those around us—is folly. You cannot be in a “right relationship” if you have no sense of “wrong” or what can distort the shape or nature of the relationship.
My fear is that in the name of a misguided attempt at inclusivity and through the means of a flawed evangelism, we will succumb to the temptation to preach a watered-down message of moralistic therapeutic deism instead of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, MTD really is and will be more popular and more favorably received than the Gospel, but it is not our message!
I’m not, on the other hand, calling for a heavy-handed monomania on sin exemplified in those who delight in ceaselessly pointing it out in others or who swell with pride in excessive penitentialism. We need clarity. We were created good by a good God. We currently exist in a state of separation from that original intention. God reaches out—through Christ, his church and its sacraments—to reconcile us to himself even in our sin and invites us to cooperate in the cleansing of that original image and its decoration with the colors of the virtues (to steal an image from Didymus the Blind…). The church needs the balls to both say it and mean it. Yes, some liturgical language can get overly wrapped up in sin and go overboard—I don’t think that’s an issue in the current prayer-book. Yes, we were created good—but a simple look around at the state of the world should be sufficient to remind us that we’ve deviated quite a bit from the original plan. Yes, some language about sin and theories around Original Sin get too bogged down in sex and its nuts and bolts—it’s really easy to target in on sex and sin and thereby (intentionally?) miss all of the other ways that sin infects our lives and relationships.
One note to end on:
“There was at that time a meeting in Scetis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, ‘In this sack which contains much sand are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.’ The Fathers stood up and said, ‘Truly, this is the way of salvation.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 199-200)
When we no longer understand this, we no longer understand the Gospel.