Whatever Happened to Sin?

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.

18 Replies to “Whatever Happened to Sin?”

  1. “You know where I’ve not heard much about sin? The Episcopal Church. ”

    I agree with much of what you say in your post, but why must you play the victim card? Why make out that the church is against you on this, especially when the example you’re going to use is an essay by someone bewailing that he *lost* on his issue at GC? Yes, you acknowledge that you hear about sin in the preaching at your church, and you presumably hear about it (like just about every other Episcopalian) in the confession and absolution every Sunday, and whenever sin-related passages come around in the lectionary, and in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, and lots of other places, but not in the “public discourse of the Episcopal Church” (by which it turns out you mean an essay on Episcopal Cafe.)

    I’m sorry, maybe I’m just feeling a bit raw at the moment. Every three years, the Episcopal Church is excoriated by conservatives in the media who claim that the “real” Episcopal Church has just been revealed to be a church that doesn’t care about the Bible, doesn’t believe Jesus is the Way to the Father, doesn’t believe in sin, and all the rest. But the fact is that 95% (or whatever) of Episcopalians hear at least as much scripture every week as any Christian denomination (and more than in many “bible-believing” church liturgies), pray Eucharistic Prayers that proclaim a very traditional understanding of Jesus’ message and mission, confess their sins, and in general act like unremarkably orthodox Christians — and that includes 95% (or whatever) of GC delegates. And no GC has resolved to start the process of modifying the BCP to remove all these things commentators claim Episcopalians don’t believe in. And the BCP provides the overwhelming majority of what most Episcopalians mean when they refer to “going to church.” You’d think those wild eyed fire breathing secular social-gospel (minus the gospel, of course) types at convention would just go ahead and vote to change it.

    Again, good post — but why did you have to include the bit about being better than the bogey-people who really run the Episcopal Church?

  2. This is an interesting topic. I like your point that art is dealing better with some of this stuff than the church (not just the Episcopal Church) is at present.

    It’s worthwhile thinking more about that, I think. Because what art does successfully is to arouse deep feelings of identification in hearts and minds – which is exactly (IMO) what the Christian story (and thus, the Great Church Year) has always done.

    That’s what I love about the story (and the GCY), myself; it goes everywhere and touches on everything human. That’s the raw power of the Incarnation right there: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. (“I am human; nothing human is alien to me.”) That’s the sort of thing we need to recall, IMO.

    I think the church too often gets itself trapped in a “being good” mode – and “being good” takes different forms in the various worldviews. But (as the saying goes): it’s a hospital, not a country club. The church is for sinners, and sinners get into all kinds of trouble. This is what everybody has forgotten these days, IMO; does anybody even know what the “seven deadly sins” are or were? No, because it’s not part of the culture anymore.

    But that’s why people like those songs; they’re about trouble, and personal flaws, and character defects – and people can identify with them. We need to make trouble the main topic again, which will have an important side benefit: it will allow people to be real with one another.

    And then we need to work out good ways to help people deal with their trouble; A.A. can help there. Surrender, faith, self-examination, confession, amends, spiritual disciplines, reaching out to help others (which, BTW, is last on the list, although small ways of reaching out are possible and desirable all along, and I wouldn’t want to discourage that).

  3. Anyway, it’s worthwhile considering what kinds of trouble people are getting into these days – not that there’s anything really new under the sun, I’m sure, but there are different pressures in different times. And it’s worth putting some pressure on the whole “I’m OK” facade, too.

    I do think that the issue IS, in fact, partly based in the fact that gay people were supposed to be especially horrific sinners just by virtue of living and breathing, and maybe Episcopalians, without really being aware of it, decided to collectively ease up on the word itself for awhile. It’s not a bad way to go, sometimes; sometimes “tough love” is what’s called for, and sometimes a gentle hand. I know for a fact that some people couldn’t even listen to the church when it talked about “sin,” because it had caused so much pain and destruction – and all that prevented people from addressing their own issues.

    But the acknowledgement of one’s character defects – while perhaps painful at first – opens the way to real healing, so there’s a good, therapeutic reason to go there.

  4. i also noticed a disturbing trend in my own church where it is implied that it is ok to sin because God Will Forgive, and it is a confusing message to those living in the midst of sin and dealing with the consequences

  5. Your church needs another refugee fundamentalist with a “partner” in a stereotypically female job as a pastor like the Sahara needs more gravel.

  6. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Harold! Great work on the “trifecta” of insulting my a) sexuality, b) former church, and c) current profession. And we wonder why everyone under 30 is leaving our churches in droves. Thanks for showing the love of neighbor so typical of many “self-professed” Christians in the world.

  7. Not even close-I’m an atheist.
    And you do a pretty good job of showing how much you truly love to “Celebrate your diversity” by remaining overwhelmingly White and middle/upper middle class after 40 years of preaching and “Diversity Outreach Programs” and “Multicultural Resource Directors”; in fact, the only “Diversity” you’re a success at is the gay one-you have at least three times as many gays in the clergy as the general population does. And you didn’t even have to hire anybody to recruit them.
    Which means that religion is either intrinsically attractive to gay men (all that lace?) or you’re lying your a**es off about trying to get more Black and Hispanic people into your churches.

  8. Harold, I’m not sure what your point is, other than to cause offence. In your second post, you seem concerned that TEC is hypocritical regarding its stand on diversity–that may be true, but if it is, it certainly wouldn’t be the most shocking thing in the world to discover that a church’s ideals regarding its mission outstrip its ability to realize them completely, immediately, and in ways that are beyond criticism. However, your concern for true diversity is seriously belied by a willingness to play at reductivism with Matthew–you took an individual whom you don’t know and reduced him to a set of principles which you imputed to him, confusing a person with an institution and both with your prejudice. I’m afraid it doesn’t reflect well on you.

    People can have a legitimate beef with religion, and there’s a lot that religious folks can learn by listening to the concerns and criticisms of our atheist brothers and sisters. But as one willing to listen, I’ll tell you that a lot of sound and fury make it hard to discern what it is you’re actually saying, or if you’re actually trying to communicate anythin–apart from ire–at all.

    At any rate, it sounds like your larger critique is this–that TEC is a liberal caricature of itsef. It sounds like what you want to say is, “it’s scandalous that a church should be popularly known for it’s stance on pet liberal issues and for little else (at least in the popular imagination), particularly when the greater good it claims to want to do goes undone.” Is this what you’re saying? Do you realize you could have made that point without the bullying reductivism, without the insults? We can have a serious conversation about your serious critique, but until you can divorce your ideas from the disdainful (hence death-driven) language with which you’ve expressed them so far, I’m afraid that such a conversation will be useless if not impossible. And if you don’t want the conversation, then what’s point? Are you just trying to convince us that you can be needlessly cruel?

    -M

  9. “needlessly cruel”? Is there a needfully cruel that I’m missing?
    Is there anything factual I’ve said that you disagree with?
    Why are Mainline Churches Stuff White (middle/upper middle class) People Like? Why the great claims with virtually no changes (except literally token ones) after forty years of money and “progressive programs”?
    Why are your clergy more likely to be gay than the general population?

  10. Harold, I’m glad you returned.

    Re: “needlessly” cruel–of course there is no “needfully” cruel, and that’s precisely the point! The word “needlessly” amplifies the intrinisic senselessness of cruelty. I’m glad you picked up on that!

    Re: anything factual that you said with which I disagree, you’ve yet to indicate whether or not what I think you’re saying is, in fact, what you’re saying. Moreover, there’s very little in what you wrote with regard to fact: there are assertions, there are observations, there are insults, but statements of fact? You state, as a fact, that there are three times more gay folks in TEC clergy than in the general population. I don’t have the statistics available to me, so I’m unable to confirm or deny the statement. Regarding whether or not your argument has merit (and assuming that that’s really what you’re asking), if it is this–TEC is a liberal caricature of itsef; it’s scandalous that a church should be popularly known for it’s stance on pet liberal issues and for little else (at least in the popular imagination), particularly when the greater good it claims to want to do goes undone–then yes, I think your argument has merit. But so far, the way in which you have presented it has no merit whatsoever.

    Regarding the other questions in your most recent comment, however, I have to say that I’m not in any position to give definitive answers. I can, however, give you my opinion, though it’s of little worth in the great scheme of things.

    Why are Mainline Churches Stuff White (upper/middle class) People Like? I can’t speak to all mainline churches, and I can’t properly speak to the history of TEC, having not given it much specific study. On the ground, much of the core of the Anglo-Catholic church I attend is a stalwart group of fierce Caribbean ladies. A couple miles up the street, St. Mary’s Manhattanville is predominantly black and has adapted the feel of the Mass (including the singing of the minor propers) towards the gospel tradition. It’s a really great church! But why is the diversity not seen elsewhere? This is my thought: the TEC used to be known as “The Republican Party at Prayer.” That’s not to say that Republicans aren’t or can’t be a diverse bunch, but the reality of the TEC on the ground, and well into the 20th century, appears to have been white and conservative. At least since the the ’28 prayerbook (maybe earlier, but I think WWI and its horrors had something to do with it), a growing consciousness of the importance of social justic issues seemed to be dawning on the church, and with the socio-cultural upheavals of the ’60’s and ’70’s, TEC seems to have firmly understood it’s relationship to social justice as arising out of its catholicity. The ’79 prayerbook makes that clear. For good or ill, this movement occasioned a gradual but apparent shift towards endorsing positions which seemed more in line with mainstream “liberal” thought. And much of the mainstream liberal community was and remains predominantly white and middle class, though it seems like the more radical liberal communities tend to be more diverse, or at least not as heavy on the white folks (St. Mary’s mentioned above tends more toward the radical end of the scale, and God bless them for it!). I’m not a historian, however–nor am I a demographer. This all remains conjectural (hence the frequent versions of “seem” or “apparent” in the above). Why TEC is not more diverse, however, is surely due to a number of factors both big and small–from history, to the embrace of mainstream liberalism (which generally appeals more to white folks), to, maybe, I don’t know, a taste for neo-Gothic architecture which may be too Anglo-European-centric to some.

    Why the great claims with virtually no changes? I don’t know–mostly because I don’t know if there actually haven’t been any demonstrable changes. As I mentioned in another comment, though, it should not be surprising when the ideals of well-meaning people outstrip their capacity to realize those ideals. One could make the argument that TEC is going about all this backwards, which may be part of the problem–that is, the ideal and its articulation arises out of a real recognition of grievance in the world, which is all well and good. But the church’s action in the world should be grounded in a Eucharistic theology and practice which informs our ideals, their articulation and their realization. In many ways, articulating a set of social or political ideals as goods in themselves would be un-necessary if we were more Eucharistically focused–i.e. the ideals and their realization could not be articulated apart from a solid Eucharistic theology or would seem redundant apart from that theology. Which is all a way of saying that (and you may not believe this) it may be the case that we, as Episcopalians, would be better agents for the good in the world if we were also better, more informed, and active theologians. If we all actually did theology. Passing a resolution in General Convention on the situation in Palestine or in favor of the health care act may make us feel good, but what else do they do? In the end, they’re no substitute for a solid Eucharistic theology which leads to service. Too often, mainstream Christianity is, indeed, of the “make us feel good” variety–self-congratulatory and merely comfortable. Proper theology could shake all that up. At least that’s my hope.

    Why are our clergy more likely to be gay than the general population? I don’t know that they are. But I imagine that lots of gay folks find TEC’s positions on human sexuality to be welcoming, and I would affirm that as a good thing.

    I’m afraid I may not have given you the answers you were looking for, but I hope I’ve at least been helpful.

    -M

  11. You’ve danced around most of the question; if there are lots of “extra” gays in the clergy in Mainline Protestantism because of resolutions and stances taken only in the past 20 years or so and with great opposition both domestic and international, why aren’t there at least as many non-White people in the clergy or laity, given that there have been resolutions and stances taken much earlier and with much less overt opposition, indeed with much support from international Anglicans?
    Frankly, it’s hard to take a group seriously that refuses to get its own membership beyond “well-meaning”; running twice as fast but staying in the same place is about the only miracle Mainline Protestantism’s managed to pull off in the past hundred years.

  12. Harold, who here has said they had a goal of “getting more gays (or ‘non-Whites’) in the clergy or laity”? I don’t believe anybody on this site has ever made any such claim at any time. The goal of the church is to “proclaim Christ crucified and risen”; that’s all. And that, in the time I’ve been reading and commenting on this blog, is what people here talk about; I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a post or discussion here about targeting people for membership based on the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.

    So I mean, who in the world are you arguing with? All here agree, I’m sure, that anybody is welcome to join us in the proclamation of that message, at any time.

    Furthermore, you clearly don’t realize that if the Episcopal Church as an institution – or “Mainlline Protestantism” – had decided to make it a goal to make gay people feel welcome – that’s not what actually happened, but let’s imagine it had been a real project – that would have been quite a huge accomplishment in itself, since gay people are certainly not welcome in Evangelical circles. Or in the Orthodox church. Local Catholic Churches can be gay-friendly, but the Catholic hierarchy has become less and less so over time so that there is quite active hostility at the moment. It’s impossible to have any kind of spiritual life in such an atmosphere – so what “Mainline” churches have done on that account is actually rather important and remarkable, particularly considering the overt hostility they’ve faced.

    But in any case all of this did NOT happen as the result of an organized program (although there has been some activism over the years). And as a matter of fact, there are still only a few churches in which gay people can feel comfortable and have a chance to develop a real spiritual life – which is, after all, the point of the church in the first place. Heterosexuals (of every color) have, on the other hand, their pick of places to go. So in fact “Mainline Protestantism” is doing something rather important; I often forget this, but you’ve reminded me about it again, so thanks for that.

    Anyway, the topic of this thread is “sin”; do you have anything to say on that subject?

    (BTW, lots of “non-White” gay folks DO belong to the Episcopal Church, too; hope you’re toting them up in both columns in your invented statistics. And while we’re on that topic: please do provide numbers and sources for your claim that “you have at least three times as many gays in the clergy as the general population does.” I’ll be very interested in seeing those….)

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