May 23, 2008
Has the American church gone soft on sin?
A century and a half ago, Herman Melville (he wrote Moby Dick, but don't hold that against him) observed, "In certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance." It's remarkable to me that even today artists often come to the same conclusion: human experience doesn't quite make sense without some provision for inborn and radical evil. Even Hollywood has explored this theme in recent years. There Will Be Blood is a chilling story of humanity's incorrigible greed. Cormac McCarthy's novel (and the Cohen brothers' movie) No Country for Old Men deals directly with the concept of incarnate evil through Anton Chigurh, a villain who toys with human life mostly out of boredom. Apparently screenwriters are beginning to ask questions novelists have been asking for years.
G. K. Chesterton called sin "a fact as practical as potatoes" and original sin "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Of course, not everyone takes it so seriously. Comedian Eddie Izzard calls it a "hellish idea. People have to go, ?Father, bless me for I?did an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon.'" And there are those, too, like Oprah and Eckhart Tolle, who think too highly of human potential to entertain the idea of depravity.
But it's not only non-believers who lampoon the doctrine. Many Christians consider it an Augustinian idiosyncrasy that unfortunately made its way into Christian dogma - the invention of a guilt-ridden philanderer. An appeal to Martin Luther is little help; he'd no doubt be on antidepressants were he alive today.
However you feel about it, though, either embracing or rejecting the doctrine has its consequences. In his new book, Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne, 2008), Alan Jacobs shows how a society's position on the doctrine affects everything from child rearing and education to law making and the formation of government.
Surely there are religious consequences as well. It seems to me that how we think about ourselves will have direct implications for how we understand discipleship. If we think we're basically all right at the core, then Jesus will be for us a sort of life coach to smooth off our rough edges and help us make good choices. But if we suspect that we humans are deeply and ontologically flawed, then we can understand what Paul means when he says that those who are in Christ are new creations.
Should we strive to become the best possible versions of ourselves, or altogether new persons? When you put it that way, most of us will say, "New persons, clearly." After all, evangelicals have a reputation for taking sin seriously. On paper, most of us affirm some version of original sin.
But what we prescribe says an awful lot about how we actually understand our illness. Take Joyce Meyer, for example (her new book showed up on my desk recently). According to Joyce, The Secret to True Happiness (Faith Words, 2008) is to "Laugh a Lot," "Get Some Rest," and "Keep It Simple," among other things. If that's all the medicine broken humans need, then we must not be so bad off after all.
It's easy to pick on someone like Joyce or the inimitable Joel Osteen. And it's become fairly popular - wrongly, I'd say - to criticize emerging Christians for being soft on sin. But what do our ministry paradigms and church programs and sermon series suggest about our understanding of human sinfulness? Do we merely treat symptoms with five steps to financial freedom or six ways to divorce-proof your marriage? If we think all we need are tips and strategies, and not radical transformation, are we really taking sinfulness seriously? If not, then can we really take Jesus seriously? We - myself included - excuse all sorts of behavior by saying, "That's just how God made me." We think we can do anything if we just believe in ourselves. Certainly we're made in the image of God. But do we take seriously enough that the image has been distorted?
It takes a bit of imagination to envision ministry built with a robust sense of fallenness as a starting point. Especially if you hope to avoid browbeating. I'm not advocating for "all your good deeds are filthy rags" and "dangling over a yawning hell by a shoe string" Christianity. I got my fill of that growing up. And I'm not promoting a Calvinist view of total depravity. You don't need one to recognize that we humans are not what we were made to be (see the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example). But what would the American church look like if we began to acknowledge that it will take more than programs and education, more than community and fellowship, more than doctrinal precision and striving to restore shalom in Creation to make us disciples?