What about sin?

current reading 2It is hard for non-believers to understand just why Christians are always so concerned with the idea of sin. Simeon Zahl, in an essay reprinted in Mockingbird (“Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin”) explains why, and why this is significant.

small quotes blueWhen I try to explain [to my students] that Christians have traditionally believed that human beings are deeply flawed from birth, and furthermore that God is profoundly unhappy about these flaws, I watch my students’ eyes grow skeptical. I watch their postures shift the way students always do when they disagree with what you are telling them. . . .

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My point is this: in the edifice of Christian belief, the doctrine of sin is a major load-bearing structure. It is not theologically optional. To lose it, or to downplay it, or to reframe it in terms that are less offensive to our sense of self-worth, is in the long run to render Christianity unintelligible to people.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made much the same point in his essay “God in the Dock”:

small quotes blueThe greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

God in the Dock, 243–4 (1970).

Zahl goes on to offer some ways of thinking about sin which may communicate the truth about sin to modern people (like each of us) who have been trained to think in very different terms. He ends by saying:

small quotes blueIt is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician. It is our sin that makes Christ intelligible to us.

Worth the time.

Longing and love

current reading 2SW writes about our mistaken desire for permanence in this world, when it is really another country for which we long:

I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does.

Sarah Willard, “In Ruins,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 2, 2018) [link].


CG reminds us that in the end it is impossible for us to overstate God’s love or to rationalize it:

We have such a hard time accepting that God’s love truly reaches out to all people, even the people we hate or disagree with, and even (especially?) to we ourselves. We insist on qualifying grace, which necessarily renders that grace null and void. We worry that if people start to believe that grace is true in all cases and that God loves people with reckless abandon all hell will break loose.

Connor Gwin, “Qualifying the Reckless Love of God,” Mockingbird (Sept. 24, 2018) [link].

Judgment

Judgment&JusticeOur teaching elder has been teaching through the book of Revelation, and it doesn’t look easy. One thing which has been pretty obvious (at least after chapter 5 or so) is that there is a lot of judgment to be meted out in the future.

Of course there is a lot of judgment being meted out now, too.

Everyone, not just Christians, wants justice to be done. More than half of the outrage on the internet is just that kind of thing—people want judgment on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Donald Trump, Peter Strzok, the molesting priests, Serena Williams, etc., for the things they did (or we think they did).*

Of course we disagree about the particulars, either because we identify with the person being judged, or we simply don’t know enough of the facts, or because we are willing to give some people the benefit of the doubt.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song which begins “Do you feel the world is broken?” and it is hard to believe that there are many people — believers or not — who would not say “yes.”

Everyone feels the need for justice, and thus first for judgment. Religious people are notorious for it, but non-religious people seem to feel the same way. (It’s a big reason for non-belief—how could a good God permit natural disasters and human evil to occur?)

Some people recognize that honestly, they too, deserve to be judged.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

The most obvious theme of the book of Revelation is that, in the end, God wins. But a second theme is that there must be judgment on evil; indeed there must be judgment on all evil.

But that judgment is beyond me, because I simply don’t know enough. I cannot tell whether a person meant what they said, or whether what they did was outside their control, or whether they were warped by the actions of their parents, or whether . . . I just don’t know. And I wouldn’t really make a good judge, because, by all that is fair, that judgment should fall on me, not just Hitler and Harvey Weinstein, because I think and do evil, too.

And in the face of that, the most hopeful message of Revelation is that the God, who has judged and will judge with perfect knowledge, and perfect righteousness, nevertheless offers grace so that none need be separated from his love.

That’s not the whole story, but it is a pretty important part.

*I think only a tiny minority thinks everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want. If you feel like that is a sustainable position, then I guess I am not really writing to you.

 

All bad, not all bad

Baseball 2I read this about 10 days ago.  I continue to think about it. Eric Dorman, “Of Cubs and Humans and Good Thieves,” Mockingbird (July 30, 2018) [link].

It reminds me of  “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.” David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” available many places on the Web, including [link] and [audio link].

Reading online

ReadingfromFathomTwo excellent posts on Fathom, one from a writer/artist I follow online and the other from a journalist I had not heard of:

  • Makoto Fujimura, “Which presidential portrait would you save from fire?” Fathom (Mar. 14, 2018) [link].
  • , “Outrage Culture,”  Fathom (Mar. 14, 2018) [link].

fujimura d7hftxdivxxvm.cloudfront.netfujimura 5550074_origFujimura, an outspoken Christian and abstract artist, discusses what he sees as a decline in portrait painting through the lens of the Presidential portraits. This is particularly fascinating since Fujimura’s own work is primarily abstract. Fujimura says:

“A good portrait—like Michelangelo’s depiction of the young Andrea Quaratesi, an extraordinary drawing featured in the recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit, or Madame X by John Singer Sargent across the hall at the Metropolitan—remains enduring because the artist captures more than a person. The portrait moves us away from mere depiction of the external element and begins to reveal the mysteries of the inner person’s soul. Such a work captures both the present reality and historical context of the time. But it also actualizes future audiences to believe in the art of portraiture itself.”

keith george-f-peabody-esqWhile my friend, Kyle Keith, himself a fine portrait painter, [link] may interact with Fujimura’s thoughts at the level of their shared craft, I enjoyed this as another example of a believer thinking through his work as a way of honoring God.

‘s piece, though, is more practical for me, because it interacts with the temptations I face every single day.  Danielsen’s topic is how we might reasonably and righteously display outrage, and it is virtually impossible to read or watch the news without hearing a call to outrage.  Danielsen suggests that “Of all God’s attributes, his outrage at injustice—with all its wildness and fiery breath—is among the hardest to wield with integrity.”

He poses four questions for dealing with outrage, eventually asking:

Am I outraged by grace most of all? There is nothing more outrageous than the cross. There, God plows the killing field to level the playing field. Our sins lie on the same plane as those who sicken us most. We both are offered life from one cup.

Knowing this shouldn’t quell our outrage. To guilt-trip or Jesus-juke someone into suppressing righteous outrage is a critical mistake and denies something God-given. Yet as creatures driven by the hope of redemption, we should sigh with longing for even the worst of sinners to stop in the middle of the road and turn around.

Be outraged, and sin not.

Each of these pieces is well worth the five minutes or so it will take to read them.

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

Not just forgiveness

Rachael Denhollander was interviewed by Christianity Today in the aftermath of her statement to the Court in the Nassar sentencing. (If you have not yet read “No True Grace Without Real Judgment” and her statement, please do that now.)

She talks bluntly about the tendency — which she feels is universal — for church leadership to protect the “the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ” rather than the victims of sexual abuse, when the abuse occurs in the church. It is an uncomfortable indictment.

Here is her conclusion:

“[T]he gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.

[And] that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.

As usual, I urge you to read the whole interview. Morgan Lee, “Interview with Rachael Denhollander,”* Christianity Today (Jan. 31, 2018) [link].

Ms. Denhollander has thought deeply, theologically, and prayerfully about these things.

*The actual title is “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.”

No true grace without real judgment

reading the law Rachael Denhollander to Larry Nassar:

“In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

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Continue reading No true grace without real judgment

The Trump Divide

current reading 2Interesting article (and rebuke) by a Catholic writer about the tension Mr. Trump has created within what was once a more unified evangelical community:

Trump’s candidacy and presidency have bitterly divided . . . evangelicals of all stripes, all of whom continue to address each other in harsh tones and with dismissive rhetoric. It is curious to see communities formed by grace show so little of it toward fellow believers. Given their theological kinship and belief in a transcendent and knowable moral order, evangelicals have deep resources for modelling sound deliberation about the common good. Yet deliberation can take place only if evangelicals grant each other room to exercise the core political virtue of prudence. Prudence will not lead all believers down the same political path, but it is best demonstrated in deliberation rather than in incrimination and excommunication.

Darren Guerra, “Donald Trump and the Evangelical ‘Crisis,'” First Things (Jan. 5, 2018).  He suggests that Catholics, Mormons, and mainline Protestants have been dis-stressed in much the same way, but have been less divided by the Trump phenomenon.

Let us strive to show grace even in politics.