Category Archives: Sin
Why do I do the bad things that I do? Because I was born with a black hat, of course.
I’m sure you could use this as a good discussion starter for talking about things like original sin, total depravity, fatalism, etc.
Keeping on the theme of sin after yesterday’s The 7 Deadly Sins and All Their Combinations, here’s an infographic from Wired on American Vice: Mapping the 7 Deadly Sins. They actually provide seven different maps showing how each of the sins is distributed throughout America based on specific measures. For example, Greed is calculated based on average income compared with number of people living below the poverty line. The map below is an aggregate of the first six sins, because they think that’s a good picture of Pride.
Based on this, pretty much every major city on the west coast is in trouble except Portland. Yet another reason Portland is such a great city. And, most interestingly, it looks like the largest proportion of sinners in America reside in the Bible Belt. Hmmmm.
Of course, the accuracy of their calculations has to be called into question by the saint-like representation of Nevada. Seriously? Not even a little blemish right around Las Vegas? And, the decision to make Pride an aggregate category instead of giving it its own measure surely protected Texas from coming off worse than it did. Pride alone would have catapulted Texas into the lead of the 7 Deadly Sins Sweepstakes.
Here’s a great chart of the seven deadly sins and all of their various combinations. I particularly liked the idea that gluttony + greed = “last donut” and glutton + sloth = “fat men in speedos.” Actually, as I look a little closer, most of my favorite ones involve gluttony. What does that say about me?
Okay, Stephen King would never talk about the “exponential depravity of human nature.” But I thought that was a good summary for the dominant theme running through his book Under the Dome. This is one of the books that I took with me on vacation, and I really enjoyed it. Like most of King’s books, it gets more graphic than I would prefer in places. But he always tells an interesting story. And this one is no different.
The dominant motif in Under the Dome is mob behavior – the way that people do things they would not normally do when they come under the influence of mob psychology. And, King explains this to some degree by showing that we are all flawed beings, and that these flaws tend to multiply exponentially when they begin to feed off of each other in the mob. We normally control this process through a variety of constraints, but in unusual circumstances where the constraints are lost or temporarily ignored, watch out.
King doesn’t directly engage the question of sin – he rarely does – but it fits his narrative very well. In this story you don’t just see a bunch of fallen people doing sinful things; you see a mob, an exponential increase of sin feeding on sin. Even his best characters come across as flawed beings capable of succumbing to the pressure of mob behavior.
And sadly, the novel really ends on that note. There is no transcendent reality to offer any hope that there might be something beyond our fallenness. There is only an affirmation that we must wear our little lives like an ugly brown sweater that covers the nakedness and shame beneath. Under the Dome calls on us to face the evil that we are capable of, even the evil that we often enjoy, find some way of forgiving ourselves, and then just move on. It’s a powerful story, but one that demonstrates the despair inherent in a narrative with nowhere to go – no beyond, no hope, no gospel, no God.
Mark Twain has to be one of my favorite short story authors. Recently, I was struck by his The Story of the Bad Little Boy, in which Twain wrestles with the perennial question of “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Here’s how he describes Jim’s life.
Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim – though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true that this one was called Jim….
Once this little bad boy stole the key of the pantry, and slipped in there and helped himself to some jam, and filled up the vessel with tar, so that his mother would never know the difference; but all at once a terrible feeling didn’t come over him, and something didn’t seem to whisper to him, “Is it right to disobey my mother? Isn’t it sinful to do this? Where do bad little boys go who gobble up their good kind mother’s jam?” and then he didn’t kneel down all alone and promise never to be wicked any more, and rise up with a light, happy heart, and go and tell his mother all about it, and beg her forgiveness, and be blessed by her with tears of pride and thankfulness in her eyes. No; that is the way with all other bad boys in the books; but it happened otherwise with this Jim, strangely enough. He ate that jam, and said it was bully, in his sinful, vulgar way; and he put in the tar, and said that was bully also, and laughed…. Everything about this boy was curious – everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad James in the books.
Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! no; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was all ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him….Nothing like it in any of the Sunday-school books….
But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn’t get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn’t get struck by lightning….How this Jim ever escaped is a mystery to me….
In many ways, it’s the same question that we find in Psalm 73.
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (vv. 1-3)
If the world is governed by a good and just God, why are we surrounded by such injustice? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? The psalmist never offers a definitive answer. Instead, he simply turns his eyes toward heaven in worship.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny. (vv. 16-17)
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (vv. 24-25)
Mark Twain takes a very different approach when he concludes his story.
And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.
Temporally speaking, I don’t think Mark Twain’s position is any different than that of the psalmist. Wicked people do in fact prosper and justice often reigns triumphant in the world. But, what Twain’s story lacks, and what the psalmist offers, is the brazen declaration of hope, the bold confidence in God’s ultimate sovereignty, the vision to gaze beyond the injustice and see the Kingdom of God beyond. Twain’s power as a writer lay in his ability to make us see the absurdities of the now, but seeing the now is not always the best training for seeing what will be. The psalmist shows us a different path – one that refuses to turn away from seeing the world in all of its devastating depravity, rejects facile and moralistic explanations of injustice, resists the ineluctable draw of nihilism, and reaches out to a greater, deeper, more glorious vision of then – ephemeral, elusive, exasperating…the eschaton.
[I was looking for some way of talking about our own responsibility for the universal spread of sin in the world – i.e. we do much of the work ourselves. This is what came out.]
One of the highlights of the week for my family is Pancake Saturday. The girls love getting up in the morning and playing with dad for a while so mom can get a little extra snooze time. Then we head for the kitchen to make the pancakes. Heat the water for mom’s tea, get dad a cup of coffee, set the table, and we’re good to go.
Then it happens. Every week. The Syrup Monster.
I can see it sitting on the table, looking all innocent in its clear plastic home. But I know the truth. I know that it’s just waiting for some unwitting victim pull open its top, releasing its corrupting power into an unsuspecting world.
You doubt? Try it. Give small children something sticky to eat. Pancakes with syrup. It’s amazing. A few drops of syrup on the table. The monster unleashed. A tiny hand carelessly placed. Sticky fingers. The corruption begins. But, it’s far, far from over. Sticky fingers in the hair, on the face. Sticky fingers on the butter container. The butter passed. More sticky fingers—dad’s now. The monster spreads. By the end…sticky forks, sticky plates, sticky glasses, sticky chairs—even sticky cats. The monster grows. It’s everywhere.
I’m pretty sure it’s nefarious plan is to take over the world.
And it wouldn’t be very hard either. One hand to the next. With each touch its power grows.
In 1918 a flu pandemic swept around the world. In two years, it spread even to the most isolated places, killing 50 to 100 million people and infecting many more. Almost no one escaped its touch as it spread from one person to the next. Even those who looked perfectly healthy, may actually have been infected, carrying the virus with them, spreading it to everyone they met.
The Syrup Monster is like that. That’s what makes it so devilishly clever. It doesn’t actually do anything. It just sits there. We do all of the work. We pass the stickiness along, corrupting others and extending its power. If we wake up one morning and the Syrup Monster has taken over the world, it will be our own fault.
I have no explanation for this excerpt other than the possibility that Mary put something in my dinner last night. I was working on a section focusing on the idea that we’re all dead in our sins, but we often try to hide from that fact through various “shalom restoration projects” that only serve to mimic life without really making us alive. So, I sat down to write an introduction to that section and this is what came out.
Dead is dead. There is no mostly dead, sort of dead, or the “I’ll be better in the morning if you’ll please just hand me my head and that stapler over there” kind of dead. Dead people are just dead. Unless they’re zombies. Or, mummies. But I like zombies. They dress better.
Actually, if you think about it, zombies don’t have it all that bad. They can’t die, since they’re already dead. Apparently they can walk in a slow shuffle as fast as a normal human can run terrified down a dark alley. And, if they really get backed into a corner, they can tear off their own arm and beat people with it. How cool is that?
But, of course, in the end, they’re still dead.
They could try to act like living human beings. Put on fresh clothes. Invest in a small makeup company. Figure out some way to keep their rotting flesh from falling into their coffee all the time. With enough work, they might be able to blend in, become part of the community, part of the human family. Maybe they already have.
Very carefully, look at the person next to you. But don’t let them see you looking. Zombies are sensitive. Are you sure he or she is not a zombie? How could you tell? Maybe they’re just really good at acting like a human. Maybe they’re simply waiting for the zombie overlord to give the command for the zombie apocalypse to begin so they can take over the world. (What? It could happen.) How can you tell the difference between a regular human and a zombie in a suit?
For that matter, I wonder if it’s possible for a zombie to deceive itself. If a zombie spends enough time pretending to be human, can it actually forget that it’s really dead? (There’s an idea for a blockbuster movie lurking in there somewhere.) Which, of course, raises the question, what if you’re a zombie and you just don’t know it?
From there I’d go into a discussion of the fact that without Christ we really are zombies. In other words, we’re dead even though we’re doing our best to look like we’re really alive. And we do all sorts of things to hide the fact that we’re really dead. But in the end, dead is dead.
What do you think? Is the zombie approach too much? I had fun writing it, but it didn’t resonate with Mary. Then I made the mistake of telling her that this might mean that she’s not really in my target audience, which she took to mean that I was saying she was too old. Things went downhill from there.
Here’s another excerpt from the semi-mythical book I claim to be working on. This one’s a bit darker than the last one. I currently have it positioned just after a section where I’ve talked about Jesus as the promised king who has come to restore God’s kingdom and pour out the blessings of shalom on God’s people.
Jesus, the promised king, came into the world and brought with him the promises of the kingdom. “Good news,” he proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “God’s shalom, God’s kingdom, is at hand! God has kept his promises, he is restoring his people and his land!”
“That’s great!” you think. And then…you look around you.
A small child lying quietly in the dust. Barely clothed. Bones stretching dry skin to the breaking point. Breathing? Just. No family in sight. No one cares.
Three men crouching in the bushes. Guns in hand. Bloodstained clothing. Explosions everywhere. Hearts racing. Will they make it home? Does anyone still wait for them? Fear.
A young girl running through the darkness. Clothes torn. Desperate. Dark alleys. Closed windows. Will anyone hear? Will anyone see? Is he coming?
College kids partying in an apartment somewhere. Loud music playing. Alcohol almost gone. Sex just getting started. Enough distraction to dull the pain, hide the boredom. Is there anything else? No one knows.
A family at home. TVs, computers, video games, headphones. Separate rooms. No talking. House full of people…and loneliness.
A quiet room. You’re alone. Only your thoughts to keep you company. Those same thoughts. Why won’t they go away? What’s wrong with me? I’m glad no one knows. Hiding.
Blink….Blink….Blink….On and on it goes. The images won’t stop. A mosaic of despair and brokenness.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). How can that be? That was two thousand years ago. And yet, we look around today and see so much death, so much destruction, so much shoah.
Again, let me know what you think. I’m shamelessly using you as a sounding board whenever I try something new (for me). So, if you don’t think it works, let me know…gently.