The Sin ProjectMarch 7, 2013
In class recently I set the following assignment: We investigated a wide range of ways and images the bible presents the problems and resolutions of sin.
- distorted image
- road block
- deceiving snake
Following a discussion of these typologies, their place and relationship in the wider corpus of the bible, I divided the class into pairs and each pair chose a model of sin.
I set the simple task of asking them to be prepared to speak to me, using the model of sin selected, as I posed as a friend interested in talking about God.
I gave them time to prepare for the conversation, and when they were ready, they called me over and I invited them to ‘evangelise’ me. I played the role of a sincere and sympathetic, though unconvinced questioner, interested in the conversation but willing to push back a little when things didn’t make sense.
I even kicked off the conversation with an opener to get the pair going:
“You know, I really try to be my better self, but sometimes I feel like the world is out to get me, and pull me down…”
“Sometimes I don’t know if I’m even seeing things right. I look at the sides of buses and it’s like the whole of what life’s about is out of whack…”
“To be honest, I have no idea where my life is going…”
“You know, it seems society is just incredibly stuck”
Two really interesting things happened over and over again.
And they were both the consequence of one dominant ‘script of sin and salvation’ having been played over and over again, without reference to the Bible or critical thinking.
Firstly, in a class of predominantly gung-ho evangelicals, several people told me in the course of these conversations that Jesus wasn’t God, he was God’s son.
I questioned it in my ‘seeker’ role saying,
“Oh I thought, that Christians believed Jesus was really God?”
My conversation partners corrected me and, gobsmackingly, in the middle of what was an ‘evangelistic conversation’ role play they denied the divinity of Christ, without even realizing it.
This was, on the one hand distressing, but on the other hand gave me an excuse to show this:
Here, even the most sardonic atheist at least unequivocally affirms the divinity of Christ.
The second pattern in these conversations was that, even given time to prepare, to think through their assigned (biblical) model of sin, to gather references, and even having been launched into the model with a leading question from me, each pair struggled to stay within the narrative image assigned, and after a few comments and exchanges around the topic given, they quickly switched to the standard script, and told me that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for my sins.
When I pointed out that I couldn’t see how ‘paying the price’ related to, for example, being lost – they typically stumbled and then launched into rolling out the problem of sin as a legal debt. All of the participants were surprised themselves at how difficult they found it to form sentences about humans and God outside of this frame.
So, this is a classic example of mixing our metaphors – but the scary thing was that most of the class had never thought about the language of ‘debt’ and ‘payment’ and ‘guilt’ as a metaphor.
While there was ample enthusiasm for the plethora of sin images and narrative contexts for these, they were clearly thought of as being in a different category to the one ‘pure’ or ‘abstracted’ or ‘real’ explanation of sin – as a legal debt to be paid.
This is just not biblical purity or theological orthodoxy, but naivety and ignorance. The Bible is full of stuff – most of it, I’m discovering, Christians have never even heard of. In this tertiary class full of ministry interns and even pastors no one had heard of Jael, Jehu, Eglon, Athaliah or Ananias. If you want to understand sin…these are some professionals to learn from.
But back to the prevalence of the monochrome gospel model. This has many debilitating outcomes for those of us who think a) faith and doubt are worth talking about together and b) worth finding robust and flexible and apt language with which to do it.
In a real conversation, the action of switching metaphors here, privileging one image over another, and failing to take the conversation on the terms that the questioner came with, is an act of dominance and power. Around the world missioners are in deep repentance for the theological travesties of past centuries partnering mission with colonialism. But here it is still, in full hegemonic force.
It’s no wonder people shut down and stop listening and talking. In order to have genuine faith sharing, we need shared terms, shared vocabulary, shared imaginative space. To respond to God is, after all a leap of the imagination into an affirmation of future, present and past.
I actually repeated this exercise in two different courses – one in a ‘Biblical Perspectives’ unit, and then again in a ‘Children and Families Ministry’ (Field D) unit.
The variety of ways of speaking about sin is especially important in contextualization – as relevant in Biblical Studies as in Practical Theology.
The so called ‘Forensic’ metaphor – set in legal and juridical terms has limited scope. Those who consider it to be universally applicable betray their privilege and power. To be admissible in a court of law, one must be of sound mind, an age of accountability (in this country 18), a free citizen.
for those whose mental health is episodically or chronically compromised
for those whose intellectual development and chronological age are perceived to be misaligned by lack of correspondence to statistical norms
for women as non-citizens in many cultures across history
for the enslaved…
…the ‘forensic’ model is not just ill-fitting but inaccessible. At many points in the history of biblical studies and theology we have simply left this significant majority of the population out of the picture, in order to maintain a uniform orthodoxy for an idealized ‘man’.
Those who drive the legal model hardest in our time, insisting on it’s privileged orthodoxy, do unfortunately seem to come from a culture that is most besotted with the idealization of ‘man’ and powerful agent.
It is not that those for whom contemporary law doesn’t operate in the same relationship can’t understand or imagine the metaphor of an ancient law code – it is that reducing the identity and action of God to one model over others is to deny the full scope of God’s salvific work for all people for all time.
Further, it requires an abstraction from the concretization of the metaphor. And we have seen the hard, shrivelled fruit of a conceptualised faith that is required to disengage from the embodied physical world in order to be constructed and authenticated.
As a teacher I must cast my bread upon the waters and let the trade winds blow gently, but I hope that our class experiments in biblical narratives and images of sin will lead to deeply connected conversations in shared terms and faith that is grounded in the lived experience in this diverse, difficult, divinely appointed world. I hope that those who ‘rehearse’ the biblical narrative as teachers and preachers will model singing all the verses, not just the ones we are familiar with.
Even more I hope that we will give up the practice of allowing only a few to repeatedly rehearse the story in our gatherings (the seduction of hegemony in this dynamic alone should make us avoid it) and nurture one another in the replete communication of the biblical narrative that only a community can fully execute.