The Sin Project

March 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.

Sin as

  • distorted image
  • predator
  • snare
  • road block
  • lostness
  • deceiving snake
  • brokenness
  • alienation
  • imprisonment/slavery
  • hardness
  • stain…

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 children

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.


  1. Great stuff Beth! I find this quite interesting because I never ever couch sin in those terms – always in terms of broken relationship or in terms of things we do which stop us being fully human. I think the narrative of your students though is so incredibly intrenched both in the church and in wider society that to speak a different gospel (ie the gospel of Jesus) is always going to be to speak in a message that runs counter to this conventional narrative. One of the biggest problem with the sin as debt model is that it continues to ‘bind’ us, rather than providing a mechanism to set us free…..

    I sometimes wonder what spending time with some of Job’s friends who give extraordinarily crap answers about sin and suffering to Job might do for people who’ve never read them properly!
    And nice Black Books moment – I thought I’d seen them all – but I don’t remember that one! 🙂
    All of which is really just to say – preach it sister! I always love your work!
    Sandy x

    • Thanks Sandy – the narratives we favour shape us and those we journey with so powerfully. The enslavement you speak of is fairly evident in Christian culture in the west at least. We hear the language of the debt building up again, and us ‘needing to get right’ (or as the Black Widow says in The Avengers ‘I’ve got red on my ledger’). Meanwhile the ‘economy’ of grace become meaningless. Debts must be paid, retribution and punishments must be exacted…and how we see this played out in our public christian national scripts!
      Strength to your words which speak a different story – a biblical story – may they shape you and those who have the privilege of travelling alongside you as friends and parishioners.

      • Oh – and the Black Books snippet – that was my very first introduction to BB! Needless to say I was instantly enthralled!

      • Assuming BB = Black books not =Brendan Byrne or =Beth Barnett for that matter! 😉
        It’s a great series – I love it a lot.

  2. Thank you Beth. Most thought provoking and relevant. (i got it via Chris’s Western Victoria newsletter for UCA churches).

    • Hi Margo, Great to hear from you. Glad this was helpful, and to know that Christopher’s newsletter is landing in the right place.

  3. Oh Beth, I wished you had asked me in that class to talk about sin with the image we had chosen. I was as gob-smacked as you at the responses I was hearing, but I did not trust myself not to be scathing, and I had to remain on civil terms with my classmates. It sounds gutless as I type, but there it is. Hardness, brokenness, alienation (or fear of it…).

    • Hi Kate, great to have your voice on multivocality. This anecdote was written about a previous class that I taught, not the one you were in – however, the outcome in this kind of exercise is often similar. We struggle to emancipate our voices from the often repeated commonplaces that have taken over the christian expression. Thanks for considering the feelings of the class, though I hope the invitation to question and challenge was evident. Some of the class pushed back pretty hard on my anti-imperialism.
      In class I chose to engage the conversations that needed the greatest amount of deconstruction. You weren’t one of these in this instance 🙂

  4. Good food for thought. By the way, are you a teacher in a seminary? 🙂

    • Hi Elias, I teach units in Biblical Studies, Child Theology, and Children and Families Ministry in a number of colleges in Melbourne. I am completing my doctoral thesis currently. There aren’t too many people in Melbourne with practical experience and academic qualifications to teach the units I teach, and the colleges don’t offer the units every semester – so I am adjunct faculty in a number of places.

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