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by Jared Ayers
Jim Bratt is away today. Jared Ayers, preaching pastor at Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is our guest blogger. Thanks, Jared!
Last spring, I was listening to NPR while scrubbing the dishes one evening, and to my shock, I heard the interviewee use the s-word: sin.
The guest was David Brooks, leading cultural and political commentator, New York Times columnist, and Yale professor. In the interview, he was discussing his forthcoming book, The Road to Character. He observes that, since the 1940’s, the West has lived in a “different moral country.” In the book, Brooks notices that, in our move to a different ethical landscape over the last half-century or so, “we’ve accidentally left [the] moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life…we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. The ‘crooked timber’ moral tradition— based on the awareness of sin and the confrontation with sin— was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation…Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.”
We have become “morally inarticulate”: we’ve lost any kind of coherent moral vocabulary by which to name and address the dark and wrong that we see in the news, in the neighborhood, and in the mirror. By and large, we’ve culturally mothballed the concept of sin; words like “decadent,” “seductive,” and “sinful” tend to only turn up for brief appearances on the dessert menus of fancy restaurants.
I’m with Brooks: I want to campaign to bring those weighty old words back down from the attic, dust them off, and return them to our usage, imagination, consciousness. To some, this will seem regressive or backward. But I say that there’s no school like the old school. At my church this Lent, for example, we’re practicing the custom of the ancient Church (still in use in the Eastern Orthodox congregations) of centering Scripture reading and sermon around Genesis 3-11, as these primordial, compelling chapters of Holy Scripture depict in earthy, visceral fashion the world gone awry; we’re deliberately exploring the terrain of the “diving line of good and evil that cuts through the heart of every human being,” as Solzhenitsyn so memorably put it.
The point of returning sin to our vocabulary, as Brooks puts it, isn’t guilt-tripping, but growth. Awareness of our inner crookedness and contradiction opens us to transformation, wisdom, flourishing. Andrew Delbanco, a humanities professor at Columbia, was surprised by this counterintuitive reality one evening in a New York City church basement. In his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, he describes doing research on Alcoholics Anonymous, and observing a “crisply-dressed young man” at one meeting who told a version of his life’s story in which he was entirely faultless and his problems were all due to others’ failures and betrayals. While he was sharing, an older African-American man in dreadlocks and sunglasses turned to Delbanco and joked, “I used to feel that way too, until I achieved low self esteem.” Here’s how he describes the AA epiphany he had in that moment:
This was more than a good line. For me it was the moment I understood in a new way the religion I had claimed to know something about. As the speaker bombarded us with phrases like “got to take control of my life,” and “I’ve got to really believe in myself”— the man beside me took refuge in the old Calvinist doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope. What he meant by his joke about self-esteem was that he learned no one can save himself by dint of his own efforts. He thought the speaker was still lost— lost in himself, but without knowing it. (p. 25)
Christians use the s-word not to harangue, but to offer hope. When we wake up to our own lostness, when we look in the mirror and find that the reflection that looks back at us is “weak and wounded, sick and sore”- this is when the Friend of Sinners sneaks up on us. This is when we’re enfolded, embraced by God, graced with 10,000 charms.
So, this Lent, I hope you and your church learn the s-word again. I hope you do the counterintuitive, seemingly backward thing: see yourselves as sinners. Because sinners are Jesus’s kind of people.