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Here’s something else I think I need in order to celebrate: to be, retrospectively, without sin.

I wrote my dissertation about raised-evangelicals writing about politics online in the Year of Our Lord 2020, so I’ve spent the past 4+ years thinking a great deal about the internet, political talk, how people change their minds and seek to change the minds of others, and how they narrate shifts in their thinking and behavior over time. And I came to a few conclusions. That’s what you’re supposed to do in a dissertation, after all. 

One of them is this: we are struggling, as a society, with the overwhelming impulse to rewrite our own pasts. I’m not talking here about the big and sinister efforts to erase the dark side of our history as a nation by rewriting curricula, curtailing free speech, and culling library shelves, though those are certainly related.

I’m talking about our desire to pretend “I have always been on the right side of history. I have always believed and lived as I do now. I have never held opinions or engaged in behavior that I now find boorish or bigoted. And if I did, it was because I was a victim in a larger system of injustice.”

But if I’m being honest about what I think I need in order to celebrate, I have to talk about the safety of blamelessness that I am perpetually seeking–even though we here are all Good Reformed People who ostensibly don’t believe in that kind of thing.

This illusion of achievable blamelessness is of course related to that picturesque group of local friends I don’t exactly have, because no one in that fantasy community of co-celebrants has ever had cause to think ill of me, nor will they, because I have never said or done or even thought anything wrong.

The trouble with my actual friends and loved ones, the people with whom I might like to celebrate, is that they have known me long enough to know that I have had all kinds of opinions and done all kinds of things that are at a minimum embarrassing, and furthermore clear evidence that I have been and done wrong before. And the trouble with the internet is that it’s so easy to find evidence of all the bad opinions and choices I have made that suggest that I have not always been the kind of Right and Good I am busily demonstrating myself to be now.

Furthermore, if I acknowledge that I have changed, it suggests that in fact I might continue to change, and that means I am just out here posting on Instagram and Substack and this very website continuously documenting all the opinions and actions that might someday reveal me to be wrong!

It makes me feel bananas. 

And I know, from research– my own and other people’s– that I am not alone in my anxiety on this front. 

Maybe we attempt to rewrite our own pasts– delete our old Facebook posts, forget or dismiss or explain away stories about what we used to be like and what it took to change– because we cannot bear our own regrets.

Maybe we are afraid that if we admit that our beliefs or actions have been shaped more by cultural mores than Divine Wisdom, we have to encounter our own fallibility and the limits of our access to the truth.

Maybe it is too painful to acknowledge that we have wronged other people and we do not deserve their forgiveness.

Denial is a cleaner ticket to Righteousness. The parties there are exquisite, because it is so easy to celebrate how right and true and good we all are and have always been, forever and ever, amen.

Header photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash
Gavel photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Katie Van Zanen

Katie Van Zanen is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan, where she studies the rhetorical and ethical decision-making of raised evangelical social media writers. She has been a writer for the post calvin since 2014.


  • RZ says:

    I love your thought process and I love your dissertation premise. ” The illusion of achievable blamelessness.” Sin is a devious companion. While we obsess over the totality and self- loathing aspects, we avoid the specific, confessional aspects, thereby allowing us to condemn the moral failures of others while keeping our own sins in the generic, total- depravity realm. It is easier to blame The Fall than to look at ourselves . For most of us, most of the time, sin is more about self-deception than about rebellion and evil intent. And this seems to be more apparent in believers, ironically. Ww all need accountability and routine, rebooting/ repenting exercises.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I know of one stridentky progressive theologian whose promising career was derailed when their earlier opinions on signal issues were suddenly discovered and revealed, opinions which they had thought were securely forgotten.
    But, on another point, is it possible that internet writing of all sorts is dehumanizing to everybody using it, even those of us who feel successful at it?

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    No one is righteous (or right) not even one (except Jesus). If we are alive then we are learning, and if we are learning, then we will change an opinion or view or two along the way. We are all pilgrims on a journey, but this side of heaven, we will always be less than perfect, and always tainted with sin, even our best thoughts.

  • REBECCA HALL says:

    Thank you, Katie, for this challenging look at ourselves. There does seem to be a great shame attached to our sin, that makes it harder for us who follow Jesus to make real change. The paradigm that helps me is that there are two categories of sin—those done in ignorance and those done intentionally. For the first category, Jesus’ words give us assurance. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” I appreciate this paradigm because my good intention can be preserved, while acknowledging real harm committed. Our pain and fear of shame is washed in Jesus compassionate understanding that we are dust (i.e., stupid, blind) and need to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind.” May we have that humility which enables transformation! Not to rewrite our history, but for Jesus to rewrite our future.

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