Sin is Culturally Defined

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. A very long time.

The reality of the title statement hit me sometime in my teens, as I attended a church that taught that the consumption of alcohol was a sin. Yet my parents, relatives, and family friends – all equally “Christian” – drank alcohol responsibly. I stepped closer to this statement when a very important time of my life ended in disappointment because my powerful conversation partner remained shut down to my claims that current religious prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol (and the subsequent labeling of such activity as “sin”) were merely a holdover of our country’s earlier legal prohibitions.

Through college and divinity school I became exposed to numerous groups of Christians who had different lists of “sins,” different definitions – sometimes radically different. Why was this so, I wondered? Were some “better Christians”? Were some more “devout”?

It was, I think, during divinity school that I started openly telling others my theory that sin was culturally defined. I was rebuffed, often. Opponents of my view would quote Bible verses to me and I would quote them back. Romans 14 quickly became a favorite chapter of mine. Verse 5b: “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” Verse 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Even Paul was proclaiming the relativity of sin.

[Aside: This is the same Paul who cannot settle on what he even means when he uses the term "sin." It is sometimes very clearly doing things one ought not do, but other times it is very clearly some cosmic force which is able to indwell human beings and in fact does dwell in the flesh, while the Spirit of God dwells in the spirit. Yay, dualism.]

Recent conversations in our country and in various Christian circles about same-sex marriage have caused me to become more convinced than ever. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage because homosexuality is a “sin,” or at the very least that engaging in “homosexual acts” are sinful, employ the so-called clobber verses: Romans 1, Leviticus 20, etc. The selectivity of using these verses (and not verses that prohibit wearing clothing made of mixed materials, for instance) as a guideline has been pointed out and labeled hypocritical. Countless proponents of marriage equality have talked about Romans 1, the homoerotic acts discussed therein, and the invention of “homosexuality” in the 19th century as though they were experts. The text does not mean what it seems plainly to mean, but instead one must realize that there was no understanding of things such as “sexuality” and same-sex monogamy at the time, the arguments go.

While the authority of the Bible is regularly given as the reason for claiming that homosexuality is a sin, I have yet to meet someone who claimed that homosexuality was a sin that would claim the opposite about slavery, though the Bible clearly and repeatedly condones the latter. Claims have been made by religious leaders and politicians and Facebook friends that the “Biblical definition of marriage” is that of one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, after all. In response to this I am fond of posting this helpful chart:

Biblical Marriage

All of these miss the mark, though. For it is our culture, or our particular subculture, that has already defined “sin” for us. We need only to provide the explanations for our classification. When examined with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that there is no consistent list of “sins.” My dad could not play cards when he was growing up, though I could and no one considered telling me that the activity was a “sin.” Galatians 5.2 says, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” Even so, most American Christians permit their male children to be circumcised. It is the cultural norm. Claims will be made of lax or weak Christians, though the hypocrisy runs rampant in all stripes of Christian. Merely pointing this out only takes us so far.

We do better to realize that intimately connected to what counts as “sin” is the power struggle over identity and legitimacy. Liberal Christians denounce conservative Christians as not really following Christ’s example. Conservative Christians denounce liberal Christians as not accepting the authority of the Bible. The recent World Vision debacle gave us a trove of examples people from all sides engaging in these identity politics in the matter of a few days. Charges flew back and forth explaining who was a “true Christian” or who was worthy of the name “Christian.” The ones leveling the charges always included themselves in the “true Christian” group. Self interest, FTW, huh?

At the heart of these struggles are people and groups engaging in the varied processes of identify formation and maintenance. For the authenticity of one’s faith to be legitimated, his opponent’s faith must be delegitimated, so the thinking goes. We see the same processes at work in the early Church when Paul fought vehemently with the Jerusalem Church over Gentile entrance requirements, when Irenaeus and Epiphanius produced their (in)famous lists of heresies, when controversies arose over the personhood or divinity of Jesus, when bishops used their powerful connections to oust competing bishops, when those in power feared the new-found popularity and increasing authority of the desert fathers and mothers, when “heretical” groups were excommunicated and then when they were no longer considered “heretical” because someone new was in power.

It seems a cynical and crass way to view history and to view the church, yet no other view suffices. No other view explains the arbitrary nature of what is considered “sin” at a particular time and place. We need only look to the sermons about the “curse of Ham” to justify the institution of slavery in this country and to couple these with their context: civil war America where one part of the country had a significant economic interest in maintaining that slavery not only should be legal and was not a “sin,” but that it was actually part of God’s plan. Such a sermon would never fly today in an America that has outlawed slavery, has outlawed Jim Crow laws, has continued to make progress in racial equality (though it remains slow, painful, and rarely steady), has elected its first black President, and recalls with fondness and humility Dr. King’s dream. The context has changed. The culture has changed.

Similar examples can be given of how shifts in public opinion are directly tied to shifts in theological understandings and understandings of “sin” as it relates to issues such as same-sex marriage, drug usage, interracial marriage, drinking alcohol, etc.

It is true that in many circles I am considered a “heretic.” I have been deeply influenced by being met with hostility and questions like, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” So I am keenly aware (and have become much more aware thanks to Foucault, Bourdieu, McCutcheon, etc.) of the role that power and identity politics play in claims of truth, authenticity, and normativity. Sin is no exception.

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Noah, Irenaeus, and Classification (Or, Look Mom My Research Does Matter)

Noah Movie ScreenshotEveryone, it seems, is weighing in on the new Noah movie that has just been released. My favorite “review” comes, unsurprisingly, from The Onion. By far, though, the vast majority of reviews of the film I have seen and read have come from evangelical Christians urging other Christians not to see the movie. This led me to stumbling upon one by previously-unknown-to-me Brian Mattson, Sympathy For The Devil. Mattson’s review is interesting for a host of reasons.

First, his review provides a stellar example of how classification works and why classification matters. For Mattson, Aronofsky was not making a movie based on the Bible, it was instead based on the Kabbalah and is highly “gnostic.” Here’s why this matters:

Darren Aronofsky has produced a retelling of the Noah story without reference to the Bible at all. This was not, as he claimed, just a storied tradition of run-of-the-mill Jewish “Midrash.” This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources. To my mind, there is simply no doubt about this.

You see, for Mattson Kabbalah and Gnosticism cannot equal anything close to Judaism or Christianity. Nevermind that many so-called “gnostics” likely self-identified as Jewish or Christian in some way, Mattson is now the one that gets to classify and they are not Jewish or Christian according to his classificatory scheme. (Aside: I will speak to “gnosticism” since that is squarely within my research and “expertise,” Kabbalah is not. Further, I say “many” and “likely” because we do have sources that survive from “gnostics” that allow us to know this, but many “gnostic” sources were intentionally destroyed or simply did not survive the accidents of history, so we must speculate about their means of identity formation.) Aronofsky, then, according to Mattson, has not told a Jewish story (or a Christian story) – regardless of the Jewish texts that contain many of these traditions like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc. – he has told a pagan story.

The next aspect of Mattson’s rewview that caught my eye was his use of the 2nd century heresiographer Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies in which he identified “heresies” and “heretics.” Scholars have known for some time that Irenaeus is not the most reliable source, particularly in this text. For we should always be cautious about trusting one’s opponents to give an accurate view of a person or group. That would be like trusting Sarah Palin to accurately describe Democrats or trusting Chris Matthews to accurately describe Paul Ryan. Yet, this does not stop Mattson from accepting Irenaeus as gospel.

Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

“Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle.” –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

Mattson does not question Irenaeus’ claims, though we know that Irenaeus and those who followed in his footsteps, like Epiphanius, often made up “heretical” groups whole cloth. Their project was about labeling those who were “in” and those who were “out.” They would list out the “heresies” and urge people to avoid them. Some descriptions were loosely based on historical groups with whom Irenaeus happened to disagree on some matters, others were simply straw men used to strengthen his position, to scare his readers about those numerous and crafty “heretics,” and to offer him a chance to denounce something that someone might come to think/believe or to denounce a group about which he had heard rumors. This is exactly the type of literature with which I work on a daily basis, which leads me to my last point.

I am in agreement with Mattson that more and more people should be reading Irenaeus.

In response, I have one simple suggestion:

Henceforth, not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies.

Because it’s the 2nd century all over again.

Now, Mattson and I will clearly differ on what it means to have “read, digested, and understood” Against Heresies, but more people reading it can only mean a bigger audience for my work (right? right?!).

There is more that could be said about Mattson’s review: he rails against “Gnosticism” while apparently not recognizing the dualism and “gnostic” elements that are ever-present in his Bible (just a cursory reading of Paul or the gospel of John will reveal this); he went looking for Kabbalah, so he found Kabbalah; he legitimately believes that Aronofsky did all of this as one big, elaborate, expensive experiment to make fools of evangelical Christians; he derides the “elitism” and the prominence given to special knowledge in “gnosticism,” but advocates a clear hierarchy between “rank-and-file” Christian viewers and “Christian leaders: college and seminary professors, pastors, and Ph.Ds.”

But the most important point of all of this is that my research is relevant. The processes of identity formation are not new. Heresy and orthodoxy are both political creations of parties with something invested in who’s in and who’s out. Just as Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, etc. drew boundary lines to demarcate “Christians” and “heretics,” people today are doing the same thing. The data set is different, but the process and the goals remain the same. Place arbitrary significance on some aspect of difference, put yourself in a position to name and classify, and you’ll end up in while your opponents end up out.

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Is Dead Poets Society Hurting the Humanities?

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities | The Atlantic: For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading. Rather, it’s the literary equivalent of fandom.

I admit to loving the movie, or at least to having loved the movie. After reading this piece, I find myself questioning just what I loved about the movie.

To be honest, I think it is the “fandom,” the appreciation that Keating instills in his students. Yet Dettmar is right:

But while avoiding the pitfalls of dull pedagogy, Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.

As Dettmar does not want Dead Poets Society to be the image that people conjure up when they think of his work as an English professor, so I do not want people to think of my work as simply fostering a “vague enthusiasm” for the texts I study.

Enthusiasm and appreciation are, I maintain, important elements in the humanities, broadly speaking. I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the texts I read, translate, study, and analyze. But that’s just it: I do not stop at enthusiasm and appreciation.

Dettmar’s larger point is that the picture of the humanities presented by Dead Poets Society is detrimental on two fronts. Since it does not accurately reflect the rigorous work done in the humanities, but rather presents an anti-intellectual, anti-critical-thinking image of the field, some are able to dismiss this “sentimental humanities.” Others, who have a somewhat more accurate view of the humanities dismiss them on the very grounds that they analyze too much. Neither view understands humanities professors as professional scholars.

There are, to be sure, many more factors at play in the so-called “crisis in the humanities,” but is Dettmar on to something here, that Dead Poets Society calls for – and prefers – “fans over critics, amateurs over professionals”?

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The Olympic Marriage Metaphor

Ice Skating - McLaughlin_Brubaker_Death_Sp iral

An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives | Desiring God: They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!”

This blog post has garnered quite a bit of attention since it was post two days ago. Some have been humorous (Rachel Held Evans tweeted the link with the comment, “Egalitarians: Urging female figure skaters to toss male figure skaters through the air since *never*.”). Some have been responded more thoroughly (like this post that draws on the author’s dancing experience). And some have been more akin to the subject of an email I received about the article, “Really??”

If the author weren’t so serious about why complementarianism is THE ONLY APPROPRIATE CHRISTIAN AND BIBLICAL MODEL FOR MARRIAGE, we could laugh at the absurdity of a piece which claims that a man should be the clear masculine leader of his appropriately feminine wife by means of a metaphor that includes men who dance, on ice, wearing make up, and often in costumes that contain beads, rhinestones, feathers, and glitter.

But as it is, John Ensor is serious. His larger point seems to be that pairs ice skating is an appropriate metaphor because everyone who watches it instantly realizes how each skater complements the other perfectly because they understand their roles. Esnor clearly does not fully understand pairs ice skating, as this piece points out. But the part of the blog post that bothered me the most was his suggestion that everyone agrees with his view of pairs ice skating. In truth, many of us realize the systemic sexism involved in many sports and in the Olympics as a whole. With many commentators making comments like, “She’s even as good/fast/strong as some men we’ve seen here in Sochi,” even the Olympics, with their high ideals and international appeal, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to promoting true equality.

So, no, I will not be telling my wife that I must now lead here and she must receive me because some guy thinks that pairs ice skating shows some inherent “truth” about how men and women should interact in all facets of life. Pairs ice skating is nothing like marriage, but you know what is a lot like marriage? Marriage.

I think I’ll let my wife and I figure out what’s best for our marriage and ignore the unsolicited advice of someone who expends so much time and energy on trying to make sure that a male hierarchy is maintained.

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And God Bless The United States of America

Obama State of the Union (2010)The State of the Union address is tonight. For the first time in as long as I can remember I will not be watching it live, though I will read it or watch it tomorrow. I think these kinds of things are important. No, these speeches do not usually change poll numbers or have a huge effect of legislation, but I think it’s good to hear the vision that our President thinks is important to lay out for the next year(s).

President Obama’s vision for the next year is not all that will be on display tonight, though. No, we will see a great example of civil religion on display.

So, as you prepare to watch the SOTU, or after you have watched it, check out our latest episode of ThinkingReligion in which we take up the topic of America’s civil religion.

ThinkingReligion 21:  American Civil Spirituality | Thinking.FM:

Thomas and Sam continue last week’s conversation on canon and discuss whether America really is moving toward a new civil spirituality and whether an American civil religion can survive in a religiously pluralistic society.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

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