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Man and Sin

Have you ever looked at Christian fiction?  Every other book has some girl in a bonnet and some guy wearing an old-fashioned frontier-style hat.  Practically all of the rest involve something super-natural- usually armageddon.  None of them engage secular difficulties on secularism’s turf.  Their themes seem almost childish.  Let me give you an example from the most popular Christian series, the Left Behind series.

Think of Buck Williams, played by Kirk Cameron (I told you he’d be back) in the movie.  What do we know about Buck?  Well, we know he’s an intellectual- he attended Princeton- we know he’s a world reknowned journalist and a senior writer for something bigger than the NYT.  And we know he’s not a Christian.  This point is critical to Buck’s development.  You see, when the rapture happens, Buck starts to doubt his atheism.  He begins to put pieces  (including a miraculous experience he had in Israel) together and finally decides to accept God.  Oh, one more thing we know about the pre-rapture Buck: he’s a virgin.

That’s right: a handsome, successful, famous, non-Christian, 29 year old intellectual is a virgin.  We know this because at one point he has a comical discussion about “experience” with a college student he’s sweet on.   I couldn’t get over this when I read the first book, probably a decade ago.  Even at 12 it seemed preposterous (now it’s almost unfathomable).  What were they trying to pull, I wondered?

Now, older and wiser, I’ve figured it out: they were trying to create their own world, totally detached from the secular world, where the ordinary and the sinful were pretty rare and easily dealt with.   Even the obvious evil in the story fits this mold: Armageddon isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.   Practically all of modern, conservative Christianity has disappeared into that make-believe world.  Thus the Amish books, and the bonnets and the strapping young lads with suspenders and impeccable manners.  It’s all a retreat.

How did we get here?  Bear with me but I think I have an idea.  Back when Christianity still dominated the intellectual landscape, the Christian novel read a lot differently.  Sinners showed up more often but they played an almost uniform role: they died.  Or they experienced some unthinkable tragedy.  You’d see plots that went something like this “girl is seduced away from virtue and soon afterward she’s…run over by a wagon”.  Do you see?  If you have sex outside of marriage you WILL be run over by a wagon.  This was serious stuff.  The virtuous were very good and the sinners very bad.  This wasn’t, by the way, just a literary thing.  Not a whole lot of people were literate and most of those who were only had time for the Bible.  But, it was a way of telling morality stories- even orally- that passed into the culture.

As society opened up, something happened.  The faithful realized that you didn’t automatically die after pre-marital sex.  They noticed that , you know, the virtuous didn’t always triumph.  And the virtuous didn’t always seem to be the virtuous- some Christians seemed rotten and some “sinners” seemed like basically decent people.  So you get novels like the Scarlett Letter.  Chillingsworth is essentially faithful, but clearly evil.  Hester and Dimmsdale are tormented, but their torment is more about shame of sin than sin itself.  We’re led to feel that, whatever their faults, they’ve basically gotten a raw deal- sin shouldn’t work like that.  So there’s a chipping away of the strictures of morality, but most of the ediface is intact.

Dickens, hardly an especially religious writer, illustrates this conflict and change.  In David Copperfield, the virtuous and patient Agnes prevails and wins David, while the sinful Little Emily ends up “beautiful and drooping” and essentially exiled.  Dickens differs from the prior tradition in that, while the sinful get their desserts, he doesn’t quite call them just.  Little Emily is a tragic, not an evil, figure.  It seems there was no doubt that sin led to “the fall”, but there was some doubt about whether “the fall” made you irredeemable.

Sometime after Dickens, this type of novel almost totally stopped.  People had “tragic flaws” that led to “downfalls” but the arc wasn’t totally explicable in terms of sin.  And the man on the street really knew better at this point.  He wasn’t going to stand for any of that malarkey.  Having realized that sin didn’t work quite as linearly as he’d supposed, he was free from the whole idea.  Oh morality and all that was fine, but basically you just wanted to be a good person.  Anything more serious and you were getting radical.  There’d been an overreach.

Which brings me back to the present (for now).  Where before the Christian writer smote the sinners, now he minimizes them.  Twenty-nine year old, intellectual, handsome, famous guys might be virgins.  In fact, they probably are if God has a plan for them.  Somehow it’ll work itself out.  Again, this is a form of retreat.  But, it’s worth noting- more than worth noting- that there was an alternative to the two traditions- between smiting and false dismissal.  This alternative was exemplified in the novels of Evelyn Waugh.  A few months ago, somebody over at NRO (and I can’t find the quote) claimed that while the love story worked in Brideshead Revisited, the religious plot hadn’t quite come off.  I thought this was incredible and absolutely backwards.

The love story didn’t quite work precisely because the religious plot was so central.  The Brideshead crew just couldn’t live well without God.  The whole second half of the book is based on that gorgeous Chesteron quote:

“Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

They’d wandered but they were hooked and knew it.  They’d wandered because they were hooked and couldn’t stand it.  The novel is full of that sort of idea.  Life is glamorous; interesting; occasionally pleasurable.  But, it’s not quite full and they’re never quite satisfied.  Sin isn’t a demonic monster which immediately consumes every last good sensation, but neither is it a pathetic easily vanquished rodent.  Instead, it’s a real temptation which can feed you but never fill you.  Am I crazy to think that this is where we Christians ought to be going?  Am I crazy to think that this is the way it really is?  We should deal with the modern world manfully and acknowledge that sin exists and, while it cuts man off from God’s grace,  it can come out shining like the light.  But, it is not the light and it will never be enough to keep us out of the darkness.  Maybe the wages of sin is death, though a gradual death with many remissions.

  1. MWS
    September 29, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Very good and interesting post. I think part of what creates the difficulties you describe is a common Protestant understanding of sin in this world. Of course, “Protestantism” casts a wide net and theologies and attitudes can vary considerably, but some of the more common themes (to my thinking) are:

    1. Sin is easily manageable once a person is “saved.” This crops up in evangelical testimonies all the time. “I used to be a womanizer/drug addict/pimp/compulsive gambler/whatever and then I found Jesus and gave all that up (just like that!).”

    2. The notion among some Protestants that justice is meted out in this life as well as the next. The full flowering of this ridiculous and anti-Biblical notion is found in the “Gospel of Prosperity” aka the “Gospel of Health and Wealth” where Jesus just wants you to be rich, thin, get that promotion, and buy that bass boat you’ve had your eye on.

    Even on a less dramatic scale, most Protestant stories, testimonials, etc…. have a “happy ending” where things get tough, the person does what God wants, and God makes the paths straight in the end (during this life).

    On the contrary, within the Catholic tradition, sin is an ever-present temptation. The lives of the saints are full of them, even if they conquer them. St. Aquinas must drive away the harlot with a hot poker. Why? Why couldn’t the world’s greatest intellectual simply send her away in a reasonable and less dramatic fashion? Because he was tempted, nearly to the limit of what he could bear, and so dramatic action was needed, not just to convince the harlot to leave, but to force himself to continue the course he knew he should take.

    Likewise, Catholic literature has always understood that justice rarely comes in this life. We are the Church of the martyrs, the dispossessed, and the outcast. If in Protestant lit, the pauper gives his last dollar (his rent money) to a hungry family, the good deed will be witnessed by his wealthy landlord who will reward him and make sure he never is left wanting again. In Catholic lit, the pauper who gives his last dollar (the rent money) is cast out into the street and run over by an ox cart.

    But he is a saint in heaven.

  2. Doug
    September 29, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    This seems to assume a specific set of ideas about what sin is, and what the Gospel is.

    It’s almost necessary for you to outline those formally as your viewpoint doesn’t make sense otherwise.

    The old view was that those unredeemed from their sin were already spiritually dead. Sin wasn’t leading us on a trajectory but had cause an objective spiritual condition.

    • MWS
      September 29, 2009 at 1:32 pm


      When you say, “define sin,” are you thinking of sin generally, or a list of sins?

  3. September 29, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    “The old view was that those unredeemed from their sin were already spiritually dead. Sin wasn’t leading us on a trajectory but had cause an objective spiritual condition.”

    I don’t find much to quibble with about this (though I’d probably say spiritually lost or corrupted rather than dead). Sin isn’t a trajectory, which was sort of the point of Brideshead. These characters were living outwardly glamorous and interesting lives away from God- in sin- but they were also horribly spiritually abused. I’d need more space than this to define sin, but I’d generally say it’s a stepping away from God or a falling short, that leaves a person not quite right. It isn’t something that leads to instant death and misery (as in the old tradition), but it’s more formidable and tempting than the new tradition would have us believe.

  4. MWS
    September 29, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    As Catholics, we’ve had 2000 years to ponder the mystery of sin. Here is a concise definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I will include the link, because there is far more discussion before and after this definition:

    “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”


  5. Doug
    September 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Well, I was responding to Matt’s post that seemed to depend a on a particular view of what sin is and what its effects were.

    I’m guessing it comes from an outlook of sin (“doing bad things”) as the main human problem.

    If you start at those assumptions it can lead to where Matt is suggesting (protraying sinners in fiction as not living their fullest life now).

    However I think that perspective on sinners doesn’t work with other Christian understandings of sin and the Gospel.

  6. MWS
    September 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I like Tolkien’s portrayal of sin in the Lord of the Rings, as manifested in the power and implications of the Ring of Power.

    The temptation toward sin is an ever-present reality. Its indulgence can even be rationalized as a positive good. Even the hero- Frodo- struggles mightily and falters, needing the aid of his companions (and even Golum, who has handed himself over almost completely to sin) to pull him away. It exemplifies the internal, the interpersonal, and even the societal consequences of sin. It eats away at the interior life, consuming the greater goods that the sinner once loved. It damages relationships (such as Frodo and Sam). It envelops whole societies (Mordor), and even distorts the created order of things. It is not something that is easily dispensed with, nor is it something that even the most “saintly” can wistfully turn away. Gandolf made a telling statement when Frodo tried to give him the ring, “Don’t tempt me, Frodo!

    • Doug
      September 29, 2009 at 3:06 pm

      I appreciate how Lewis protrayed the non-Christian in his Space Trilogy.

      You run the gamut from evil anti-Christian villian to a non-Christian with civil righteousness (as Lutherans would phrase it).

  7. mac
    September 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Yes, “some Protestants” believe in the ‘prosperity gospel’ but most properly name it as heretical. Do all Catholics believe in indulgences as sound doctrine? You seem to be painting Protestants with a rather broad brush my man. Most marginally well informed Protestants recognize that God desires our obediance, service and praise despite our circumstances, whether in suffering or prosperity. In so doing we bring glory to God which is the very purpose of our being.

  8. MWS
    October 1, 2009 at 2:26 pm


    Yes, all Catholic believe (or should) in indulgences. What I think you are referring to is the scandal of selling insulgences, which precipitated the Reformation. My point about the “Prosperity Gospel” was that it is an extreme (and admittedly distorted) version of Protestantism, which still highlights the notion (more common among Protestants than Catholics I think) that we should expect “justice” is in this life.

    Yes, I am painting with a broad brush here, and I think the vast majority of Protestants feel rightly scandalized by the “Gospel of Health and Wealth,” but I think it is fair to say that one tradition that most of Protestantism shorn during the Reformation was the idea of the redemptive quality of suffering.

  9. mac
    October 5, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Yes, if by redemptive you mean that we are redeemed/saved by any work, including suffering for the cause of Christ, I’d say that Protestants have rightly shed that belief. But I think it is also fair to say that most Protestants hold the view of suffering that God uses it in our lives to build character/perseverance. However, we are redeemed through Christ alone, not of ourselves…or our suffering.

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