“you have not yet considered the weight of sin”—Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?
Sin appears to be making something of a comeback*. Consider that over twenty five years ago, Alvin Plantinga could write, “The awareness of sin used to be our shadow…but the shadow has dimmed. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin, and with a tone that signals an inside joke”.** Most of us would agree that the heightened awareness of sin that Plantinga spells out seems to be returning, even if the places where that moral impulse is emanating from has shifted in perhaps surprising ways. The last two years, to say nothing of the last ten, have seen society rocked by public debates over race relations, the climate and public health. The language of justice, sacrifice and public wrongdoing have returned to our public vocabulary. Nevertheless, despite sharing a common language, we have fallen, even (or especially) in the church, into entrenched camps. Cultural conservatives have tended to deny the reality or existence of certain sins altogether. Cultural progressives have seen these sins everywhere and the hope for redemption nowhere.
All of this makes it easier, in a sense, for me to write a blogpost on the subject of sin. It is still a challenging task, however. For while sin is back as a topic that we discuss, there is no denying that it is also a topic that we greatly misunderstand.
This applies on a very personal level. I have multiple degrees in biblical studies and yet when it comes to defining (never mind tackling!) sin, I find myself in spiritual diapers.
Lent is fundamentally about God dealing with the evil done by and to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It also a good season for considering our human response to this miracle of divine love, mercy and justice.
One of the ways of doing this is to contemplate the human capacity and propensity for wrong-doing, or sin. Fewer works in recent times have shed more light on the psychology of sin and temptation than CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.
In one illuminating letter (number 15), senior devil Screwtape instructs his nephew, Wormwood, on the temporal nature of sin. In short, all sin is future-oriented. The present is what God would have us focus on; if we are to think of the future, it is to the ends of contemplating our future union with, or separation from God (Letter 6 foreshadows this point). The devil and his minions would have us “hagridden by the future”, overcome with fear or hope, neglecting the present cross, present pleasure or present duty.
Images: by author, from ‘The Screwtape Letters’ in The CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2017), 227-229.
As genres, science fiction and fantasy have often gained the reputation of being a bit morally black and white. In short, fantasy would offer us the choice between the realm of good and the realm of evil. Like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. In perhaps the most famous example of science fiction, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the starkness of this divide is rendered in visually unmistakeable terms—on the side of evil, Sith menacingly wield their red lightsabres, and on the good, Jedis heroically bear bright swords radiating the more positive hues of green and blue.
Recent fantasy has sought to blur the ethical lines and render stories that are more morally complex. In his immensely popular epic, Game of Thrones (or Tales of Ice, Wind and Fire), George R. R. Martin famously kills of good and noble protagonists while allowing evil tyrants to live on. Martin is somehow able to make the most hideous protagonists worthy of our sympathy.
Martin was not the first to try his hand at building a more sophisticated moral universe. If we look a bit further back, we can locate an even more realistic, and even more hopeful, depiction of good and evil. It is in the trilogy that effectively gave birth to modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that the power of evil and the human capacity for wrong—what the Christian tradition calls sin—arguably finds its most convincing depiction within the genre.