For The Someday Book

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Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 2000, 73 pp.

Speaking of SinThis short volume, begun as a lecture series at the National Cathedral, is a powerful meditation on our Christian language of sin, repentance, and salvation. I read it on Ash Wednesday, sitting in a coffee shop for the day with a sign that read “Ashes for Everyone.” In between chapters on salvation, sin and redemption, I imposed ashes upon strangers and church folk alike. It was a powerful day, and Taylor’s book provided powerful words to accompany the journey.

Each chapter moves through a deeper level of meaning for the word “sin.” We mainline Christians often avoid the word these days, but that doesn’t make sin go away, she argues. Instead, we should claim the rich depth of Christian understanding about sin, about the condition of the world as a heart-breaking place, about our human inadequacy to heal it, and our continued sins of omission and commission that allow it to continue. She also explores the difference between sin as sickness (church as clinic) and as wrongdoing (church as courtroom), the various Hebrew words translated as “sin,” and the role of individual and corporate confession. She also addresses penance, righteousness and justice.

The book is rich and full of insight from beginning to end, including many explanations of loaded terms like sin and repentance that sing with Taylor’s gift for beautiful language:

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives. (41)

Of course, the conversation turns to grace as well, and Taylor offers one of the most  powerful descriptions of grace since Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.

God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life. (60)

This book will be my go-to resource every time I want to talk about sin, repentance, grace, redemption and salvation. Taylor’s insights are rich, and I am still thinking about them all the time as I write this review, three months after completing the book.

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A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.

The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.

The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior?  B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?

“But it’s O.K., right?”

I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”

As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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