The Trauma of Decadent Religion (and the Best Worst S-Word)

The notion of sin dominated my girlhood. Raised in Indiana by fundamentalist parents, sin was […]

David Zahl / 1.30.19

The notion of sin dominated my girlhood. Raised in Indiana by fundamentalist parents, sin was the inflexible yardstick by which I was measured. Actions, words, even thoughts weren’t safe from scrutiny. The list of sinful offenses seemed infinite: listening to secular music or watching secular television, saying “gosh” or “darn” or “jeez,” questioning authorities, envying a friend’s rainbow array of Izod shirts. God was a megaphone bleating in my head: “You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!”

Even if you didn’t spot the paragraph above in the NY Times this past weekend, you surely recognize the words. You’ve read or heard or viewed some version of this story a hundred times. I know I have. The survival story of someone who grew up with a form of Christianity in which Sin served as a euphemism for self-loathing, a vehicle of shame and repression and all manner of judgment. After the humorless childhood came an adolescence spent anxiously negotiating the straight-and-narrow, Indiana Jones-style—one false step and you’re done for. By the time the protagonist reaches their agnostic epiphany and collapses into the lukewarm embrace of the None column, if you have a shred of compassion, you can’t help but rejoice for them. I’m so glad they’re free of that, you think, and maybe say a quiet prayer hoping that God’s not done with them.

The problem with hearing the story so often is that, over time, the compassion gets slowly crowded out by cynicism (rolling one’s eyes as one would at any cliche) or impatience (get over it already) or simply disinterest. Especially if it’s far enough removed from your own experience of religion.

For someone whose primary experience of Christianity has been as comfort rather than obligation, the temptation is to abstract such stories into a trope that can be dealt with once and dismissed. For me, scenarios like the one Julia Scheeres outlines in her NY Times piece are so egregiously and transparently untrue to the Real Thing that, after a while, they’re hard to take seriously—at least beyond the level of heartfelt sympathy.

And yet take them seriously one must, since, like it or not, her experience describes that of many, many people. A tragic number. The theology to which she was subjected is sadly much more than a straw man. A wise mentor once warned me never to underestimate the fallout of the more sadistic forms of American capital-E Evangelicalism, and as the years of life and ministry wash by, I’m only beginning to realize how right she was. And it’s not just spiritual damage, but emotional, social, political, and aesthetic.

As someone invested in the essential appeal of the Christian faith, I can’t help but sympathize with those who, like Scheeres, would opt to do without the concept of sin altogether. This approach, as we all know, is not limited to the “sad and mad alumnae of the church.” You don’t have to travel far, at least in mainline denominations, to find clergy downplaying sin as a thing, replacing absolution with affirmation, etc. I remember watching a volunteer parent at a Vacation Bible School covertly remove any mention of sin from the lesson plan, not wanting the kids to feel bad. That her own children’s blatantly disrespectful behavior that week would have been very difficult to account for without that word, well, let’s just say I don’t think she appreciated the irony.

Those who resist the word Sin often get caricatured as Pollyanna, i.e., not wanting to hear anything unpleasant. Maybe that’s part of it (though I’d question that person’s psychology which inclines them to relish condemnation just as much as those who pathologically whitewash it). Yet this resistance also occurs because they don’t want to hurt people. In Scheeres case, she wants to spare her own children the tireless accusation and neurotic guilt she underwent as a child (and carried with her into adulthood). You can hardly blame her!

The article reads almost as an extended illustration of what SMZ articulated so beautifully in his “The Lost Doctrine of Sin” article. According to his own interactions with the undergraduates he teaches, he notes how the concept of sin itself is interpreted as destructive in people’s lives, rather than a way of describing that destruction.

When modern people hear the word sin—when they hear someone describe the idea that human beings are fundamentally flawed in a very deep way, seeking our own best interest over that of others (and for reasons that lie at the core, rather than just the periphery, of our nature), and when they hear that human beings might on this basis be liable, fundamentally, to judgment—when they hear all this I think what they actually hear me say is something like: It is right to judge people for their flaws rather than having compassion on them. Or else perhaps: I think I am better than other people and have the right to judge them.

In a way, you could say that my students don’t like the idea of sin because it sounds immoral to them! My students get uncomfortable because the doctrine of sin is heard as a violation of their moral values: it encourages judgmentalism, repression, not accepting people as they are, and creepy religious power dynamics.

Now it is in fact the case, at least in my own view, that these inferences are seriously inaccurate conclusions to draw from the Christian doctrine of sin. The reason people draw such conclusions is… because the form of Christianity they have thus far encountered is a decadent one.

The next box on the Winsomely Non-Threatened Christian Apologist Bingo Card involves some iteration of, “Well, if only you’d had contact with my type of Christianity, my theology, then you’d feel different.” The form of religion that caused you so much pain, you see, is a false one, and you were right to reject it. I reject it too.

Such a move, predictable or not, wouldn’t be entirely out of order here, as let’s be 100% clear: if you believe that “You’re Bad” constitutes God’s defining message to human beings, then you’ve found a pretty diabolical perversion of Christianity. Furthermore, the notion that life as a Christian is one endless, hugely pressurized sin-management program is a recipe not only for atheism but, well, despair of the most distressing kind. Simeon charitably labels this form of Christianity “decadent.”

Unfortunately, as we all know, rejecting these sorts of misconceptions doesn’t mean they don’t still drive the train, psycho-dynamically. That’s the essence of S-word, I suppose: that you know what you shouldn’t do/be/think/feel even as you still do/be/think/feel it. Plus, you can raise kids without the word “sin,” and you can raise them without the concept of sin, but you can’t raise them without the reality of sin. And Lord knows there are plenty of non-religious voices out there lining up to tell us how inadequate and not-enough aka Bad we are.

Still, you’d have to be pretty Pollyanna-ish yourself not to recognize that there’s a big difference between the wreckage caused by “Don’t sin, or you’ll be disowned (or worse)” and its secular equivalents. Which is not to suggest that there aren’t liabilities involved in the sin-averse approach Scheeres describes. Maybe it’s just where I’m culturally positioned, but I look around and see the psychological rubble that accrues when people are overly shielded from the tragic dimension of life, or never allowed to ‘feel bad.’ When they can’t tell the truth about who they actually are, or lack the vocabulary to make sense of their own limits and contradictions, or simply expect too much of themselves. It’s a set-up for a different kind of shame, less toxic perhaps but not a walk in the park either.

Anyways, the point here isn’t to defend the doctrine of sin—as if it needed my or anyone’s help! The point is to throw into sharp relief the new trend in self-help books that Oliver Burkeman profiled a couple weeks ago, what he calls Realistic Self-Help and what I might call #LowAnthropology Pep Talk Literature. It’s a fabulous piece of writing, start to finish:

There has been a noticeable change of tone in the world of self-help, a publishing genre historically dedicated to promising massive, near-effortless transformation overnight, or in a couple of weeks at most. For a while now, that hyperbole has been losing ground to a spirit of anti-utopianism—of accepting yourself as you are, building a good-enough life, or just protecting yourself from the worst of the world outside. Adult colouring books are the most easily mockable manifestation of this urge…

The new crop of anti-perfectionist self-help books are an important counterweight to the conventional message of self-reinvention, which is that there’s no point at which it makes sense to be satisfied with your situation and finally relax, since you could always benefit from acquiring more money, status, education, and so on. What’s less clear is whether this humbler kind of advice is any easier to implement, on a practical level, than the old sort. Apart from anything else, our narratives about the perfect life aren’t just beliefs we can choose to jettison by a mere act of will, after reading about research that refutes them. They are deeply entrenched in the culture, reinforced by the media, inculcated in us as small children, not to mention in our genes…

Behind the sporadic banality lurks a bracingly hard-headed world view: reality is what it is, and a lot of unnecessary misery arises from demanding that things shouldn’t be the way that – as a matter of stubborn fact – they are. This is not a counsel of resignation; having accepted the reality of your situation, it may well be appropriate to try to change it. But not denying how things stand is the essential first step. Or, as the psychotherapist Carl Rogers put it: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Ironically, if not very surprisingly, the well-being industry has proved adept at turning this new spirit of modesty and acceptance into another expensive consumerist pursuit.

I heard a sermon once where someone said that people only change for the better when they feel they no longer have to in order to be loved. That’s Grace in Practice 101 and pretty close to fearlessness on the motivational spectrum. And perhaps that sounds like what these books are advocating (#lowanthropology). But there’s one big problem (which Burkeman points out): it’s very difficult to accept yourself. If/when the breakthrough does happen, it is hardly if ever an act of willpower. Ask the most secure person you know why and how they seem so at ease with themselves, and odds are, they’ll tell you about a third party: a parent or possibly a coach, often a lover, sometimes a therapist, maybe even a savior. But I digress.

In our posts about sin over the years, I’ve always been struck by how much the responses diverge according to the context in which a person grew up. Those who were raised in or around churches where #lowanthropology had soured into self-loathing tend to hear teaching on sin as pure Law, an underlining of the vicious No that’s embedded in their mental architecture (no matter how many advanced degrees they collect). Ironically, those tend to be churches where the anthropology isn’t low enough—where sin is something that can be avoided if you try hard enough.

Whereas those who grew up in or around churches/households in which an understanding of sin was absent, or where Specialness was venerated, tend to hear the same teaching as a relief. As in, “phew, I’m not the only one!” No doubt these Realistic Self-Help books are finding traction in the latter audience.

What this means for us as we try to navigate a less decadent form of Christianity, one that seeks to tell the truth about human nature without hedging on the grace of God, I’m not entirely sure. I know that any view of human nature that wallows in shortcoming and leaves people in their shame is not of the Gospel. But one that understands sin and evil as mainly ‘out there’ isn’t either.

There’s that apocryphal story about G. K. Chesterton answering a newspaper prompt of “What’s wrong with the world” with simply two words: “I am.” It sounds a little dour unless you consider that today the consensus would, without question, be “They are.”

I can tell you which world I’d rather raise children in, and which one would be more patient and humble and slow to judge. And yet, at the same time, I’d be dismayed and maybe a little heartbroken if my own child answered the way Chesterton does.

Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite. But that shouldn’t be a surprise: I’m a sinner after all.

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6 responses to “The Trauma of Decadent Religion (and the Best Worst S-Word)”

  1. The Beetle says:

    Pure gold as always my friend.

  2. Benjamin says:

    “…people only change for the better when they feel they no longer have to in order to be loved.” Wow. I need to remember that one, and probably cogitate on it awhile. Also, thanks for ending on a slight note of humility/uncertainty. It’s a relief to the rest of us who feel the same irresolvable tensions.

  3. Ian says:

    Hot diggity dog, DZ, I needed this this week!

  4. Dan says:

    Beautiful work DZ – if only I’d read this before I sent you the link 😉

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