Colorado State of Mind

As you cross the state line into Colorado something washes over your body. It's a thin film that exposes whatever idea about exercise or the outdoors you might have previously held as a farce. For me, vacations used to entail sitting quietly, reading a book or watching television or sleeping late. Occasionally, I would rise from the indention I created on the couch and go for a short walk or bask in the sunlight. If I was ambitious I would play golf or even make it too the beach for a brisk, but short, walk; serious outings generally revolved around food or shopping. However, all of that changed when we crested a hill and saw the purple snow-tipped mountains of Colorado jut into the horizon. Suddenly, the sky was bluer, the air more crisp, and with each breath we wanted to be outdoors, moving amongst the hills and trees. Vacations became destinations where we were compelled, no propelled, out into a new world. You don't just drive I-70 through the Rockies, you experience the mountains as your car thrusts you from valley to canyon to mountain pass. Your body itches and twitches as you take in the landscape. It has nothing to do with boredom or uncomfortability; rather you see a hill and want to climb it to discover what new views it holds or you discover a small creek that winds through a valley and you want to see where it takes you. I have never thought of an interstate as magical, but when you are on I-70 and you hit Vail Pass a novel view of the world explodes before you.

Just as my mind is growing and stretching from the theological explorations that doctoral work holds, my body is also experiencing new things again. I now weigh the same as I did on the day of my graduation from college, over ten years ago. I get up early and exercise almost every morning and am in better shape now than in any time in the past ten years. I awake each morning with a satisfying soreness that has more to do with pushing the limits of my body than with the inevitable creaks and groans that come with age (though there are those as well). When I lived on the east coast I was resigned to the idea that my waist size would inevitably increase an about an inch every two years. Today, I am swallowed by my pants and shorts; the thin layer of fat that occupied my waist has been eaten by that same Colorado film that pushes me towards the fresh air and mountains.

When I reflect on these physical transformations it pushes me to think about my life on the east coast, especially the pervasive mentality towards a sedentary lifestyle. What made it so easy for me to sit, rather than move? Furthermore, what is it about my life now that makes me more motivated to move? There are a number of easy things I can contribute as answers. I don't drink soft drinks anymore (I have had maybe six in the nine months we have lived here). I don’t eat at fast food restaurants as regularly as I did in Richmond. I cut down my caloric intake and introduced more fruit and vegetables into my diet (though not nearly enough, my wife would say). I eat several small meals throughout the day and one big one at dinner time. I exercise regularly. I see vast numbers of people exercising on a daily basis, riding bikes, jogging, or walking. I don't see nearly as many overweight or obese people on a daily basis. All of these things have contributed to my physical transformation over the past few months. However, I can think of two other reasons that are less obvious but equally important.

First, there is an aesthetic, a sense of beauty, at work in Colorado that I have not experienced elsewhere. I grew up around the mountains on the east coast, but no mountain range has ever captivated me like the Rockies. Where ever I wander I want to see the mountains. Their beauty beckons me, drawing me in like a moth to flame. Whether it is the sheer face of a canyon in western Colorado or the gentle rolling foothills that are closer to home, I find myself wanting to explore and touch the beauty that constantly befalls my eyes.

Second, I believe a satisfaction with my vocational pursuits has contributed to my physical changes. I believe that I have found my home, theologically and vocationally. I thoroughly enjoyed my work with the counseling center and congregation in Richmond, but I always felt like I needed something more. Here, I am satisfied in my own skin. I am writing about things that matter to me. I am exploring my creative side, examining the dark corners of my theological structures and bringing to light novel connections. I am comfortable enough to be me and to let others be themselves.

I hope that I will never again underestimate the power and feeling of a vocational home. My very life depends upon it, and it is from this home that I draw life and power. I won't be a sophist and say that Colorado is perfect; nor would I admit that it is a panacea for all that ails the world. However, for me, at this moment in time, it provides the shelter, the container, that allows me to reach out to a weary world and try and make a difference...

A deconstruction of sin: putting Calvin on the couch

This is the final piece to the paper I wrote; and for a moment my final word on sin. Whenever I begin to explore strictly theological themes I run the risk of being obtuse or irrelevant. I have tried to explain my points clearly, in approachable language and concepts. However, theology, especially good sound theology is difficult. Easy theology runs a greater risk of being damaging to community in the long-run. Furthermore, developing a lived coherent theology is important because it helps us have a coherent worldview that accounts for what we see and experience. Theology is most often the result of our experiences in life and how we see God working through ourselves and others. Lest we forget, theology is finally an exercise in surmising the presence of God in our midst, or the lack thereof in the case of sin...


Deconstruction is a critical theory often applied to texts in a manner where the critic engages in "undermining, subverting, exposing, undoing, transgressing, or demystifying… traditional ideas, traditional limits, traditional logic, authoritative readings, privileged readings, illusions of objectivity, mastery or consensus, the referential meaning of a text, or simply what the text asserts or says" (Ellis, 1988, p. 261). Furthermore, through the deconstructive process the critic does not put forth a new interpretation of the text, but instead "The traditional idea is… retained in order that we can focus on the act of subversion itself which, however, does not constitute a final rejection of that idea" (1988, p. 262). Deconstruction thus subverts the authority of a text while at the same time holding the text as authoritative. It is therefore a multi-layered reading of a text that seeks the subtleties within the text that undermine its authority. However, if the authority of the text is not retained then there is nothing to subvert and the deconstructionist could do nothing more than offer a critical analysis (Ellis, 1988, p. 263-264). Finally, deconstruction is a process that "hopes to neutralize the system—not by erecting another truth in its place (which would only re-establish an opposition) but—by laughing at it" (Gall, 1990, p. 415). In order to deconstruct John Calvin’s constructions of total depravity and original sin, I will put him through a fictional psychotherapeutic session.

Putting Calvin on the Couch

I imagine the following conversation taking place between John Calvin and his therapist after the final version of the Institutes of Christian Religion was completed.

Therapist (T): John, welcome back. Please have a seat, tell me how life is treating you.

John Calvin (JC): It is a fine day, although I am having trouble enjoying it.

T: You're not able to enjoy the day? Tell me about that.

JC: It is the same things that have been bothering me since day one. I can't seem to shake this feeling that I am letting someone down. The guilt is totally overwhelming and I just can't shake it (McNeill, 1960, p. 253). It's as though every time I try and think about who I am and what I want to do, I get overwhelmed with despair at how selfish and corrupt I have become.

T: It must be difficult to continually beat yourself up on the inside. You have been working hard to get to know yourself and it makes you feel depressed. I was just remembering some of our previous sessions and I have to wonder what would happen if you were to let yourself remember some of the good things you have done, that tell others who you are. I know you have this desire to be honest about your faults, but can't you also be honest about your strengths? Even you have admitted that "knowledge of ourselves lies first in considering what were given at creation and how generously God continues his favor towards us" (p. 242). That means we should consider our gifts as well as our faults, right John?

JC: Yes, I did say that. However, I said that to contrast how depraved we have become since sin was introduced into the world. Sin is inescapable and it hides God gifts from me.

T: Let's keep the conversation focused on you, instead of everyone. I want to hear you use the term "I" instead of "we." Totally depraved is such strong word. Total implies everything, and yet John you are able to recall what your gifts are and how they can be used for good in the world. Doesn't that mean that there are parts of us that are less affected by this despairing sinfulness? How can we know what is good and right if all we are is totally sinful and corrupt? Moreover, to call yourself depraved means that you are full of evil or immorality. Yet the life you have lived includes many good actions and desire to love God. Are those the actions of a totally depraved individual? All of this talk makes me wonder what would it be like if you considered yourself to be a vessel of a number of good, bad or neutral qualities? Even you have admitted to a "primal worthiness" (p. 242) that is a part of who you are. Moreover, you have told me on a number of occasions that "the mind restrains itself from sinning… because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord" (p. 43). I interpret that to mean that we are capable of doing good things out of love for God, can you see those possibilities?

JC: Sure, buried deep within me might be some of those good qualities, but as soon as I try and recall them I am painfully aware of the value I place on my gifts and then I tend "to be unduly credulous about them" (p. 243). My arrogance about my gifts leads me to believe that "Nothing, however slight, can be credited to [me] without depriving God of his honor, and… falling into ruin through brazen confidence" (p. 255). I just can't escape this vicious cycle of sin. Even when I consider these good things I feel like I am letting God down by relying on myself. See what I mean about feeling totally depraved, it's like no matter what I do I can't escape the reality of my situation. It is so depressing.

T: What I hear you say is that while you often feel overwhelmed by the amount of sin in your life, but there are also moments when you are able to comprehend something good about yourself. Even though this might lead you to down a path of where you feel proud or arrogant, it does raise an interesting point that counters your ideas about depravity being totally consuming. John, what becomes apparent to me in our conversation is that you not only see the depressing parts of your life, but you also see a glimmer of something good. Otherwise you wouldn’t know that you were so depraved of in the first place. Therefore, maybe you and everyone else are not totally depraved but instead you might be mostly or predominantly depraved, leaving some room for goodness to spring forth from within.

JC: I hear what you are saying and I want to agree, but I am afraid that if I give in to the idea that there are some good things about me, I will no longer be dependent on God's goodness and grace to do good things in the world.

T: I thought I heard you say something to the effect that you and God work together for good in the world. Is that correct?

JC: In a sense yes. I am saying that God's grace works through me to do good things in the world (p. 306-307).

T: Tell me how God could choose to work through such a corrupted vessel.

JC: Well, actually it is the grace that does the work; I am merely a servant of grace. I don’t initiate the action; God initiates it and compels me to act on its behalf. I can’t say why God chooses humans other than we are the pinnacle of creation and have rational capabilities that allow us to recognize our depravity.

T: I am not sure if I understand how such a corrupted vessel could even hear or interpret the grace of God. Yet, I often see you doing things that embody the love and grace experienced in Scripture and in the life of Jesus. I am not sure if this makes sense to you, John, but I wonder if we might find a new way of describing the state of humanity. The word total just seems so black and white, all or nothing, when the actions of human beings occupy a space that seems grayer. Could you see yourself occupying a gray area of life?

JC: Well, maybe, if it weren't for original sin. I really feel like I was born this way, the offspring of corrupt flesh and blood. I guess a really dark gray might work if I factored in being endowed with good gifts by God and the grace and redemption through Jesus.

T: Original sin, what does that mean to you?

JC: It's simple really. Adam and Eve were disobedient to God. As a result, their good nature was corrupted and everyone since that time has been the offspring of corrupted parents, inheriting this depravity I keep obsessing about (p. 251).

T: Wow, you have really thought this out. First it's total depravity and then I come to find out it is a part of your nature, inherited from two mythic characters in the Bible.

JC: Blasphemy!

T: John, settle down. I am merely stating one interpretation of Adam and Eve. What I am trying to say is that their story is a metaphor for humanity's relationship with God. In the end, we come out with similar conclusions although we take a different path to get there. We both understand that something went wrong with humanity's relationship with God and we have felt some form of distance between us since that time.

JC: If I weren't paying you, I'd get up and leave right now.

T: John, think about it for a moment. We are arriving at a similar conclusion, just taking different paths to get there. Think about my path for a moment. If the creation stories are mythic and represent a way of imagining our relationship with God, how does that change your idea of original sin?

JC: Well, the relationship would still be estranged, right? And, sin would still be a part of humanity. Only, with your way original sin wouldn't be an inherited feature from the nature of the parents. I guess that it would have to be passed down through some kind of communication though. Otherwise, we would all get better at being good, and I know that isn't happening.

T: Great job John! That is a wonderful reframing of original sin. Rather than an inherited nature or disposition, there might be a communicated sense of sinfulness through family, culture and society. Furthermore, maybe the Original in original sin isn’t so original after all.

JC: Huh?

T: Well, think about it this way. If the features aren't inherited, then babies aren't born with pervasive sinful dispositions. Instead they are taught disobedience by those they grow up around. Which leads me to think that if there isn't a predisposition to sinfulness, then sinfulness is just the replaying of others sins; there is nothing original about it! John, it has been wonderful seeing you again, but our time is about up, don't be a stranger.

JC: It's been good to see you as well. I will think about what you have said, but I'm not sure that it is going to change anything. If there is anything that I know, it is how deep sin runs in my life. Black or white or dark gray, original or not it’s always there and I just can't forget it.


John Calvin's concepts of total depravity and original sin have informed the life of the Presbyterian Church for many years. Through careful biblical and theological analysis he lays out a case that beckons the reader to know themselves and know themselves as unworthy before God. Through Calvin, an understanding of our dependence on God becomes easy to see in light of the totality of our corruption. Four hundred and fifty years later through the writings of popular pastors/theologians, Calvin's message has been either watered down or forgotten. Thoughts about sin are watered down by believing that God's purpose is to give us purpose, or they are destroyed through the power of positive thinking. This unfortunate circumstance has created a vacuum whereby Christians and systems are rarely held accountable for the actions they commit. By putting Calvin on the couch, I attempted to deconstruct his view of sin, showing both its limits and authority. There is no denying the estrangement humans feel from God and the endless searches to discover why. Maybe, through a revamped Calvin we can understand the depths of our depravity and gain some insight into the love of our Creator.

grace and peace...

deconstructing sin - the destruction of sin

I realize these last few posts are pretty long, but hey, the paper was 18 pages and at least I am breaking up in to palatable chunks. Of course I realize that palatable is contextual...

Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are culturally well-known evangelical pastors and authors; and their popularity makes their writings theologically significant for contemporary culture. Their appeal is far reaching and each of them has written commercially successful books about what it means to live as a Christian in the world today. As of a year ago, Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life, had sold over twenty-three million copies in English and has been published in numerous languages. His book remains on the New York Times Bestseller list in the Self-Help category and has spawned numerous side projects including journals, music and scripture memorization cards. The Purpose Driven Life is the bestselling non-fiction book in publishing history. Rick Warren is also the pastor a 22,000 member congregation in California and speaks at various engagements around the world. Joel Osteen is the author of Your Best Life Now, a book that sold 2.5 million copies in its first eight months. Osteen is the pastor of a 30,000 member congregation in Houston, Texas, and is watched around the world through a television ministry. Recently, Osteen has signed a book deal that is valued at ten to thirteen million dollars depending upon the sales of his new book. The popularity of these two pastors and authors is undeniable given the attendance of their churches and the statistics of their written works. However, the question that remains for me is what kind of theology do they advocate? Moreover, how have they contributed to the destruction of sin in popular theology?

As I read these two books, I couldn’t help but think of the fast food company McDonalds. In 2000, McDonalds introduced the advertising slogan “We Love to See You Smile.” In my opinion, McDonalds provides two things to their consumer. The first is a quick and easy solution to the immediate problem of hunger felt by an individual. Secondly, they provide a diet of empty calories that fills that same hunger for a brief period of time but has no lasting value for the nutritional needs of a human body. Holding the slogan “We Love to See You Smile” together with the two values placed on a McDonald’s meal helps me draw an analogy to Warren and Osteen. Namely, these authors provide theological consumers with quick and easy fixes, empty theological calories and a theological life that never reaches beyond the depth of a smile. While this analogy is applied to the totality of their works, it is their treatment of sin that is in sharp contrast to the work of Calvin, and is of concern in this essay.

The Purpose Driven Life

Of the two books we will examine, The Purpose Driven Life (PDL) has the most in common with Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. However, I make that statement knowing that when compared side-by-side they share very little. Where the ICR is a four course gourmet steak dinner, the PDL is a Big Mac. Both meals might consist of beef, bread and vegetables but the quality of the ingredients that go into each meal are quite different. Before moving on to the PDL, I want to share two initial impressions in order to set the context for an exposition of his use of sin throughout the pages of the PDL.

The first impression I was aware of was the audience. With Calvin the audience seems to include Christians, philosophers, theologians and others interested in the Protestant movement. On the other hand, with Warren the audience is a Christian or a non-Christian, with an emphasis on the individual. The opening and guiding question for his book is “What on earth am I here for [emphasis mine]” (Warren, 2002, p. 9)? Furthermore, while the PDL expounds upon the necessity and benefits of community, they are couched in how the community is beneficial to the individual. This led me to read Calvin with an implied “we” versus reading of Warren with an implied “I.”

The second impression concerned the language used in both works. Calvin relied on traditional theological language, using rebuttals or refutations to explain his ideas. Calvin used the language and style of his time to provide a depthful argument for a way of living as Protestants in a Catholic world. On the whole, Warren’s PDL ignores theological language seeking to make points through repetition and quotation of paraphrased Scripture passages. Furthermore, the PDL contains little novel theological insight, relying on repeated phrases as pragmatic tools rather than theologically constructed meanings that help a reader critically reflect on their lifestyle in relationship to who God has called them to be.

Sin in the Purpose Driven Life

There is not a sustained discussion of sin in the PDL. Therefore, I will attempt to cull together several brief passages that either mention the word sin or imply its existence. I believe that for Warren sin is a peripheral theological and practical term, which explains his light treatment of it. Furthermore, I believe the word self-centered is sometimes substituted for sin. I interpret his use of this term as a psychological alternative to sin, meant to soften or replace the theologically loaded term and attend to its personal rather than corporate manifestations.

Warren states that sin is “failing to give God glory” (2002, p. 55) and that our failure to give God glory is rooted in our “prideful rebellion” (p. 55). This is in contrast to Warren’s statement that “living for God’s glory is the greatest achievement we can accomplish with our lives” (p. 55). Furthermore, Warren believes that God is glorified when an individual takes on acts of worship, love, service and evangelism and when they become more like Christ (p. 55-56). His discourse on giving God glory helps define what sin is not, rather than further elucidating what sin is and how it might function in the life of a Christian. Roughly fifty pages later Warren makes his second statement concerning sin and its affect on a person’s relationship with God. Here he states, “sin does disconnect us from intimate fellowship with God [emphasis his]” (p. 109). Warren also provides a small list of acts that, if read critically, could be construed as sinful. He says, “We grieve God’s Spirit and quench our fellowship with him by disobedience, conflict with others, busyness, friendship with the world, and other sins” (p. 109). Finally, Warren pays tribute to the idea of original sin when he admits that, “the image [of God] is incomplete [in a human being]… damaged and distorted by sin” (p. 173). This final reference to sin is weak at best with no supporting statements or elaboration (there are two other mentions of the word sin, both comment on how to deal with sin and will be dealt with later). Through Warren’s writings about sin in the PDL, I can state that sin has to do with a personal relationship with God and how that relationship is conducted. This is far cry from Calvin’s insistence on the knowledge of our total depravity and our dependence on God. It also progresses the notion that damage has been caused to one traditional understanding of sin and its role in the life of a Christian.

Before concluding, I want to briefly examine Warren’s use of the term self-centered. This term is not explicitly defined in the context of the PDL. However, it is used on a couple of occasions to describe immaturity, as in the case of babies (p. 182) and as the counter position of self-sacrificing service (p. 232, 233, 265). Self-centeredness is a psychological concept that has to do with preoccupation with the self. It is generally thought of as a negative term and the way it is used in the PDL does not give me cause to think otherwise. However, being self-centered has vastly different connotations than does being sinful. The term self-centered is fairly new and pertains to an individual rather than a community or widely applicable theological theme such as sin. Moreover, because of Warren’s focus on self-sacrifice and self-denial it is unclear what, if anything is left to this wonderful self that was created for a purpose in the first place.

Finally, because Warren does not take sin seriously, he cannot take grace seriously either. Calvin’s high doctrine of grace only works because of his emphasis on the depravity of humanity. Warren’s lukewarm statements about sin empty it of almost all of the traditional meanings that it carried leaving a hulking shell that has very little use for the Christian life. There are two references in Warren’s book concerning the antidote for sin. First, Warren states that “The battle for sin is won or lost in your mind” (p. 210). Furthermore, Warren believes this battle is won when someone finds themselves “adopting how God thinks…” (p. 182). Therefore, not only is sin a personal thing between God and a particular human being, but any “battle” waged against sin occurs and is won only through the power of the mind. One of the major problems with Warren’s concept of sin is that there is no systemic accountability for families, groups, communities, nations and others who find themselves in positions where they are abusing power in ways that diminish life. In the PDL the only thing accountable is an individual, which leads to a flawed and incomplete definition of sin that is dysfunctional at best. This theological “Big Mac” that Warren has provided is merely a quick meal and a bevy of empty calories that bears some resemblance to Calvin. However, Warren fails his readers by not challenging the sinful structures that permeate their lives and actions, leading to a collapse in: (1) personal responsibility and (2) dependence on God.

Your Best Life Now

Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now (UBLN) is best described as a self-help book with a mediocre dose of Christianity thrown in for good measure. Its chapters are an amalgamation of anecdotes, self-help taglines and rules for living a proper Christian life that emphasize positive thinking and a positive attitude. Overall, there is a theological naïveté at work in this book. This is evident through the simplistic ethic that he tells Christians to live by; namely, if I am good then God will reward me with “favor” (this could mean health, wisdom, but it mainly seems to concern material wealth and objects, i.e. – finding a good parking space, pages 42-43) and punish those who have or will do things that might hurt me in some way. Where Warren uses repetition and paraphrased scripture to prove his points, Osteen is concerned with anecdotal evidence and positive thinking as the primary resources for Christian living. Furthermore, where Warren seems to be concerned with sin as being self-centered, Osteen borders on the idea that it is a sin if one is not somewhat centered on the self. In fact it is not until the second to last chapter that Osteen even mentions the idea of giving and his reference is mostly with regard to the practice of tithing of one’s gifts (tithing includes a variety of gifts, but is mostly concerned with giving monetarily). This leads me to conclude that if Rick Warren’s book is a theological Big Mac then UBLN is a hand full of French fries, great tasting but devoid of any lasting nutritional value.

Sin in Your Best Life Now

As one might expect from a self-help book, there are very few traditional theological themes defined in the pages of UBLN. By my count, the word “sins” is used one time in Osteen’s work. This makes it difficult to define and describe the antithesis to Osteen’s perfectly positive human (though I will venture a guess). Instead of the term sin, a conglomeration of terms and phrases are used throughout the book to describe the opposite of a positive Christian disposition. Some of these include: “that ‘poor-old-me mentality,’ always negative, always depressed” (p. 14), “negative frame of mind” (p. 16), and “a wrong thinking pattern that keeps us imprisoned in defeat” (p. 30). Furthermore, Osteen states that “If you see yourself as unqualified, insignificant, unattractive, inferior, or inadequate, you will probably act in accordance with your thoughts… you will imagine yourself as a born loser, a washout, unworthy of being loved and accepted” (p. 56-57). This negative cognitive disposition is the closest he comes to laying out a definition of sin for the Osteenian vision of Christian life. As a result Osteen is, in many ways, the anti-Calvin. He focuses on the created good image and implies grace-filled living but completely ignores the idea that humans might have fallen to such a degree that only God can pull them out.

Throughout his work it is apparent that self is to be regarded only in terms of the positive and that anything contrary to this position is to be considered anathema in the life of a Christian. Osteen uses a variety of anecdotes to prove the value of his theological stance on humanity and our relationship with God. Generally speaking, these anecdotes move through a predictable pattern: negative thinking, negative life events, positive epiphany, change in self-image, change in circumstance and finally blessings (often materially-oriented) arrive from God (for examples see the anecdotes on pages 47, 110-111, & 117-119). Unfortunately this leads me to believe that, according to Osteen, sin should not occupy a prominent place in the lives of “healthy” human beings. Furthermore, his destruction of sin also destroys any hope of dependence on God for redemption and grace. Instead, an Osteenian Christian is dependent on and faithful to God in order to receive blessings and “favor” (p. 44), self-esteem (p. 91) and payback “for all the unfair things that have happened to us” (p. 164).

To conclude, Warren and Osteen provide a microcosm of thought concerning the place, definition and function of sin in popular contemporary Christian writing. Furthermore, because their books reach a large audience and their church ministries include large sums of people, Warren and Osteen have theological influence over the popular view of sin in the life of Christians. However, it is evident to me that anyone who professes to be a Warrenite or Osteenian Christian would have little or no concept of a theological construction of sin. Moreover, they might be oblivious to their own complicity in the sinful structures and systems that permeate the world. In the end, the Warrenite or Osteenian reader is no longer dependent on a God who offers the redemption and grace necessary for a sinful human being. Instead, sin is destroyed and the readers are left with depending on God for purpose or blessings. Unfortunately, this is a theological meal that can only satisfy for a little while, that is until these devoted Christians catch a glimpse of the next McDonalds on the horizon. Ultimately, these works lead me back to Calvin in order to deconstruct and recover his ideas about sin.

deconstructing sin - sin Calvin-style

I have finally finished my last paper for this quarter... now on to bigger and better things, though I am not quite sure what. I thought I would post the rest of my paper in chunks. The first portion was done last week, and I ended up having to cut the whole first experience because of page length issues. This week I will post my synopsis of Calvin's concepts of sin. Later on, I will post my interpretation of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren's concepts of sin. Finally, I will post my attempt at deconstructing some of Calvin's ideas through a fictional conversation between Calvin and his therapist...

I remember the dour portraits of John Calvin that found their way onto the walls and covers of books at my seminary. The black and white drawings showed a man uncommitted to emotion with a long beard wearing the robes of a scholar. Many of the stories and legends of his life echoed the stark reality of the portrait. Furthermore, Calvin’s treatment of sin in the Institutes of Christian Religion (ICR) does nothing to counter these portraits of him. The ICR, according to the translator John T. McNeill, “is a living, challenging book that makes personal claims upon the reader. This is because it presents… that which laid hold upon the author himself” (1960, p. li). Therefore, I believe the ICR may be one of the first Protestant books that would fit in the contemporary book store category of “Christian living.” However, this purpose of Calvin’s text has been lost amongst the weighty language and depthful insights that challenge the reader to reflect theologically on their lives, as well as how God might be active in the world.

Furthermore, Calvin’s depth of thinking has relegated him to the halls and classrooms of seminaries, or the dark corners of local bars where students of theology speak in hushed tones about predestination, sin and total depravity. Through this essay, I hope to bring a little bit of Calvin out of this smoky obscure existence. Predestination, in my opinion, might better be left to the hushed slightly inebriated conversations of students and scholars, but sin and total depravity are too important to reside in the dark. If the ICR is truly a treatise on Christian living, then sin cannot be avoided. Calvin experienced the pervasiveness of sin as he watched persecuted Protestants die for their beliefs, and he obviously felt the weight of his own unworthiness before God. The effect sin on Calvin’s life necessitated a lengthy discussion of two concepts. The first, original sin, sought to describe the condition upon which humans inhabit the earth. The second, total depravity, was a natural result of Calvin’s understanding of original sin and functioned as a way of describing the actions of humanity in the world. These two terms come together to describe the pervasive nature of sin in the life of human beings.

Original Sin

Before diving too deeply into original sin, it is important to remember that Calvin considers two mutually reinforcing concepts to be necessary for true wisdom, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves (McNeill, 1960, p. 35). Therefore, as Calvin opens the second book of the ICR with original sin he begins with the notion that what is important for human beings is the total knowledge of what we have been given by God, and also what we lack due to our condition following the “Fall.” Calvin states, “God’s truth requires us to… examin[e] ourselves: it requires the kind of knowledge that will strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission” (1960, p. 242). Calvin is sure that more we delve into the depths of our being, “the more dejected [we] become” (p. 244). True knowledge is therefore the result of our contemplation on how God created and endowed us with gifts meant for the good of the world contrasted with the reality that our state of being renders us incapable of fulfilling these good ends and bringing about God’s will for the world. For Calvin, despair is the only plausible result of contemplating the discrepancy between the intended ideal and the actual result, leading him to examine the historical reasons for our despondency.

The “Fall” of Adam and Eve, for Calvin, is the point in history when the originally intended and endowed positive abilities became utterly perverted. Calvin characterizes these mythic (I believe I just felt Calvin roll over in his grave at my use of the term mythic) figures as unfaithful, ambitious, proud and ungrateful. These qualities led to an act of disobedience that estranged them from God, and thus they committed the first, “original” sin. Calvin’s logic is quite clear and linear. Humanity was created “good” with qualities that matched our goodness. Adam and Eve were unfaithful and disobedient leading to estrangement from God. This estrangement perverted the good qualities, abilities and nature of Adam and Eve. Therefore, any child of Adam and Eve would be a child who is bathed in these impure qualities due to the parents’ fallen nature. Calvin states, “All of us, who have descended from impure seed, are born infected with the contagion of sin. In fact, before we saw the light of this life we were soiled and spotted in God’s sight” (p. 248). Original sin is not to be thought of as our complicity in Adam’s first sin, but instead an inherited feature that is the result of us being the progeny of an impure and perverted seed. All of this leads Calvin to assert that “Original Sin” is “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’” (p. 251). Moreover, our birth into perpetually perverted generations, and the works we are a part of indicate the necessity of Calvin’s second theological term related to sin, total depravity.

Total Depravity

Total depravity is of primary concern for Calvin, without it grace and God mean very little. Through the imparting of Original Sin humanity can be said to reside in a state of depravity. That is, we are deprived of the nature and gifts God intended for us to use in the world. Calvin believes that being born of a broken nature means that we are “so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God, to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity” (p. 251). Furthermore, Calvin believes “this perversity never ceases in us, but continually bears new fruits… [like] water ceaselessly bubbles up from a spring” (p. 251). We are thusly beginning to understand what Calvin means by way in which sin affects the totality of our being. In fact, it feels as though we have little choice in the matter! As we can see, through the eyes of Calvin our corruption extends to the core of our being, where it sits in relative safety reproducing itself through each action we take in the world. So consumed by sin are we, that even the good things we do in the world result in pride and arrogance enabling us to believe that we might be capable of goodness apart from God. We are perpetually and precariously poised preparing to pounce onto another misguided attempt at goodness, which can only result in the committing of another sin. For Calvin, the knowledge of the totality of our helplessness is necessary if we are to have any hope in the present or for the future. Total depravity, therefore, necessitates dependence on and humility towards God. As Calvin assures his readers, “whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace has thus advanced farthest in knowledge of himself” (p. 267). The lower you are able to descend into your own hopelessness, powerlessness and helplessness, the greater your chances of experiencing the grace and goodwill of God. Total depravity is the totality of human “beingness” leading to total awareness of our total dependence upon the one who reveals the totality of our possibilities.

Through Calvin, sin claims a place of importance for those who wish to live life as a Christian. By original sin, human beings are made aware of the ideal possibilities and the corruption of their own abilities. Furthermore, through the concept of total depravity, all of humanity and Christians in particular are convicted to a point of utter dependence upon their Creator for hope and grace for the present and the future. For Calvin, true knowledge of oneself is only possible when one is willing to delve into the depths of their own depravity realizing what has been lost through the perpetuation of a broken humanity. Finally, sin is a primary feature of his volumes on Christian living, but he spends far more time explaining the benefits of Christian life and the goodness that can be found through dependence on God to be relegated to a simply sour soul. In fact I wonder if some of those dour portraits should be changed to recognize Calvin’s high doctrine of grace. Calvin worked hard to systematically lay out a reasonable argument for a particular brand of Christian theology. Unfortunately much of his hard work has been lost in contemporary popular manifestations of theology.

grace and peace

A De(con)struction of sin

Unfortunately I must put off dealing with the "last things" for another week or two. I am in the midst of winding down this final quarter of my first year. I have completed one paper on how pastors might use the shared narratives of a congregation as a tool for helping them care for the community. I think it is a good paper, we'll see in a two weeks when I present it to the class and professor.

I am working on my second paper which is due next Wednesday. I am looking at sin, spin and the postmodern theory of deconstruction. Below is my introduction and a little explanation of the paper. I thought it might give you a taste of what I will sleep, eat and breathe over the next week. And, yes, I am reading The Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now...

Roughly one year after my graduation from college I was employed by a large urban Presbyterian congregation. It was a Caucasian dominated congregation of roughly twelve hundred members who were mostly college educated and mostly wealthy. Furthermore, it was a congregation that had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of one of its ministers. The event occurred roughly seven years before I began working in the congregation. However, the community did not deal with the event in a manner that was able to provide healing and health for the members and leadership. Therefore, the fear and anxiety that surrounded the situation reared an ugly head during my time there.

Here are the facts of the situation as I understand them. Seven years earlier the male youth minister was caught having a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old female member of the youth group. The minister admitted his guilt and was disciplined by the Presbytery. His punishment included removal from the church, his ordination was revoked for a period of seven years and he was required to enter counseling. The church received quiet guidance from the Presbytery that was restricted to the family of the abused girl and the leadership of the church. The return of many of the feelings towards this situation arose around two situations. The first situation was my presence as the first male youth minister since this incident. The second situation was the knowledge that the former minister had requested a return to the active ministry in the larger Presbyterian Church.

As the anxiety arose in the congregation concerning these two situations, conversations began to take place that opened many of the previous wounds suffered by various members in the church. It is these conversations that gave me my first taste of “spin.” As the leaders began to talk about the situation there was a great deal of disagreement on the facts surrounding the incident. There was talk about who initiated the situation of abuse, the girl or the minister. They talked about the number of sexual encounters they knew of and whether the punishment fit the crime. No one talked about it as a situation of abuse; instead it was a sexual encounter. The character of the girl was brought into question and compared to the character of the minister. These conversations rarely progressed beyond argument and speculation as different leaders “spun” the facts to fit their worldview and interpretations of what the sexual abuse, the minister and the female involved meant to them.

Generally speaking little meaning or fact was left following these conversations. The spin and interpretation served the purpose of emptying the situation of any coherent meaning useful to the leaders as a whole. Without a mutually agreeable definition of sexual abuse the situation became increasingly hostile as the leadership rallied around particular interpretations. Lost in the rhetorical whirlwinds created by each interpretation was the an understanding of what happened, namely a seventeen year old girl had sex with an adult in a position of power within the confines of the church. The minutiae that ensconced each side of the argument left no room for the proverbial elephant that stood before them. Finally, in the midst of the raging debates taking place an interim minister stepped in to provide guidance. After hearing both sides argue, he attempted to inject meaning back into the polarized argument. His statement was that for legal and moral reasons, in this denomination, no sex between a seventeen year old and an adult is considered consensual. Moreover, sex that occurs between a seventeen year old and an adult is to be considered abusive. By re-injecting a definitive meaning into the debate from an outside source, the conversation was given parameters around which the meaning for the church could be discussed. This ultimately led to a healthy conversation about what the church should do with the experience.

The ability to empty the experience of an agreed upon meaning and usurp the pain and anguish it caused has haunted me for many years. Furthermore, there was an underlying theological message that I see hidden in the arguments. Namely, there was an inability or maybe a lack of desire at wanting to judge the situation. Lost in the arguments was the ethic of a right or wrong. This rendered the church impotent to talk about the situation in theological terms such as: sin, redemption, hope and forgiveness. My goal is to add a theological ending to this conversation by discussing what meanings the word sin has for a postmodern theology and world.

I begin this essay with a personal sense that sin has been overloaded with historical meanings which have led us to a point where we have attempted to empty it of its significance and meaning for the current church. In my estimation, contemporary theology has brought about the destruction of sin. Therefore it is my intention to find what, if any, theological meanings can be used in a postmodern ecclesial and theological context. I intend to do this by first looking at a historical figure that often informs the Presbyterian tradition, John Calvin. Calvin’s writings influenced the theological anthropology of the Presbyterian Church with regard to the concepts of original sin, actual sin and total depravity. I will then undertake an examination of the destruction of sin in contemporary theology through the writings of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. These two authors have been best-selling writers in the Christian tradition for a number of years, and their theological influence is far reaching. I will use their most popular writings, The Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now, to examine how they (mis)treat and spin much of the meaning out of sin. Finally, I will to return to Calvin in the hopes of deconstructing his concepts of sin for a postmodern context.

grace and peace...

gas rebates

More on escahtology in a bit....

Does anyone else see the Republican gas rebates as a veiled attempt to buy votes before the fall elections? $100 buys me around two full tanks of gas (I drive a Mercury Sable, 20-25 mpg). Therefore, not only is it an attempt to buy my vote, but apparently I am a cheap vote at that.

Tell you what, keep your damn $100, close the loopholes that allow big oil companies to exploit the tax system, and use the money to buy surplus corn and wheat at the end of the year to feed those who are hungry.

Oh, and by the way, I will always vote Democrat as long as the Republicans think that money is the beginning and end of power in this world.

grace and peace

Visit InfoServe for blogger templates